AS the nation prepares to pave itself over with the silicon chips of the information superhighway, the book publishing industry appears in danger of being left in a backwater. In one recent week, Harcourt Brace summarily fired half its veteran editors, Houghton Mifflin closed its Ticknor & Fields imprint, and Macmillan discontinued its venerable Atheneum division. These were the latest casualties of the brutal bottom-line mentality that has ravaged what had until recently remained one of the few corners of American culture where purely commercial considerations did not always predominate.
Over the past decade or more, a series of mergers has almost eliminated free-standing, independent publishing in New York. Faceless corporate conglomerates have swallowed up industry giants, replacing editors with accountants as the chief arbiters of literary merit. In the last month alone, Paramount, which owns Simon & Schuster, bought Macmillan - and Viacom bought Paramount.
Meanwhile, economic recession and the declining base of readers for so-called serious books have caused many publishers to slash their ``midlists,'' books whose profitability may be marginal but whose literary quality and social significance justify their publication. Driven by dollar signs, many major publishers now reject most manuscripts that don't instantly emit the sweet smell of success, reserving their mammoth advances and promotional budgets for best-selling authors and tantalizing topics. Predictably, originality suffers while formula writing proliferates.
Meanwhile, a cozy relationship among corporate publishers, literary agents, book review editors, and bookstore chains dooms most books to obscurity while propelling a select few onto the front counter, the talk-show circuit, the full-page ads, and the coveted review in The New York Times. The opportunities to peddle influence in the parochial world of New York publishing are surpassed only by the legendary politics of the nation's capital.
Small-press books stand little chance of breaking into the large chains that now comprise half the bookstores in the country. Even those books that do often disappear from the shelves to be remaindered and shredded within months of publication. With the emergence of corporate-run ``superstores,'' even major independent bookstores find themselves at an acute disadvantage, paying more to buy books wholesale than the chains sell them for retail.
In a sense, book publishing has fallen victim to the very ease with which books can be manufactured. Too many books are chasing too few readers. An astonishing 49,000 titles were published in the United States in 1992, but most sell dismayingly few copies. A recent survey found that nearly half of all American adults are functionally illiterate. In a population of more that 250 million people, novelist Philip Roth guesses there are just 120,000 ``serious readers'' (who may read a few hours an evening). Literary agent Nan Talese puts at 4,000 the number ``who keep up with reviews of literary work, then will actually go into the store and buy the book.''
The causes of this stunning disparity between supply and demand are various: a glut of glitzier forms of entertainment and information; the rising price of books; severe cutbacks in library acquisition accounts; the decay of American education and public discourse; and a pace of life too pressured for the contemplative ambience of many serious books. Ironically, the information age has both disseminated and devalued the written word, so for many Americans, reading (and especially reading books) is simply no longer important or interesting enough to make time for in their overactive lives.
Yet to judge by statistics, the US book business is booming. Americans bought 822 million adult books in 1992, 7 percent more than the year before. The majority were mass-market pop fiction, what used to be called ``pulp novels'' - the mysteries, romances, and Westerns that have long been the gruel but seldom the cream of American literature. But the trends are not encouraging. While older book-buyers bought more, those under 25 bought just as much less. Does this reflect the growing dominance of TV and other media among the young or merely the greater availability of time and discretionary income among the affluent retired? And what does it say for the future of books and reading in this country?
Just at the moment when books have finally become a big business capable of turning red ink to black in corporate boardrooms, they are becoming just another commodity, a product designed with profitability rather than profundity in mind. To many commercial publishers, books are not investigations or explorations but generic ``content'' to be repackaged as movies, videos, toys, T-shirts, and other profitable products.
``The conglomerateer has spread an atmosphere of fear, cynicism, rapaciousness, and ignorance'' in the publishing industry, wrote veteran New York editor Ted Solotaroff in 1987. Those trends have only accelerated since.
``New York publishing is self-destructing,'' says another highly respected New York editor of the old school that carefully nurtures its authors. ``They've forgotten what books are for. The only hope lies with the small presses that still care about ideas and authors, the craft of writing and the quality of books as cherished objects.''
And what about the authors, who with their dwindling, aging audiences wonder sometimes whether they are practicing an arcane, ancient ritual, carving hieroglyphs? Why do they keep writing books when most are so little read? Because no other medium permits the spaciousness of time or intensity of concentration to plumb the depths of an experience or idea.
Authors will keep writing books of serious intent whether they find readers or not, because it's their way of understanding their world. But what, if anything, will be missing from the larger society if their voices are no longer audible in the rising din of electronic media?
``Books are the DNA of this culture,'' says novelist Mary Carter - as, in a sense, are all the arts. Perhaps all that will be lost if books are supplanted by flashier media is the capacity for sustained, thoughtful consideration of who we are, where we've come from, and where we're headed. Could it be that one of many reasons why our culture is so clueless and confused is that we lack the depth and breadth of vision that books best provide? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.