The recent flap between Amazon, Apple, and MacMillan over rights and payments for making titles available on Amazon's Kindle vs. Apple's new iPad has spawned a lot of talk about the future of the publishing industry. Contrary to the loud gnashing of traditional publishers' teeth, an article by Steve Pearlstein, in the Washington Post, takes a rosy view, saying that "what looks like death is actually progress."
"It will still be years before e-book technology matures and a sustainable business model emerges for the publishing industry. In the meantime, you'll hear lots of moaning and groaning about how the quality of writing and editing will decline, browsing for books will become a lost art, authors and their agents will be forced into poverty, and consumers will get hosed. Don't believe any of it for a minute."
Pearlstein, a business columnist and apparent Darwinian capitalist, says markets "have their flaws but in the long run are good at executing technological transformations." Execution is a good word, because the corpses from this revolution are already piling up. Pearlstein is right, I think, in saying that best-selling authors will be one of the winners, bypassing publishers and agents to sell directly to readers and, of course, cutting much more lucrative deals for their work in the process. But what about the rest of his arguments?
"Other authors will turn to smaller, more specialized publishing houses that will offer smaller advances but bigger royalties and will be built, as they once were, around great editors. Publishers will sell their books through competing online distributors and traditional hard-copy bookstores, the latter of which will continue to exist not only as places to browse and socialize, but also as places to have printed on demand. Backlists will be infinite, pricing will be dynamic, and more copies of more books will be read and sold."
That's fine if you're Anne Rice or Steve Jobs. It's even OK if you're Barnes&Noble. But if we stop talking about books as a commodity and talk instead about writers and readers, and the editors who have traditionally helped good books become better, this vision of "progress" looks much more like a fleet of bulldozers razing an historic neighborhood and scattering its inhabitants for the "progress" that is represented by a faceless mall or highway interchange.
Unfortunately, I agree with Pearlstein that this trend is not only inevitable but well underway. Independent bookstores have already closed, smaller publishing houses have been bought, newspapers and magazines have folded, and a great many people have already lost their jobs. But to insist that quality is unaffected by this trend, and that it's a great boon for authors and readers, is to disregard a huge segment of writing that has formerly been part of publishing in a "macro" sense.
Yes, you'll be able to buy Gladwell's latest book for $9.99, but what if what you really want to read is the book by an African survivor of genocide adjusting to life in a North American city? And what if you're that woman - talented, hard-working, and in need of an advance, a sympathetic editor, and a publishing house willing to take a chance? What if you're a poetry lover and have enjoyed collecting and reading beautifully-produced small editions?
What Pearlstein is talking about is dog-eat-dog market capitalism, where the players and pundits pretend to be talking about books but all they're really talking about is money:
Business models will change, companies will come and go, and people will lose their jobs. But at the end of the process, there will be fewer people who will be paid higher incomes to produce a wider array of products at lower prices. There's a word for that -- progress -- and it's exciting to see it unfold right in front of us.
Is there any sort of silver lining here? When technology drives massive change, as has happened in my own professional life in the graphic arts industry, there's a complex winnowing and a widening split, with most of the profits concentrated in the hands of fewer players who emerge on top, just as Pearlstein predicts. The basic technology, though, spreads into the hands of more and more people. In 1981, when we bought our first computer, "desktop publishing" was still a term of the future; graphic designers like me were going to be put out of business by all the people who would be able to do our job, once they had access to the technology.
To some extent that was true. The people who were able and willing to adapt did survive, but when things shook out, it also became clear that the average person, office, or company could only "design" on an "average" level: professionals who learned to use the new technology continued to be in demand for higher-quality artistic web and publication design. As Oscar Peterson said about the first digital synthesizers, which he embraced, "It don't swing if you don't swing."
Writers will continue to need good editors, readers will still look for higher-quality writing. The ability to publish your book on Amazon is now open to anyone. The question is whether there is any money in it.
As happened in "desktop publishing," in the early years of a technology's availability, everyone wants to get on board, and that's certainly been true of writing and publishing on the web. There's even an egalitarian ethos that arises: let's all share our work for free. Of course, this also means that people in the existing system feel threatened, and try to denigrate and exclude those who are advocating the new systems.
It's obvious that as the larger publishing houses merge and find themselves squeezed financially, taking risks on experimental, innovative writing -- especially where the audience may be limited, as it is for most poetry, for example -- has already become less and less viable. Academic publishing and journals are becoming, in my opinion, an increasingly insular club. So, for truly creative writing, writing by people who don't fit into the existing systems, writing that crosses genres and boundaries and takes risks -- the sorts of things that small presses and independent bookstores once championed -- online publishing is one of the only remaining solutions. Doesn't some of that work also deserve to be in print? Yes. But we've yet to figure out how the economy of it can work for everyone's benefit.
There are opportunities, I believe, for a vibrant micro-publishing effort for high-quality, short-run books and journals, running out of sight of the warring Titans of the big-league publishing industry. Frankly, that's up to us, and much more discussion and experimentation are necessary before sustainable systems develop, and writers, editors, publishers and internet-based arts-community-builders are able to work creatively without burning out.
1) It may be a radical concept, but I think serious poets and writers (especially those emerging from blogging and online grassroots communities, rather than the academia and the traditional literary world) need to gain the self-respect and confidence to refrain from publishing all their work for free online, so that their collected works in print gain in value and desirability. More on this in a subsequent post.
2) Publishers will need to develop innovative ways of getting the word out about new titles, hand-in-hand with writers and journals. Distribution and marketing remain the most difficult areas for small publishers.
3) Readers need to support these efforts by buying the works of writers they read and admire on the web, perhaps using more of their book-buying dollars for short-run books and chapbooks, and using the library more for mass-market titles.
Nobody is going to get rich, but everyone stands to benefit. The kind of cut-throat competition that makes headlines has no place here; we all need each other. Without the development of a mutually-sustaining micro-economy for short-run editions of poetry, essays, and prose, we risk losing the ability to preserve these voices and this kind of writing. People will continue to write, but their work will flicker into and out of our consciousness, disappearing shortly after it's posted on the web.
And that, in my view, is not progress at all.
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