The fallen status of books makes it hard times for hardcovers.

Media criticism.
Sept. 9 2010 5:58 PM

The Fallen Status of Books

Hard times for hardcovers.

(Continued from Page 1)

Newspapers experienced a similar reckoning in the past decade when they stopped assigning the old status upon their readers. Personal data point: When I edited the alternative weekly Washington City Paper from 1985 to 1995, one of the paper's owners loved to point out how everybody who picked it up usually carried it so that the nameplate was visible. They wanted others to see that they were a City Paper person! But those days have passed. Beyond serving as a marker to your boss that you're a serious person, your subscription to the Wall Street Journal doesn't say much about you these days. Well, it does say that you're old. Barnes & Noble and Borders have gotten the message that books are becoming passé, moving them out to make room for toys, stationery, and other merchandise. At Barnes & Noble, a kiosk pushing Nook e-book readers greets you as you enter the store.

There are still reasons to write books, of course. It's still an achievement to write one—even a bad one. Also, a book can still give an author control over what's said and how it's received in a way that rivals other mediums. If written expertly, a book can signal to the reader a seriousness and erudition that doesn't apply to every Web page or every newspaper. And sometimes an author's labors can generate returns beyond the minimum wage.

But those reasons apply equally to e-books and hardcovers. Which brings me to my ultimate observation about the fallen status of books: Can you imagine throwing a book party for a friend who wrote an e-book? As attendees bought the e-book, what would the author do to personalize and commemorate the event? Sign their Kindles?

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The kindest rejection notice for my drug-book proposal was from the late Marjorie Williams, a stranger to me who was an editor at Simon & Schuster. Marjorie became my friend later when she took a job at the Washington Post. Her two books, The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate and Reputation: Portraits in Power, are still in print and are available for Kindle. Buy them so that her widower, my Slate colleague Timothy Noah, can send their two kids to expensive colleges. If you've got an idea for a book that I should write, send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Maybe I could squeeze a book or a sitcom out of my Twitter feed? (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word book in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.