Friday, December 11, 2009

The decline of publishing

Editor & Publisher and Kirkus Reviews will close up shop at the end of the year, its owners announced yesterday. Like Max Boot, writing on Contentions, I never read them. Among the first jacket blurbs that I ever came across were, I remember with a flush of shame, from Kirkus Reviews. Trying to make sense of the literary world without any guidance, I was under the delusion that Kirkus was a valuable source of reliable criticism—until I went off to college and an admired professor laughingly disabused me. Editor & Publisher is the trade journal of newspaper owners; it should have been called Publisher & Publisher. I don’t recall anyone’s reading it in newsrooms when I worked there.

Unlike Boot, then, I am not “saddened to learn of [their] fate.” Anything that contributes to “the general decline of the publishing industry” saddens Boot. But even if that’s what their passing signifies, so what?

It is a vulgar error to confuse the decline of the publishing industry with the decline of literature and authorship. The two are related in much the same way that coffee is related to the electric percolator. The kitchen gadget is simply one way to brew the nectar of concentration. Coffee consumption has not declined along with the gradual disappearance of electric percolators. Or, to switch to the favored analogy of both Luddites and technological cheerleaders, traveling along roads did not melt away with the horse-drawn carriage trade.

What is happening is a reconception of the book. Once upon a time you could distinguish a book, the material object that could sit on a shelf or stop a door, from the text, an ideal order whose storage and transmission it made possible. That distinction is in the process of evaporating. What we are witnessing is the material book’s decline in cultural significance.

New gadgets for storing and transmitting texts are being developed. And right now they command higher prices than the texts they store. But this is probably a transitional phase in the market. New hardware is always expensive; software prices are more stable, because they represent the intellectual content that makes the software worth something. The problem that faces authors is how to capture a fair share of the market for their intellectual content. That’s what book-buyers are paying for.

In the long run, the decline of the publishing industry will only benefit authors as they are able to connect to consumers without hundreds of intermediaries who have their hands out. How will the authors of the future get paid? Who knows? That’s not the kind of problem I give my waking hours over to. But there are plenty of men and women who do.

Here is one example. I have a friend who markets a computer-based facsimile-transmission system to businesses. He provides the technological gadgetry for sending and receiving faxes—for free! He is paid every time a business sends or receives a fax. And of course, the system is first-rate; his users fall in love with it; usage explodes, and he makes tons of money. Why? If he concentrated on selling the technological gadgetry, discrete physical units, even of the objects that store the software that runs the system, he could only make money one unit at a time. His money-making capacity would be constrained by his physical ability to reach customers. But as Nassim Nicholas Taleb argued a couple of years ago in The Black Swan, “There are no physical constraints on what a number can be.” There are no physical constraints on the number of faxes that a business can send, using my friend’s system. My friend has made the conversion from selling material objects to selling ideas.

In their day-to-day writing, authors have always already been converts. But in their sales, they have been captive to the publishing industry, which conceives of books as material objects. The trick is to find a way to get paid for ideas. If I were running Amazon, I’d sell Kindles for a song and give away ebooks for free. Readers would only be charged when they opened a new book and scrolled to the next page. They are paying to read, after all; not to hold a gadget in the hand. And who knows? Maybe an author far cannier than I will beat Amazon to some such punch. In any event, the authors—not Amazon—will be the ultimate beneficiaries, if they are smart, of publishing’s decline.


Buce said...

For some second thoughts, go here: [www_blogger_com]

D. G. Myers said...

Here is the link to Buce’s reply at Underbelly.

D. G. Myers said...

I stand corrected on the value of Editor & Publisher, Buce. As I say, I never read it. But I will add this much: if its demise was the occasion for your autobiographical look back on the “penury” of “doing journalism,” then it was worth something.

On your larger point, though, I am not sure that I agree. “[G]ood journalism is always in short supply,” you say, “[a]nd if you lose any of it, you are in error to sigh and say something else will take its place.”

