The cookie Monster
For decades, America's taste in books has been driven by what the publishing industry calls the "mass-market paperback," a cultural pillar that may be slipping away. They're so familiar we hardly notice them as they sit in racks in airports, drugstores, and supermarkets. They line the shelves of mall bookstores with pop and pulp fiction, romance, mystery, and westerns, offering recent bestsellers and cheesy formula novels with cheap paper, ink, and binding. Like top-40 radio, soap operas, and LP records, cheap, disposable paperbacks are quietly slipping beneath the sands of postmodernity. According to the Book Industry Study Group, they made up 36 percent of book sales in 1997 as compared to 39 percent in 1993. That's a slow but steady drop. It means more customers would rather pay a little more for a sturdier book. When Pocket Books first gave America cheap paperbacks back before WWII, they were a sensation. Their value and wide distribution turned the industry into a cultural gatekeeper, keeping the likes of Zane Grey, Dr. Spock, and Jackie Collins before the public eye. Now superstores and online shopping have come, marking down prices and widening selections. As the paperback gets more expensive, hardbacks become more popular. So do trade paperbacks, which feature better quality workmanship. The decline of mass-market paperbacks is more than just a blip on publishers' spreadsheets. It means that writers looking for a bestseller have more reason to bite their nails over hardcover publication. It also means that mass publishing is losing ground to the postmodern cacophony of endless niche publishers and books. If readers can get exactly what they want at Borders, why bother with cheap, flimsy paperbacks? This also means that there's a crack in the door for those with something to say to jump in and grab market share. Writers no longer have to achieve mass appeal with assembly-line books. With enough wit and business savvy, another hurdle can be jumped. Not writing, but typing
Computers may have reached over half of American homes, but there remains an influential minority that won't be without their trusty typewriters. Tom Wolfe concocted all 727 pages of A Man In Full through all its drafts on an old 1966 Underwood. He said he tried using a word processor but his fingers couldn't take it. "I had a typewriter touch, not a computer touch," he says. So he keeps slugging away on a machine older than his two children. Playwright David Mamet and a few other literati keep their typewriters oiled and running, even though companies like Underwood, Royal, and Remington are gone now, and mighty IBM quit making them eight years ago. Another prolific New York scribe, Jimmy Breslin, complains that floppy disks don't give the same feeling of accomplishment as ink and paper. "All the charm is out of it," he remarked in 1997. "Sometimes, you know, I just want to hold the finished thing." Typewriters are getting more and more respect after being buried beneath the power of Word and WordPerfect. They are popping up as props in store windows and stage plays. Some repair shops still exist. They take old clickety-clack machines and treat them with a surgeon's care. Some of this lingering fondness for the old Underwood is natural nostalgia mixed with fogginess over a bad first date with a Compaq Presario. Yet the PC and the typewriter provide different experiences for the writer. The typewriter is live interaction with ink and paper. It requires the mental dexterity to say something right and the physical agility to avoid typos. They don't get buggy or lose memory, but their mechanical problems and lack of easy correction can be torturous. Computers take the writer's trashcan out of the physical world and make it a decorative icon on a screen. They put writing in a virtual never-never land where anything can change. Technology makes writing easier, cheaper, and faster, but some say they lose something in the translation. Of course, they said the same thing when the typewriter challenged the fountain pen.
The cookie Monster