For the book industry, as for many others specializing in products purchased in large numbers as gifts, the one-month "year" is about to begin: that period of intense pre-Christmas activity, the results of which will determine whether the ink at the bottom of 1982's ledgers will be black or red. The hunch here is that the results will be mixed, showing a decline in the total of books sold but an increase in dollar sales and, perhaps, a small measure of profit in the midst of hard economic times.
This guess is not based solely on the inflated price of books, which makes the industry seem to be doing more business than it actually is, though the $14.95 novel certainly has much to do with it. Rather, it derives from what appears to be a fundamental constriction in the size and personality of the book-buying public. As a direct consequence of broad economic and cultural influences, the market for books -- though not necessarily the audience for them -- seems to have been whittled down to a hard core consisting of people who are serious enough about books to be willing to pay for them and affluent enough to be willing to meet the staggering prices now being charged for them.
The book industry, in other words, is going "upscale." To a degree there is nothing new about this; book-reading in America, especially "serious" reading, has always been the pastime of a small minority -- an ever smaller one in recent years, as television has offered entertainment demanding even less effort on the part of the audience than the reading of a thriller or a romance. But there was always a prevailing assumption inside the publishing industry that with just a few breaks this minority could be enlarged; the industry hoped, that is, for a larger popular audience. Now there is evidence that, with the obvious exception of the mass-market paperback houses, this assumption no longer is so widely held; the industry seems to be awakening to, and taking advantage of, the profit to be made in thinking small.
This phenomenon first came to my attention last spring, when I mentioned to a knowledgeable publishing executive my pleasure at finding novels by Gail Godwin, Paul Theroux and Anne Tyler simultaneously on the best-seller lists. His response was that although this was good news from a purely literary standpoint, at a deeper level it was a sign that the market for hard-cover books as entertainment -- the market for the commercial fiction that customarily dominates the lists -- had been greatly diminished by the one-two punch of inflation and recession. He observed that the market had been trimmed down to the basic cadre of regular, committed readers, and predicted that the industry would have to learn to live with this new reality.
Similar news came just last week in another conversation, this with a literary agent who specializes in representing "serious" writers. When I asked her how business had been lately, she said that for the kind of books she sells it had been surprisingly good. In a tone of obvious incredulity, she reported that she had recently negotiated contracts for three collections of short stories--precisely the kind of books that publishers traditionally have shied away from because "collections don't sell" and, as if that weren't bad enough, because short stories allegedly appeal only to readers with loftily literary tastes.
Although it would be a mistake to assign excessive weight to these comments, they seem to me to confirm the current drift of book publishing. A decade of inflation has driven the price of books, hardcovers especially, beyond the reach of all buyers except those for whom price is no particular consideration or those whose devotion to books is so great that they will scrimp in order to buy them; people in the industry who claim that the price of books is not prohibitive, as many do, are either self-deluded or dissembling. Add to high prices the even greater problems of recession and unemployment, and a book suddenly becomes a luxury that very few Americans can afford. In such a situation, is it really surprising that the industry is reexamining its market and the strategies for exploiting it?
Like so many situations in life, this one is composed of substantial measures of good news and bad. In the first category, any increase in enthusiasm among publishers for serious writing must be welcomed -- even if that increase is relatively slight. If publishers conclude that they can do a profitable business by selling work of literary interest to small markets at higher prices, then the beleaguered cause of good writing cannot help but benefit. If the development of a strong "upscale" constituency in publishing provides a counterbalance to the opposite trend toward schlock publishing, then that too is to be applauded. If the publishing of books is at heart an "elite" business, then isn't it wisest to abandon pretense to the contrary and get on with making a success of it?
Perhaps so. Yet from the position where I sit -- which, much evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, is that of a small-d democrat -- "upscaling" in any guise is to be deplored and resisted. Just because the single-minded pursuit of the disposable income of the wealthy, powerful and affluent increasingly dominates certain kinds of merchandizing does not make this pursuit desirable in either economic or social terms. "Upscaling" comes with a built-in value judgment: certain people are better than others because they are more educated and have more money and inhabit more exclusive ZIP codes. To whatever degree the publishing of books takes this direction, it can only prove to be a lamentable -- and perhaps culturally injurious -- departure from the American literary tradition, which historially has sought to be democratic and heterogeneous.
People in the industry doubtless will reply that this is an excess of pessimism, that the major campaigns on behalf of new books by James Michener, Irving Wallace and other proven best-selling authors demonstrate that the industry is as committed as ever to the large popular audience. Doubtless they will also say that the aforementioned success of the Godwin, Theroux and Tyler books is evidence of the industry's commitment to promote serious writing aggressively. Both arguments are valid, but there is ample reason to be skeptical. In the current economic storm, the safe harbor for book publishing seems to be the hermetic little world of the upper middle class, and that certainly looks to be the direction in which it's sailing.