Sherman Young of Australia's Sydney Morning Herald is a little cranky today and, after reading his opinion piece there, I'm starting to feel the same way. Young is not at all happy with what he finds on the shelves of Australian bookstores and he knows that things will become even bleaker for the sale of "real" books as the holiday season fast approaches.
They may cause the cash registers to tick over nicely but actually they're antibooks, printed objects motivated by mammon rather than ideas. The key to an antibook is a hook designed to convince us to part with a few dollars. A hook that contains a life-changing promise, a movie tie-in, a catchy, timely premise or an author who is famous for just about anything except writing. Beyond the hook, there need not be much at all....
Antibooks may have the same physical form as books, but they don't contribute to book culture, a culture centred on ideas and a long, thoughtful conversation about life, love, politics, philosophy and what it means to be human
"We are a business," said Shona Martyn, the publishing director at HarperCollins, in The Australian last year. "We can't be any more sentimental than a business that is selling ice-cream or clothes."Young makes a good point. What he sees in Australian bookstores is the same thing that I've seen more and more of in American and British bookstores, as well. Bookstores are limited by their shelf space as to how many books they can keep in stock and, of course, those books have to sell in adequate numbers to pay their way. Walk into any Barnes & Noble or Borders bookstore and you will notice an ever increasing number of junk books taking up that space: celebrity biographies on the likes of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson, books about television shows that were a waste of time even on television, Japanese comic books, books on conspiracy theories about everything from 9-11 to the Catholic Church, books telling us all how to live a joy-filled life in 10 easy lessons, books by half-baked Hollywood stars and comedians who have suddenly become political pundits, etc.
Hence the antibook. In 2006, Spotless, a collection of house-cleaning hints, sold 238,000 copies and the CSIRO Total Wellbeing Book sold 150,000. These antibooks are not meant to be read all the way through, nor will they make any lasting contribution to book culture. But they sell.
By comparison, real books don't sell. A great Australian novel might move 1000 copies, a number which makes profit somewhat difficult. In the past, the books that mattered were always justified by balancing their lack of profit against blockbusters that did make money. These days, margins are slimmer, competition tighter and the need for every title to pay its own way is more common. As a result, fewer real books are being published.
Slowly but surely, serious fiction and non-fiction titles are losing ground to the anti-books that concern Sherman Young. He has the right idea about fighting back a bit. Give books as Christmas gifts this year, real books...not anti-books.