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Is the End Nigh?
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(No, I'm not talking about the Mayan calendar this-month's-end-of-the-world-prediction, but rather about the publishing industry, books, readers, writers. It's my essay from the December Orphan Scrivener.

If you'd prefer something more seasonal, Mary writes about that English holiday tradition, the pantomime. And there's also the usual BSP.)

I'm sure you've heard the prophecies. Books are doomed. Doomed! The end is near! Polls have shown that twenty percent of Americans never read. Half never read fiction. Young people spend two or three hours a day watching television but only seven minutes reading. And the few who still read are turning to ebooks. All of which has driven publishing companies to the verge of extinction. Things have become so bad big publishers are forming vanity presses to make money off authors rather than readers.

No readers! No publishers! We're doomed! We're all doomed!


In the first place publishers do not write. No one needs publishers more than the publishers themselves. Yes, the prospect of not being able to profit off readers and writers must be irksome to the big publishing conglomerates but for the vast majority of readers and writers it makes no difference. People somehow managed to write and read for thousands of years before the publishing industry came along.

In past eras, authors, like the literate generally, tended to be well-to-do. They were people whose circumstances allowed them both an education and free time to write, often as a secondary occupation. The great essayist Montaigne was a statesman. Writers not so fortunately situated often depended on patronage. Authors making their living selling works to large numbers of readers is a relatively recent development and even today only a small minority of authors do so. (It's been said that the first American author able to make a living entirely from fiction was Washington Irving.) If the books of every author who makes a living writing were to vanish from bookstores the shelves would not look much less full. Only the bestseller displays at the front would be bare.

Classical writers did not have publishers to monetize their work for them, or even to distribute it. If you wanted to own a book in Greek or Roman times -- which is to say a scroll -- you found a copy to buy or paid a scribe to make a copy for you. And neither the bookseller nor the scribe shared their profits with the author. There weren't any copyright laws.

None of which stopped Virgil, for instance, from writing.

And how big was the contemporary readership for the Aeneid? I have no idea, but I do know that whereas Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has reportedly sold around 44 million copies, the entire population of the Roman Empire during Virgil's time is estimated as 57 million, with no more than 10% even literate, let alone an audience for epic Latin verse.

Writers have never needed vast sales and wealth for inspiration.

It wouldn't surprise me if functional literacy levels fall and fewer and fewer people have the ability or inclination to take the effort to read a work of fiction. But I have no doubt there will always be some people who want to read books. Books are language and language practically defines the human mind. It might well be hard-wired into the brain. It's the way we think. And so long as anyone wants to read people will want to write. Heck, often they're the same people.

Mary and I are fortunate to have two publishers, both matching us up with readers and sending us the occasional check. I don't think publishers are going to vanish any time soon, or that readership for books will totally crater. But if, a hundred years from now, publishers have joined the dinosaurs and readers have become an infinitesimal minority, readers and writers will still manage to find each other as they always have.

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