Literature in Chains

Are superstore databases turning books into pretzels?


America's literary culture may be going the way of pretzels, according to an August front-page story in The New York Times. The reason is a tightening relationship between publishers and such book superstores as Borders and Barnes & Noble. This intimacy has become a matter of concern, the story said, because of fears that "the few large national chains could ultimately dictate production and packaging in the literary marketplace as, say, the mass merchant Wal-Mart does with its toothpaste and pretzel suppliers."

What's happened? Some publishers have made decisions based on advance orders from the chains, and have taken their advice on cover designs and title wording. A shocked independent bookstore buyer told the Times that it was "heart stopping" that "a publisher is allowed to make a decision based on a few people's tastes." Noting that publishers are using the chains' databases rather than visiting hundreds of stores as they once did, the Times observed that the new practices are "a far cry from the rumpled-cardigan, reading-glasses style by which publishers used to gauge the literary marketplace."

What we have here is a new version of a story that the cultural establishment has been telling itself for many years: that the culture is being debased by commercial vulgarians; that the means of cultural production are being consolidated–and our tastes manipulated–for profit; that the human spirit itself is being commodified. The Approaching Triumph of Loutishness is a sustaining myth of the tastemaking class, validating the status, role, and presumed refinement of those who identify with it. Born of technophobia, cultural inertia, and an antipathy to the market, this familiar narrative of doom may be soothing to an increasingly hard-pressed group. But it completely obscures what is actually going on in the culture.

The fact is that the Times's reporting of its story about the chains refutes its own interpretation of it. Taking the same set of facts, a reader might have discerned not lazy publishers conspiring with chains for easy profit, but desperate publishers scrambling to comprehend changing reading patterns; not victimized readers with reduced choices, but readers whose tastes and desires are reshaping the world of books; not a literary marketplace reduced to the scale of Wal-Mart's pretzel display, but an increasingly diverse availability of books in which small publishers enjoy a bigger role than they have ever had. Not, in short, a threat to book culture, but an effort to revitalize it.

What's behind the publishers' coziness with the chains? According to the Times, the undisputed motive is unsold books: Sales of general-interest hardbacks have fallen 12 percent this year, with a return rate of some 45 percent. But the problem is not that people are spending less time reading. Not only are the chains growing–a premise of the story–but survey evidence (reported by the same journalist in another Times story) indicates that book reading has actually increased in the past decade.

The problem is that publishers have lost track of what new books readers want. To adjust, they have trimmed their lists and are turning to those in the book trade who are more successful than they are: the growing chains.

Why the publishers have lost track of the public's taste is not yet clear. A full answer would have to take into account the feedback problems endemic to any small, isolated managerial group such as Manhattan's publishers. But an obvious supposition is that some of their sources of information have become inaccurate. Among the most important of these sources are the independent bookstore buyers on whom they had relied since the good old days of rumpled cardigans and reading glasses. These buyers' sense of the market may have become as unsure as the publishers'.

Enter the chains' number crunchers, neither romantic nor necessarily interesting figures. Their databases do not contain their personal preferences or tastes, nor do they reflect the elitist cultural vision of the best that has been written and thought. But these databases do contain something vital to a successful reading culture: reliable information about the preferences and tastes of a growing segment of the book-buying public. The use of such information would obviously enlarge the influence of that public, rather than diminish it; it would not mean, as the embittered store buyer complained in the Times, turning over publishing decisions to "a few people's tastes."

Whether the chains' sales are themselves representative remains to be seen. The chains are neither ubiquitous nor always appealing (the staffs, for example, are not especially knowledgeable). But the Times's own story notes (and then ignores) that publishers continue to consult with smaller stores and that, in any event, relying on the chains is apparently a temporary measure. The Times reports that the makers of Soundscan, a system that gathers point-of-purchase data about music sales, have approached publishers about a similar system for book sales, one that would include all kinds of stores.

Finally, even as it compares books to toothpaste, the Times's own story reveals that the publisher-superstore nexus is a spur to publishing diversity. Not only have the huge stocks of the chains (upwards of 120,000 titles) brought thousands of small-press books before a larger buying public than they ever had before, but the chains' databases contain feedback helpful to the more obscure publishers. After all, little presses have never had the money to send sales people to hundreds of stores, or to monitor the market in any other way. The old, tweedy system actually favored the big publishers; the new, computerized one helps the small houses.

The Times story even cites two examples of little publishers whose business has grown because of the feedback from the chains. One of the publishers has brought several out-of-print authors back into the market at the instigation of chain buyers. But both of these examples are buried at the bottom of the piece.

Many of the conclusions chain buyers and publishers are drawing from the databases may be unwarranted; many of the title changes and jacket redesigns the chains have suggested may be mistakes. But the point is that no commercial decision is made in publishing that the elite establishment does not see as a threat to its taste, which it interprets as a cultural debasement. Publishing historian Kenneth C. Davis has described the contempt expressed for the paperback when innovative postwar publishers introduced it in the United States. Among those expressing that contempt were the established publishers who, in their tweediest possible period, believed that most Americans weren't interested in books at all.

If there is a problem in the American literary culture, it is the elite establishment itself: The evidence is the continuing suffocation of literary fiction. Sales of such titles have clearly withered, and publishers are regularly accused of failing to nurture the field. But the market hasn't abandoned literature; the elite establishment long ago removed serious literary writing from the marketplace and entombed it in the universities and little magazines.

The English novel was born of Grub Street hackwork; American genres sprang from pulps. For all the junk they produce, markets are vital, unpredictable places. Much literary fiction today is divorced from any market, springing from creative writing seminars and directed to university theorists and elitist critics. If there ever was a literary culture shaped by "a few people's tastes," this is it, and the result is that those few people now constitute most of the market for it. In fact, about the only places you can find a selection of it, outside of specialty stores, are the superstore chains.

Charles Paul Freund ( is a REASON senior editor.