Judging an Industry by Its Cover

NEW YORK, N.Y. — BookExpo America didn’t seem like the dregs of a dying industry. BEA, North America’s largest convention of publishers, authors, and printers, looked like the biggest book fair I’d ever seen: miles of aisles, spanning 22 acres, spread over 16 hours.

But it’s no secret publishing is in trouble. The cookbook author in the booth next to ours, a 25-year BEA veteran, said the massive convention used to be much bigger not too long ago. Certainly, publishers made several efforts at the conference to tackle technology, print publications’ number-one challenge: Agents ran around trying to find “mobile partners” that could transform their books into apps on your favorite brand of cell phone; BEA itself hosted presentations such as “Book Bloggers—Today’s Buzz Builders” and “Twitter for (Book-Industry) Dummies.”

Yet something was missing. My colleagues and I at Let’s Go—the Harvard student–run travel guide—had no publishing friends our own age. The lack of new blood at BEA was disappointing—not because adults can’t get with the times, but because the older generation feels a need to reconcile these new times with the old, the safe, and the familiar.

At the presentations, in an effort to save the businesses that built BEA, some authors all but owned up to writing based on what they thought Google wanted to hear. Such surrender commits a fatal conflation: the goal of saving the print business itself with the goal of saving the stories it tells (the real reason the business began in the first place).

Unlike most adults, our generation is unafraid to jettison old vehicles for delivering those stories just because they worked in the past. At this novel point in time, publishing needs to start on a new page. Only the young can fully accept that—to those who are entering the industry for the first time, it’s a new page no matter what. Publishers should be forced to make this leap of blind faith into an uncertain technological world, because that faith, the creed of words, is so important.

The publishing industry is dying for (a lack of) young people and unbiased idea(l)s necessary to reboot the system in this way. Those of us who are considering careers there should only be inspired by the frightening thought that the industry could soon go under. Publishing needs us, if only for the reminder: The pages exist for the words, not the other way around.


Nathaniel S. Rakich '10, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Cabot House. He regrets not asking for Rick Steves's autograph.