Season's Bleatings


Brad Tyer

“The world craves book reviews far more heartily than it craves books.” —John Updike, 1982

I didn’t get a Kindle for Christmas, possibly because Amazon is sold out, but more likely because nobody in my family was giving $359 Christmas gifts this year.

Times are tough all over, right? Amazon would probably have preferred to move more Kindles than backorder slips, and more traditional venues—publishers and booksellers—were already suffering. In early December, Random House, the world’s biggest trade-book publisher, announced a cost-cutting reorganization accompanied by high-profile resignations. Simon & Schuster fired 35 people and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced a temporary moratorium on the acquisition of new books. Macmillan eliminated 64 positions. Employees at Penguin and HarperCollins got pay freezes in their stockings. Not even the ultimate backlist title was exempt: Thomas Nelson, the world’s largest publisher of English-language bibles, recently slashed staff by 10 percent in an attempt to adjust to the print industry’s version of end times.

On the retail side, Barnes & Noble lost 56 percent of its value in 2008 and saw a 2.5 percent drop in retail sales. Chairman Leonard S. Riggio’s holiday-season memo moaned: “never in all my years as a bookseller have I seen a retail climate as poor as the one we’re in.”

Anticipating holiday doom, Author’s Guild President Roy Blount Jr. penned a widely circulated appeal to would-be book buyers:

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they’re easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children’s books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they’ll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books.

I did what I could—undoubtedly too little and doubtless too late—buying my sister a copy of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and a $50 gift card for the chick lit she prefers from an Atlanta Borders outlet and gifting three nieces and a nephew with specialty editions culled from book-salvage trips to Goodwill. The authors will see no money from the secondhand titles, alas, but maybe the kiddos will eventually get bored with their new Wii and go looking for a bookstore. Maybe there’ll be one to find.

What does all the grim news mean? Professional sympathy aside, very little to the Observer, I suspect. Books, and the ideas that good and bad ones both contain, have been part of the magazine’s vision from the start, and as long as writers write them and readers keep reading them—in whatever form—there’s no reason to expect that to change.

Quite the opposite. While the book business collapses into whatever shape it’s going to take next, and while newspapers and magazines try to stem the bleeding from more grievous wounds than those suffered by their ever-shrinking book-review pages, the Observer finds itself in a familiarly contrarian position: as a reporter of otherwise underreported news, we’re well-positioned to give books our full attention.

In such a climate, we think book reviews are more critical than ever. If you think so too, please consider the current issue a present. There’ll be plenty more where this came from. Anticipate a revamped focus on writing and writers in the magazine this year. Online, look for the new Observer books blog we’re already planning.

And speaking of planning, Dick Cheney just announced he might write a book. Wouldn’t that be a gift?

—Brad Tyer

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