Don’t Fear the e-Reaper
August 2, 2011

AS BORDERS started liquidating its remaining American bookstores last week, the death knell for print books in the digital age tolled ever louder. But on July 29th at the Printers’ Ball, an annual literary festival in Chicago, nearly 4,000 book lovers gathered to raucously revel in the printed word.


The theme of the fete was “It’s Alive!”, a la Frankenstein. On the campus of Columbia College in the South Loop, hordes in zombie face-paint could be seen snatching up thousands of free literary magazines. They danced to salsa and rock bands, swilled beer, crowded poetry readings, and channelled literary ghosts with a giant Ouija board. In an atmosphere of monsters returning from the dead, bibliophilic life seemed alive and kicking—at least for the night.

Of course, it helped that the event was free. Now in its seventh year, the Printers’ Ball was created by the Chicago-based Poetry magazine as a fun way to “put publishers, artists and readers on the same side of the page,” said Fred Sasaki, an editor at the journal who founded the event. But despite the ghoulish revelry, there are real signs of life among publishers in the Chicago area. Business at local independent publishers, such as Sourcebooks and Agate, is growing, as are e-book sales at University of Chicago Press. “We don’t feel much doom and gloom,” said Danielle Chapman, director of publishing industry programmes at Chicago’s Office of Tourism and Culture. “People are more focused on what’s next.”

Featherproof Books, a small independent publisher in Chicago, says it has been hurt by the demise of Borders. Yet sales are still growing and the company is expanding. “We fly low, so the big industry shifts don’t affect us,” says Zach Dodson, the publisher’s founder. “People love books, they love reading and writing. Those activities will still take place.”

At Poetry, a monthly journal that turns 100 next year, circulation has tripled to 30,000 since 2002—a big number for any literary magazine, particularly one devoted to poetry. Its revamped website claims approximately 5m unique users annually. But Poetry is in a rare position, having received a gift worth some $200m pledged in 2002 by Ruth Lilly, a pharmaceutical heiress. Many literary journals are struggling, especially after budget cuts at the universities that tend to fund them. Still, some 1,000 literary magazines in America are “thriving”, according to the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. This is more important than it sounds. Though literary journals are often seen as too esoteric to be relevant, they regularly discover and publish emerging authors. Salamander, for example, published early short stories from an unknown writer named Jhumpa Lahiri, who then went on to win a Pulitzer.

The digital age presents an opportunity for literary publishers, which are smaller and nimbler than large, mainstream ones. “They have more freedom to experiment in the digital domain,” said Jamie Schwartz, managing director of the council.

Despite these digital promises, the Printers’ Ball was a place where nostalgia could reign. In one corner, partygoers were incredibly keen to soak a Kindle e-reader in a dunking contraption resembling a guillotine. “I resent Kindles for contributing to the decline of print media,” complained one e-dunker. Those who chose to dunk a print book instead were practical about it. “It was ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’,” explained one. “The Kindle is the future,” said another.


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