Aside from the fact that that’s not exactly what I said, why is it an error? The problem, again, is how to get paid for “doing” journalism. The shuttering of a print publication, no matter how good—I’ll take your word that Editor & Publisher had “morphed into a first-rate chronicler”—is the loss of a convenient source of income. It does not necessarily mean the loss of good journalism.

Journals have a different kind of value than pieces of journalism, and readers are paying for a different kind of value when they purchase a journal. They are not merely purchasing the intellectual content of the journalists’ individual pieces; they are also paying for the editorial judgment behind them, the world view represented by the journal, its reputation and promise.

DB said...

In the long run, the decline of the publishing industry will only benefit authors as they are able to connect to consumers without hundreds of intermediaries who have their hands out.

But there are thousands upon thousands of self-published books available today and few, if any, of the authors who perpetrated them were able to connect to the readers.

I think, rather, that we're witnessing literary inflation, where there are too many texts chasing too few readers.

D. G. Myers said...


I disagree. Again, the literary marketplace is in transition. New mechanisms for publicizing and recognizing new books have yet to emerge completely. Old habits of trusting a publisher’s (largely undeserved) reputation die hard.

More important is the need even for readers to feel that they belong to a community. That’s partly what explains bestsellers—they are a communal experience.

It is not entirely true, however, that self-published texts don’t do well. John J. Miller’s First Assassin ranks #7,283 in books at Amazon, despite the availability of used and recycled copies for which Miller is not reimbursed. (A problem that would be dispensed with under the ebook régime that I imagined.)

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

The desire among readers to feel part of a community is also evident in the success of websites/"communities" such as LibraryThing.

I don't, however, see the "availability of used and recycled copies" as being as significant a problem as you do. For authors, busy libraries and used bookstores may provoke anger, but without these sources of used books, many could not afford to read. An e-book regime that would curtail the ability of books to freely circulate - whether as gifts, loans among friends, or re-sold used - is one that troubles me.

Personally, e-books don't bother me much. I suspect that much of the web chatter opposed to this format will prove as prescient as the claims made in the 80s that computers would mark the beginning of a paperless society.

don wallace said...

When you say you respected Kirkus until "I went to college" I think you a) look a little silly, because you are a college professor, and b) unintentionally underscore the value of Kirkus: it wasn't part of the PoMo academic world that praises only the predictably transgressive, it didn't care about who blurbed whom, it was unreachable by publisher and publicist (one reason it got sold off to Nielsen/VMI: no ads). Kirkus was a tagteam of nobodies (and a few somebodies) who took beggar's pay to make sure attention was paid. It was a bad career move to review there, because anonymous. But it had an ongoing 60-year collective of a hundred-some writers, without tenure or fame, devoting hours of every single week to books--held to a 300 word count, which meant no showoff prose or self-aggrandizing bloviating. Kirkus died because it was bought by a conglomerate. We'll be the worse for its passing.

Lee said...

Indeed. To repeat what I've said elsewhere, publishing is essentially a means to an end: a technology for distributing a writer’s words to readers. Once this was only practicable via a printing press. Obviously, this is no longer the case. Writers are now able to take charge of their own work, a thoroughly enabling process once they relinquish their prejudices and refuse to play the ‘insider game’, yearning to become one of the elect, one of the chosen. This places the burden of responsibility for writing well precisely where it belongs: on the writers themselves.

But do I have a solution to problem of payment? Like you, no. And like you, it doesn't concern me - or not much. (If I were running Amazon, perhaps I'd give away the Kindles as part of a subscription service, something similar to the system used for cellphones here in Germany.)

Josh said...

Good post. I thoroughly agree that the medium and the industry should be considered separately from the artform. I wrote something similar about the record industry on my music blog:

I don't think the tech is ready yet for digital distribution of literature, though. I haven't used a Kindle but they look pretty awful. Maybe when Apple release their much-speculated (possibly non-existant) tablet, things might change.