Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

Book World

Recently I had lunch with a friend of mine in Manhattan. We had not even finished our sandwiches when my friend received her first text message. Usually I find it annoying when somebody starts reading text messages over lunch or dinner, but for parents with young children I make exceptions.
My friend looked shocked. I thought of her children.
"Is something wrong?" I asked with a mouthful of herring sandwich.
"The Washington Post book section is closing," she answered.
I tend to defend the free market, especially since I have read lately that the free market is to be blamed for all the ills that have crept up on the publishing industry. But reality is making it hard for me to continue with this habit.
The day after this lunch, the New York Times quoted a Washington Post executive editor saying: "The advertising in Book World didn't justify the amount of space that we dedicated each week to books coverage."
Will foreign news one day cease to exist, because of the lack of advertisements? Should we think of an article about civil war in Sri Lanka as a fig leaf, so Bloomingdale's can announce that its spring sale has started?
It's more than coincidence that a few days before the Washington Post announced that it would shut down its book section, the New York Times published an article on the front page about one segment of the publishing industry that is thriving: self-publishing.
In earlier days these kind of publishing houses were called vanity presses, but I guess to publish your own books is not a matter of vanity anymore.
(Full disclosure: before my first novel was published in the Netherlands in 1994, I had self-published a few of my poems and short stories.)
As long as there have been authors, they have been angry with their publishers, and they have been blaming everybody including their parents for their own misfortune.
What's rather new is that the cult of the bestseller. The fact that some books sell hundred thousands of copies changed the idea of what is considered success in literature dramatically. Once upon a time, selling three thousand copies of a novel in hardback was reasonable. Now it might be reason for a publisher to discontinue the relationship with an author.
After discussing the Washington Post, my friend said: "You know what you should do, start self-publishing your novels in the US. You won't get any reviews, but reviews have become so scarce that even with a mainstream publisher, your chances of getting reviewed are minimal."
"Thanks for this beautiful piece of advice, my agent will be thrilled to death," I said. "I don't want to change the subject, but how are your children?"