There's been endless chatter over the past few years about why people have stopped going to movies in the theatre. The mainstream audience all have opinions--most of them very accurate assesments of the situation. But nobody talks about not buying books.
Scratch that. We talk about it in Book Fetish Land all the time. Any gathering of people devoted to reading, writing and selling books turns into a quest for validation in the form of cash. "I hear they're buying comic books" said the former Southern correspondant for Publisher's Weekly. We all chimed in, telling him they're called "graphic novels" now. Regardless, none of us can draw. We all know the gormless diety called They are buying books about God, but for many people in the room writing one of those is even more remote. We are all reassured by the new mantra--Just Because You Aren't Published Doesn't Mean You're Not A Writer. We know this to be true, because we've all been writers before we knew the alphabet. We've all tended toward that isolating life, given to imagining a better end to this conversation, this bad day, this long week. Secretly, though, we know our mothers and husbands and wives would be more pleased if our work were smythe-sewn into a hard cover and exchanged for cash. We all hate Jo Rowling, because she is the Beanie Baby of authors. Everyone spends their book cash on Harry, and the bar has been set even higher. Before Jo we hated crazy Patsy Cornwell and all the guys who decided to write instead of practicing law. We who can't imagine another career have been pretty fed up with the Crichtons and Grishams who are well-trained in socially acceptable jobs. They leave their jobs and take our women. Or at least the money from our women.
So why aren't people buying books anymore? I tend to blame the Great Divide. There are Bran Books--dry, fibrous, heavy and good for you. Any cursory examination of "best books" lists makes me glaze over. The Best Books are often a chore to get through, with alienating characters who have lives even more depressing than mine. No one outside of New York, Chicago and LA is buying these books unless they're getting a copy to show off for the girls at the campus coffee house of their choice. "Oh, look. He's deep and sexy because he's reading White Teeth in hardcover!"
On the other side of the canyon are the Candy Floss books that people do buy. Light, sweet and easily digested stories about serial killers, sexy escapades and magic in all its forms. Publishers take them seriously because they keep the presses open, but most writers consider them the ten-dollar blowjobs of the book world. When I naively announced at a writer's workshop that I wouldn't mind having my books actually be bought and enjoyed by readers the instructor made a face. "Commercial fiction is ....different" she sneered. Okay then.
Commercial fiction may be different, but I still dream of writing a good novel that is actually saleable. The icons for me are Pillars Of The Earth, Gone To Soldiers ; Roots; Gone With The Wind and The Thorn Birds. These are all excellent books, both stylistically and thematically. They're substantial, don't feature FBI Profilers and actually sold millions of copies each. I think it can still be done. But will people buy it?
Maybe if we put 10 pages of ads at the front of each book...