On the eve of retirement as publisher of Carl Hanser Verlag in Germany, the legendary Michael Krüger spoke with Publishing Perspectives about the current state of publishing and literature. Below, his answer to the question, “Do you think we are entering an increasingly impoverished literary age?”
“I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. You can read them on paper or on the screen, I don’t care. I only get nervous when people are constantly reading second-class books, when reviewers praise third-rate books, and when booksellers put bad books in their windows. Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking. But there are still very good books around, in every country! The problem is that people can’t get them because they are hiding. People thought that with digitization, the good books would be easier to get. But the problem is that most of the readers love bad books! I have no explanation for the fact that modern societies have invested tons of money into schools and universities only to find out that horrible books are much more loved than the good ones…”
It’s certainly true that book discovery has only become more complex with the rise of ebooks and online bookselling. With millions of books for sale on Amazon, how can readers find the rare gem that they don’t even know they want? Recommendation algorithms from online retailers like Amazon and B&N are based on patterns, which means a reader will see books similar to what he or she has previously read — not so good for finding anything new.
Then again, some readers aren’t looking for anything new. They are looking for entertainment. Consider what Open Letter Books publisher Chad Post says about this:
“ . . . speaking in broad strokes, ‘entertainments’ tend to reinforce current dominant cultural modes, whereas ‘literature’ can upend some beliefs, ways of thinking, assumptions. Which may well explain why these books have limited sales success . . . ”
So, do “most of the readers love bad books” as Krüger says, or do they have a book discovery problem? I would argue that because readers have access to a larger selection of books than they will ever read in a lifetime and because many of them read for entertainment, they see little need to dig deeper than the recommendation algorithm, the bestseller lists and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends.
This isn’t true of all readers, obviously. There are book lovers who will seek out new books, pick through the shelves at their second-hand bookstore, and deliberately stray from the bestsellers. But we can’t expect that all readers will invest so much time and effort.