If you follow the publishing industry, even in the most side-long way, you know that it is in turmoil on nearly every front. Booksellers of every sort are being challenged by the big green A. The big green A is being challenged by publishers. And publishers are being challenged by damn near everybody. (I would say authors are being challenged, but when hasn’t that been the case?)
But there is one corner of the publishing ecosystem that isn’t under duress. In fact, it is flourishing in a way never before possible. Now, one might say that if only one piece of an entire industry seems secure, then it doesn’t really matter, the whole thing is still at risk. But what if that one flourishing piece were the most important piece? Because here’s what no one really seems to be talking about: there’s never been a better time to be a reader. Library patrons can not only browse their local branch’s catalog from home, but the contents of those branches are now increasingly available digitally.
That’s not to say we live in the best of all possible readerly worlds, just that this is the best one we’ve ever seen. Many of the forces straining the traditional book business are the same forces creating unheard-of reading possibilities. Due to economies of scale, ebooks, and the availability of used books online, book buying has never been more affordable. Wireless technology has made book buying possible in almost every location. Information, opinion, analysis, and discussion of books has never been more transparent, accessible, and participatory. Authors have never been this approachable. Niche publishing has never been so affordable, resulting in an unprecedented range of available titles.
And that’s just the beginning. New tools let us share our marginalia, explore references, and preview books in ways that were unimaginable a decade ago. It is an embarrassment of riches.
These riches, though, present their own problems. There are so many titles to choose from, we struggle a bit to find things that suit us. Reading technologies are coming and going so quickly, it’s hard to know what device, service, or platform to use. These, though, are the problems of luxury, like trying to decide which chef to hire for your yacht or which Ivy League school you should attend.
Some are afraid that significant damage to the publishing industry as we know it will mean significant damage to reading as we know it. Here’s what I think: I think that telling and hearing stories is part of who we are, that making sense of the world through language is a fundamental part of our experience and exists outside of any particular industry.
Still, the publishing industry is going to be sailing in rough waters for the foreseeable future. But maybe we should think in terms of the reading industry instead. There it’s all white sand beaches and umbrella drinks. And a book of course.