The loneliness of the long-distance reader

Jan 12 2014, 03:30 IST
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SummaryThe convergence of several trends like addiction to mobiles and growth of social sites leaves the book-buying public out in the cold

To read a novel is a difficult and complex art,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a 1925 essay, How to Read a Book. Today, with our powers of concentration atrophied by the staccato communication of the Internet and attention easily diverted to addictive entertainment on our phones and tablets, book-length reading is harder still.

It’s not just more difficult to find the time and focus that a book demands. Longstanding allies of the reader, professionals who have traditionally provided guidance for those picking up a book, are disappearing fast. The broad, inclusive conversation around interesting titles that such experts helped facilitate is likewise dissipating. Reading, always a solitary affair, is increasingly a lonely one.

A range of related factors has brought this to a head. Start with the publishing companies: Overall, book sales have been anaemic in recent years, declining 6% in the first half of 2013 alone. But the profits of publishers have remained largely intact; in the same period, only one of what were then still the “big six” trade houses reported a decline on its bottom line. This is partly because of the higher margins on e-books. But it has also been achieved by publishers cutting costs, especially for mid-list titles.

The “mid-list” in trade publishing parlance is a bit like the middle class in American politics: anything below it is rarely mentioned in polite company. It comprises pretty much all new titles that are not potential blockbusters. But it’s the space where interesting things happen in the book world, where the obscure or the offbeat can spring to prominence, where new writers can make their mark.

Budgets have been trimmed in various ways: Author advances, except for the biggest names, have slumped sharply since the 2008 financial crash, declining by more than half, according to one recent survey. It’s hard to imagine that the quality of manuscripts from writers who have been forced either to eat less or write faster isn’t deteriorating. Meanwhile, spending on editing and promotion has also been pared away.

Things don’t get better after the book leaves the publisher. Price cutting, led primarily by Amazon, has reduced many brick-and-mortar bookstores to rubble, depriving readers of direct interaction with booksellers. Despite some recent good news, the number of independents has been halved in the last two decades, and the chain stores that survive increasingly employ part-time, unskilled staff.

The decline in libraries weakens another vital prop for readers. Librarians, described

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