The Has-been

Publishers Clearinghouse

A best-selling author proposes the most improbable bailout yet.

Of the many once-mighty American industries now on life support, from cars to banks to newspapers, few are struggling more than book publishing. Last month, the major publishing houses announced layoffs, pay freezes, and reorganizations. Even the leading publisher of Bibles—a countercyclical item if ever there was one—had to cut 10 percent of its work force.

The troubles of one print industry are spilling over into another. On Monday, Publishers Weekly laid off 7 percent of its staff, including its editor-in-chief. Today, the Washington Post confirmed a New York Times report that the Post will soon suspend “Book World,” its Sunday book review supplement. The Times says that will leave only two major papers with stand-alone book supplements—the Sunday Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle Book section.

In response to the publishing world’s troubles, historian and best-selling author Douglas Brinkley has floated what may be the most improbable bailout yet: a federal subsidy for book reviews. Brinkley told the Times, “Like public television, I think book review sections almost need to get subsidized to keep the intellectual life in America alive. … So if we can do that for radio and we could do it for television, why can’t we do it for the book industry, which is suffering terribly right now?”

My heart goes out to my friends in the publishing world, and I’ll miss “Book World” as much as the next guy. But if there’s one stimulus idea that could put a smile back on Republican faces, Brinkley may have found it. A subsidy for critics would have every Republican in Congress dusting off Teddy Roosevelt’s speech about how it’s not the critic who counts, but the man in the arena. And since the Obama administration is demanding a rescue package based on what works, proponents of the Brinkley plan would have to acknowledge that from Savonarola to Joyce to Solzhenitsyn, the track record of government-sponsored criticism is not good.

Not that Republicans haven’t put forward their own misguided literary stimulus plans over the years. At the height of the Gingrich revolution, Newt proposed paying students in housing projects $2 for every book they read. Ironically, his plan fell flat because of doubts that the government could be sure students had finished reading the books they got paid to read.

In the mid-1980s, before he founded Slate, Michael Kinsley came up with an ingenious scheme to solve both problems at once: stimulate the purchase of books and verify that buyers actually read them. Kinsley went into bookstores around Washington and inserted coupons redeemable for $5 in the back pages of trendy political best sellers. No readers ever claimed the prize, which he took as proof that people in Washington buy books to say they did rather than to read them. Kinsley’s scheme proved how difficult it is to get the incentives right: The books were shovel-ready, but the stimulus was too back-loaded.

For the book world, like the auto industry and the newspaper business, the sharp economic downturn is accelerating painful changes that were already under way and were bound to hit in the next decade, anyway. Before the slump, Amazon and other online retailers put many independent booksellers out of business. Even if Tim Noah is right that Kindle sales aren’t what Amazon claims, the ability to download any book instantly for less money will transform the way books are priced and consumed.

While the big publishing houses are struggling, the self-publishing industry is going strong. Books are the new blog: According to the New York Times, “The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them.” Now you can upload your magnum opus to be published almost as easily as you can upload digital photos to print your own scrapbook or calendar.

At this rate, the entire literary experience will be like flying Southwest Airlines: If you want a book, you will have to write it yourself, publish it yourself, download it onto your Kindle, and read it yourself—and from now on, you’ll even have to review it yourself.

Even so, this need not mean the end of the world for the publishing business. Industry pioneer Peter Osnos—who just published an off-the-shelf, easy-to-finish book that could single-handedly turn around the entire publishing slump if enough people decided to buy it right now—runs a project to help publishers make books available in a host of new ways, from e-books to printing-on-demand. Today, publishers spend a fortune to print twice as many books as they need, only to throw unpurchased ones away. New ways to deliver books will cut costs and make it easier to match consumer demand, which is good news for all authors, not just best-selling ones.

In its own way, the Bush administration tried its best to prime the publishing pump. Last month, Karl Rove revealed that he and Bush spent the past three years in a furious competition to see who could read the most books. It started, fittingly, with Team of Rivals. In 2006, the year Republicans lost the Congress, Rove out-read Bush 110-95. Rove went on to win the next two years, 76-51 and 64-40. That’s an astonishing 436 books, which means Gingrich owes Bush $372 and Rove $500.

Obama and his team could meet or exceed Bush’s speed-reading pace, but such a heavy course load comes at some cost. For 2008 alone, the $700 billion Treasury bailout package works out to $6.7 billion per Bush-Rove volume.

In any case, Obama doesn’t need Douglas Brinkley’s book review bailout plan or a nightstand groaning with new books to turn the business around. As the most successful author ever elected to the White House, Obama could save the publishing industry with the stroke of a pen—just by writing a book a year for the rest of his presidency. We wouldn’t even need those $5 coupons.