Non-Fiction, the new film by Olivier Assayas, is about publishing and the people who work in it. To publishing professionals, who find their industry a source of inexhaustible fascination, this will come as welcome news; to everyone else, it probably sounds as interesting as a film about tax law or podiatry. Assayas, one of France’s most gifted and prolific directors, is aware of both perspectives. He is drawn to publishing for the same reason Martin Scorsese is drawn to organized crime: it offers him a back door to the human comedy. You don’t have to be an insider to relish the film’s sparkling satire, though readers of Publishers Weekly (and perhaps The New York Review) will likely feel a twinge of recognition at the world Assayas has rendered with mordant, almost ethnographic fidelity.
If outsiders know anything about publishing, it’s that it’s in crisis. Book sales have been stagnant for years, a trend many attribute to the Internet, which, it’s claimed, has created a sense of entitlement to free stuff among consumers, to say nothing of ravaging their attention spans. I remember the first book party I went to, not long after I arrived in New York around the middle of the last decade. It was at a vast downtown loft with whitewashed brick walls, immense paper lanterns, and a semi-grand piano from which someone in a tuxedo was teasing evocative chords. Clearly our hosts, a pair of high-powered magazine editors, had done well for themselves; most of the guests, too, looked like they were at the top of the socioeconomic food chain.
Still, the sense of gathering doom was palpable. I got into a conversation with a tipsy magazine writer who told me (it was less a boast than a confession) that he’d recently received an advance of close to a million dollars for his first book, a work of cultural history based on a short article he’d published. He made no secret of the fact that he found the project slightly frivolous and beneath him, but who was he to turn up his nose at a million dollars? When I told him I was new to this world, he suggested I try selling a book on the same model. It wasn’t that hard, he said, but I’d need to get going because the money was running out fast.
More than ten years later, the money hasn’t run out, as far as I’m aware, but neither has the gloom lifted. Almost everyone I know in publishing and publishing-adjacent industries, like the news media, speaks about the future, even the very near future, in a provisional tone. They joke (or half-joke) about starting second careers should their position (or the entire company they work for) be rationalized out…
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