2023 in books: Protests, bannings and the rise of AI helped shape the story of publishing – The Mainichi – The Mainichi

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The Mainichi Japan’s National Daily Since 1922
(Mainichi Japan)
NEW YORK (AP) — Book publishing in 2023 was a story of cooling sales and rising conflict, marked by legal action, protests, censorship and the impact of forces well beyond the industry.
Print book sales continued to recede following the pandemic-era surge, but fiction remained strong, thanks in part to the young readers on BookTok. Colleen Hoover, one of BookTok’s signature authors, continued her reign as the country’s top-selling author, even without releasing a new book in 2023. Three of her novels were among the top 10 sellers as tracked by Circana, with other popular releases including novels by two authors, Sarah J. Maas and Rebecca Yarros, regarded as leaders of romantasy, a newly branded genre that combines romance and fantasy.
Literary highlights included Justin Torres’ inventive narrative on the hidden history of gay sexuality, “Blackouts,” winner of the National Book Award for fiction. Critics also praised James McBride’s multiethnic crime story “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” R.F. Kuang’s satirical “Yellowface,” Paul Murray’s family drama “The Bee Sting” and such nonfiction releases as Jonathan Eig’s Martin Luther King biography “King,” Naomi Klein’s Internet saga “Doppelganger” and another National Book Award winner, Ned Blackhawk’s “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History.”
Book news was otherwise shaped by courtrooms, boardrooms, palace gossip, technological advances and growing divides in the U.S. and abroad:
CELEBS BOUND AND UNBOUND
The year was bracketed by million-selling tell-alls from celebrities estranged from their families: Prince Harry’s “Spare” and Britney Spears’ “The Woman in Me.” Both were stories of confinement and repression, from the palace life that Harry feared might drive his wife — Meghan, Duchess of Sussex — to take her own life, to the conservatorship that gave Spears’ father power over everything from her finances to her ability to have children. Harry framed his life as a kind of reckoning, opening the book with William Faulkner’s famed observation: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Spears looked back hopefully to a youthful promise she made to herself: “I can make my own way to life. I can make my dreams come true.”
AI RISING
ChatGPT is not yet a major force in the book market, but real-life writers are worried enough to take legal steps to prevent it, or at least control it. Numerous lawsuits were filed in 2023, including a class-action lawsuit brought b y the Authors Guild and George R.R. Martin and John Grisham, among other authors. The plaintiffs allege ChatGPT is a “massive commercial enterprise” reliant upon “systematic theft on a mass scale.”
Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger told The Associated Press that she thinks the industry is on the verge of an “explosion” of AI-generated books that could well cut into the earnings of authors, most of whom already make little from their work.
“We have to get some money back into the system,” says Rasenberger, who has advocates that authors receive compensation for copyrighted books used in AI programs.
DONE DEAL
Simon & Schuster, the home to Stephen King, Hillary Clinton and many others that turns 100 in 2024, serves as a kind of parable of a corporate-owned publisher unable to control its own destiny.
Sold in 1975 to Gulf & Western, Simon & Schuster has since been part of various leadership structures, most recently Paramount Global. The company had solid growth in 2023, but once Paramount decided it was “a non-core asset,” its future was a matter of market calculations and antitrust law. After a federal judge halted Penguin Random House’s acquisition of its longtime rival, citing the likely shrinkage of competition, Paramount sold Simon & Schuster to the private equity firm KKR.
Paramount’s farewell statement had all the poetry of a quarterly balance sheet: “Simon & Schuster is positioned well for future growth, and the transaction itself demonstrates significant value capture for Paramount and meaningfully advances our de-levering plan.”
BANNINGS AND BOOK FAIRS
The publishing industry’s push to offer more diverse books continued to clash with a surge in bannings and attempted bannings that the American Library Association reports has reached levels not seen in decades, with Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and John Green’s “Looking for Alaska” among those removed from shelves. Near the end of 2023, Green was among the authors signed on to a Penguin Random House lawsuit over Iowa’s restrictions on sexual content and depictions of gender identity.
Even attempted middle ground proved unstable. When Scholastic isolated some diverse books into a separate package that communities could preemptively reject for school fairs, authors were enraged and the children’s publisher apologized. It has since announced a new strategy that incorporates diverse books into the overall catalog while letting schools “make their own local merchandising decisions, as they have always done, just like any bookstore or library.”
RUSHDIE SPEAKS
After being hospitalized following a horrifying knife attack in August 2022, Salman Rushdie reemerged publicly, although under increased security. He was honored in person during PEN America’s annual spring gala in Manhattan, received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade during October’s Frankfurt Book Fair and was awarded the first-ever lifetime Disturbing the Peace prize in November at Manhattan’s Vaclav Havel Center. His publishing return comes soon: He’s writing a book about the attack, “Knife,” scheduled for April.
NETFLIX FLAK, DREW WITHDRAWN
The Hollywood strikes didn’t only upend the film and television industries. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos, whose company was a key player in the writers strike, decided against attending the PEN America ceremony, where he was to receive a Business Visionary Award. Drew Barrymore was dropped as host of the National Book Awards after she started taping her talk show while its writers were still on strike. Her replacement was the actor and literacy advocate LeVar Burton.
CONFLICT AT HOME
The wars in Ukraine and Gaza divided the literary community in ways that mirrored other public debates.
The Russian author-activist Masha Gessen resigned as vice president of the PEN board after the literary and human rights organization canceled an event that was to have featured both Russian and Ukrainian panelists. (The Ukrainians had objected to the Russians’ participation.) Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert announced she would postpone her novel “The Snow Forest” because some Ukrainians had objected to the story taking place in Russia. Gilbert called her decision “a course correction.”
Officials at the Frankfurt fair canceled a tribute to the Palestinian author Adania Shibli, who had been scheduled to receive a prize for female writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Arab world. A sponsor of the National Book Awards, author-publisher-podcaster Zibby Owens, withdrew her support when she learned that some finalists would read a statement about the war. Owens feared that the authors would “collectively band together to use their speeches to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli agenda,” but the actual statement condemned antisemitism, along with Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian bias.
The 92nd Street Y in Manhattan dropped an event with Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen because he had signed a petition opposing Israel’s invasion of Gaza. With authors condemning the decision and several staffers resigning, the Y put its fall literary schedule on hold. Nguyen, meanwhile, was invited to appear instead at the independent bookstore McNally Jackson.
“I spoke about my book, yes, but also about how art is silenced in times of war and division because some people only want to see the world as us vs them,” Nguyen later wrote on Instagram. “And writing is the only way I know how to fight. And writing is the only way I know how to grieve.”
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