This morning the first printed copies of my most recent book, Great Jobs in the President’s Stimulus Plan, arrived at the JIST offices. Here in New Jersey I’m going to have to wait a little longer to get my hands on a copy, but it still will arrive remarkably fast. You see, today is only 14 days since the day I sent in the manuscript–the morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration. And I delivered the manuscript only about 10 days after my boss gave me the assignment.
I should mention that although the actual book took shape in a remarkably short time, it’s not a half-baked book. The ideas in it had been brewing for some months prior. In the fall I did canvassing for the Obama-Biden campaign and thus had a reasonable understanding of many of Obama’s policy objectives and of the economic conditions (such as the recession, the long-time neglect of the infrastructure, and America’s profligate energy policy) that have shaped these objectives. I was already starting to classify the various occupations that will be boosted by the stimulus package for the purposes of another book, one with more detailed descriptions of occupations.
Nevertheless, I believe that the fast turnaround of the book and the nature of the content both say something about where book publishing is going these days.
The major threat to traditional publishing is the same thing that endangers traditional distribution of music, movies, and news: the Internet. Record companies and movie studios are reeling from trying to compete with illegal free downloads. Newspapers across the country are laying off staff or even shutting down because readers are getting news via the Web. (Ironically, it is often the newspapers’ own Web sites that compete with their print editions.) Book publishers are suffering because much of the information and entertainment that people used to seek in books can now be found online at no cost.
One way book publishers can compete is by turning out materials that are more timely than books have been traditionally. It reminds me of the time, back in the 1980s, when an encyclopedia salesworker showed me her publisher’s new edition. I marveled at how completely up to date all the content was; it was such a contrast to my image of encyclopedias as books that were a decade or more out of date. As the youngest child in my family, I had been the last to open up my family’s encyclopedias and therefore the one most burdened with obsolete information. Books that are quick out of the starting gate have a better chance to compete with the Web. The spread of e-book readers like the Kindle may facilitate this trend.
As a matter of fact, Robert Kuttner wrote a book about what Obama might do for the U.S. economy before Obama was even elected. Obama’s Challenge arrived in bookstores around September 15 and was read by reviewers a month before that. (I read it the week after I completed my own manuscript.) Kuttner focuses on a bigger picture than I do, partly because he lacked access to more specific Obama plans that emerged only after the election, most notably the transition team’s outline of the stimulus plan.
Kuttner’s book also has a definite partisan agenda. He wrote the book not just to predict what Obama would do, but also to prod Obama to embrace policies that Kuttner favors. In doing so, Kuttner reminds me a little of a carnival barker who gives the audience such an over-the-top build-up to the performer’s act that the performer feels obligated to put on a much better show than he had intended.
I don’t pretend that anything I say about Obama’s plans will be able to influence the President, but I’ll admit that my book has some partisan aspects. In a few places, I’m willing to look back over the past eight years and point out how the policies of the previous administration led us to where we are today.
And this is one more way that book publishers may compete with the Web: by turning out books that are not all things to all people. Think of how popular the political blogs have become. Perhaps they only preach to the choir, because people gravitate toward the blogs that confirm their beliefs. But the unabashed partisanship of the political blogs is what the readers find appealing.
The winning formula, I think, is to base a book on facts but also capture the popular sentiment of the moment. In November, the electorate sent a clear signal that they wanted change and, as the economic crisis has deepened, the popular desire for change has become more urgent. Even though the Obama recovery plan is not sailing through Congress like the 1941 declaration of war, and although objections have been raised to some (a tiny percentage) of the specific spending allocations, the public overwhelmingly supports it.