Best of Times, Worst of Times

Looking back at publishing history to the year 2025, we can see it as a particularly exciting transitional period for our industry. To quote the English novelist Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Contrary to much dire speculation, the traditional book as object continued to exist, even to hold its own commercially, alongside the much improved electronic book, and most readers resorted to both formats, alternating without ado as the task or text required. In terms of the actual material substance of the book-object, 2025 was a period of rapid, if somewhat primitive, experimentation. The floating book was developed about that time in response to the rising water-levels at our coasts. The impulse book, which was instantly soluble and could be tossed in the river at completion without environmental damage, was in its first stages of production. Still far in the future was the book-lozenge, which dissolved novella-sized works on the tongue, not to mention the book-shot, devised for cultivated diabetics who requested a literary dose with their daily injections.

It was, above all, a period of incessantly refined niche marketing. Publishers relied on sophisticated demographics and shopping pattern data to bombard potential readers with individualized ads. The demise of newspapers opened up a vastly widened range of soliciting media: For instance, a man might be brushing his teeth, and suddenly the bathroom mirror would light up with a message about a book that would conceivably appeal to him, based on a recent purchase. The science of bar codes was brought to a level of precision previously unimagined. Books-on-demand could be cobbled together and distributed for the smallest cross-demographic groupings, such as transsexual dyslexics of Latvian extraction. The infamous read-ins, where books were projected for free onto billboards or by hologram in city parks as the backdrops for crowds imbibing illegal drugs, also became popular for a while.

The other major technological advances of the time occurred in combined merchandising: the book-CD format, the DVD-book-CD format, the iPod-book format and so on. Books were fine, nothing wrong with books, industry pundits kept declaring, but they needed to be incorporated synergistically into other devices—that is, into larger information-and-entertainment delivery systems.

The phenomenal popularity of graphic books led directly to that glamorous, star-studded annual event, the Global Book Awards, or the Spiegelmans, which has gradually replaced the Oscars. 2025 was a banner year, attended by no less than President Judith Regan, the first ex-publisher to occupy the White House. It was also the first year the James Frey Award for mixed genres was presented. The event was marred only by a pathetic counterdemonstration outside the hall by three geezer belletrists (Lee Gutkind, Michael Steinberg and Phillip Lopate) who insisted that essay writing be given some sort of award recognition, a suggestion whose irrelevance was accorded the dignified silence it deserved.

We cannot recall nostalgically the year 2025 without touching on the painful affair known as the Last Writers Strike. The industry was expanding, and with growing pains came conflict. An upsurge of greed provoked the Writers Union to demand a bigger share of cyber-residuals. The real sticking point was fear of that new technology, then in its infancy: namely, thought-transfer or ESP publishing, which threatened to cut the authors out of their shares of the publishing pie. (We see, in retrospect, that these fears were largely unfounded.) In any case, the Writers Union Council of Elders— controlled by the “Three Jonathans Troika,” also known as the “Alte Kacker Adolescents” because of their lifelong, skillful mining of material about the trauma of teenage years—called for a strike. Eventually, the Writers Union split apart when these elders were challenged by the Young Turks, led by Edgar Mailer, Tama Updike and several other grandchildren of famous writers whose parents had mated. The Young Turks questioned the whole idea of individual authorship and, hence, regarded residuals as communal property.

On a happier note, the first group of recently deceased authors designated for cryonics immortality was chosen by a distinguished panel of editors and agents. The list consisted of John Grisham, Jamaica Kincaid, N. Scott Momaday, Philip Roth and Jhumpa Lahiri. Still in the pipeline were those stem-cell cloning techniques involving DNA bone scraping that would lead to the “resurrection” of famous authors from earlier centuries, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Somerset Maugham, Louisa May Alcott, Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner. It is too early to judge whether these “second-chance” careers will yield further literary masterpieces; so far, it must be said, the resurrected authors have produced nothing but a series of crabby autobiographical texts filled with vituperative complaint and poisoned regret. But that is a discussion for another day as we are gathered here to pay tribute to the year 2025 in publishing and not to gaze speculatively into the future.

About the Author

Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate's nonfiction books include essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body); film criticism (Totally Tenderly Tragically); an urbanist meditation (Waterfront); and, most recently, Notes on Sontag.

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