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More and more people came to believe they could publish and flourish. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans would like to write a book. Some of them are aspiring authors of serious fiction and nonfiction, who have never had an easy road and who now exist in greater numbers than ever, thanks in part to the proliferation of academic writing programs. When "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" can sell 1.1 million copies in a weekend, it's hard to tell anybody to stop dreaming, whatever the odds (or to give up on the video-addicted young). And of course many people without literary gifts -- from Bill Gates to every would-be Tom Peters -- use books to promote their image and ambitions.
The publishing industry has responded to the opportunities opened by new technology. Desktop publishing has slashed composition costs, encouraging thousands of new small publishers to enter the marketplace since the 1980s even as the bigger houses have endured a wave of consolidation. There are now 70,000 publishers in America, up from 21,000 in 1986. And on-demand printing, which uses advanced photocopying and binding equipment to produce a single book or a very small run economically, allowing large and small presses to keep specialized titles in print. It also has blurred the line between vanity and legitimate publishing. With backing from Random House, the on-demand publisher Xlibris adds prospective authors' works to its list for a fee as little as $500, printing copies as requested. In 2003, the company's president told Publishers Weekly that he expected on-demand printing to increase the annual volume of US books published from 100,000 to 200,000 in the near future.
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Were the doomsayers needlessly gloomy? Not entirely. There does seem to be less zest for reading among today's college students than there was in the 1960s and early `70s. In the American meritocracy, general culture ranks far behind job-related learning. In Europe and the United States, demand has not kept up with the expansion of new pages, leading to sagging unit sales -- a sad fact that probably reflects market cycles, not impending extinction. Recent studies suggest that Web browsing and video games take users' time mainly from television rather than from book reading.
To put lamentations in perspective, even in the golden age of print culture from the 1880s to the 1930s, literary men and women were appalled by most Americans' indifference to book buying and by what they saw as the masses' preference for trashy and sensational reading. Book clubs, fine editions, and sets of classics were all launched in order to uplift public tastes. In the late 1950s and `60s, the explosion of new paperback titles, accelerated by swelling public university enrollments, seemed to promise high culture for all.
Why this hope has been largely unfulfilled is a complex story, but the issue is a cultural rather than a technological one. As professional life has become more competitive, more reading is required for continuing education. At a publishers meeting in the 1980s I heard the learned editor of a great literary magazine acknowledge being so exhausted from a long day of reading and editing that he switched on the television at home.
Despite the Internet-powered boom in book collecting, the leisured magnate in his library of rare books is a nearly extinct species. And the obligation of patronage has lagged behind the dream of creation: Poetry Magazine, with only 11,000 subscribers, receives 90,000 submissions a year. And how many aspiring novelists buy and read serious fiction?
Coping with the problems of the new book market will take creative thinking from publishers, librarians, authors, and readers. But it's clear by now that the book needs not last rites but fresh air and exercise.
Edward Tenner is author of "Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology" (Knopf) and "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.