Like everywhere else, the economic tsunami is also hitting the book industry hard. At a time when different sources are publishing their Best of 2008 lists (like The NYTimes and and NPR ), dire news has been coming from all levels of the book business (NYT). Many of the big name publishers announced staff cuts (including last week, nice timing) and booksellers announced the lowest sales for the holiday period, ever. A few publishers also announced they were not accepting new manuscripts at the present time (!) which hopefully appears to be a temporary thing - you can’t make money without new product.
In fact, sales have been so bad that an informal group of authors and celebrities have been pushing books as an inexpensive, and lifelong, gift. Read what Salman Rushdie and Fred Armisen and others recommend here.
One other issue the publishing houses have rumbling about within all the economic bad news is the practice of publisher returns. Publisher returns means that when books are sent out to a bookseller, the bookseller can return unsold copies en mass for a full refund. Ironically enough this was started in the Great Depression to convince booksellers to take chances on lesser known authors. Currently, publishers take back about 40% of their books and either pulp them or resell them as remainders. 40% of a run of thousands of books is a lot of waste and expense and the way the most of the big publishing houses are talking about it means that it will soon change.
I was going to write my list of my top books of 2008, but as I only saw a few newer titles and read or reread a lot of my older titles from my own library (why my cataloging took so long) I felt I am a little out of sync with some newer titles. I will however give you my list of the best book I read (and in some cases RE-read) this year:
Farewell My Lovely – Raymond Chandler. The second Philip Marlowe novel, peppered with lines like: "He looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake."
Over by the River and other stories – William Maxwell. Incomparable short stories by the master of the form and author of my favorite novel, So Long See You Tomorrow.
Novel in Three Lines – Félix Fénéon. A collection of a thousand three line reports Fénéon wrote for Le Matin in 1906 with wit and economy and a sense of the absurd.
In Cold Blood – Truman Capote. One of those books I am embarrassed to say I never read till now, after being prompted by the films Capote and Infamous and a similar home invasion/murder in a nearby sleepy town.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby. See my review a few posts back.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Díaz. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and well worth it!
Netherland – Joseph O’Neill, about cricket and a post 9/11 world.
But the best book I read last year was E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. A wonderful stylist on Newfoundland, the sea, winter, knots etc etc etc. Just made me shake my head in wonder on how well it was written. Here's a favorite bit:
"Suddenly, he could see his father, see the trail of ground cherry husks leading from the garden around the edge of the lawn where he walked while he ate them. The man had a passion for fruit. Quoyle remembered purple-brown seckle pears the size and shape of figs, his father taking the meat off with pecking bites, the smell of fruit in their house, litter of cores and peels in the ashtrays, the grape cluster skeletons, peach stones like hens' brains on the windowsill, the glove of banana peel on the car dashboard."