Thursday, April 25, 2013

What Readers Owe Themselves

First of all, a big thanks to my friend Nick, who, after listening to me whine about this, came up with the exact phrase I needed to bring my thoughts together.

But first, let's talk about food. Can there be a more noble goal than cheap food? When you think
Wait, are you going to talk about corn?
about it, lowering the cost of food is a major step forward in improving the lives of every member of a society. And so, over a few decades, the United States used agricultural subsidies to lower the cost of food so much that Americans generally spend far less of their income on food than almost anybody else world. But now we're beginning to see some major negative consequences to those subsidies and the cheap food they produced. By focusing the subsidies on corn and wheat, we've created a system of monocultures with a massive carbon footprint that require genetic engineering and an endless supply pesticides to maintain, run by a few massive corporations lobbying Congress for an even more beneficial system, all the while, the cheap corn has filled food with high fructose corn syrup and we have seen massive increases in obesity and Type II Diabetes. Cheap food is a noble goal, but the way we've tried to bring it about has had disastrous negative consequences.

So what do you do? If you want to be healthy, if you want your family and your decedents to be healthy, what do you do? What actions do you owe to your own well being, the well being of your loved ones and the world they will inherit? Obviously, you can lobby for a restructuring agricultural subsidies, you know, because you're made of time. Or, every now and again, you can shop at a farmer's market or buy organic at the grocery store, not because you owe something to the farmers or because you feel guilty, but because you owe it to yourself and your family to contribute what you can to a healthier food system. Sure, food at a farmer's market or organic food at the store is more expensive, but how much is your long term health worth or say, not having the coasts flooded by rising ocean levels. You don't need to buy all of your food from a local farmer's market but any time you can shift some of your spending you improve yourself and your world.

Wow, I've been using the word "metaphor" incorrectly my whole life
Something similar is happening with books. What could be wrong with cheap books? I think everyone who loves books would include free books in their utopia. But we don't live in an utopia and everything costs money. The same way the federal government created artificially low food prices through subsidies, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble and Borders to a lesser extent, through legitimate and illegitimate means has created artificially low book prices. Instead of direct subsidies, Amazon uses volume of sales, margin improving efficiency, and Amazon Prime membership and profit sharing from other industries and contracting with warehouses that pay and treat their workers poorly, not remitting sales tax, bullying publishers for better discounts, and apparently, despite being a publicly traded company never needing to actually turn a profit, to create such low prices. That Amazon price is subsidized just like the price of a bag of Dorritos.

To maintain the metaphor (or strain it, perhaps) what is the obesity epidemic of cheap books? Publishing is running out of the money it needs to publish. As cheap as books are, we're actually selling fewer and fewer of them every year. Even with its low prices, Amazon cannot create book sales the way the physical bookstores it has put out of business can. Even with all their algorithms, most of the time you buy the book you're looking for and not also the book by a totally unrelated author that happened to be a major influence on the book you were looking for or the book you'd been meaning to get but forgot until you saw it on display, or the totally unrelated book that a bookseller just happens to be really jazzed about. Lots of different factors go into book sales, (how reading is taught in schools, new access to entertainment on smartphones and tablets, the presence of actual honesttogod intelligent, quality television) but even with the low prices Amazon offers, book sales have diminished while bookstores have closed.

Corn is the wheat of my ennui.
Of course, you could argue the convenience of ebooks and all those big sales numbers in the book news will result in an overall increase in book sales and re-invigorate the publishing industry. I suppose we might someday reach a volume where ebooks can sustain the industry, but Amazon has made ebooks so cheap, the volume increase would have to be astronomical in order to actually be sustainable for publishing. (Trust me, I've seen actual ebook volume vs profit figures and they do not warm the heart.) You can sell an extra hundred copies of a book, but if you're only making a few cents of profit, you're not really doing that well.

You might argue that has more to do with the inefficiency of publishing than Amazon's prices, that self-published authors are being very successful with those $.99 ebooks. I think, though, it's important to note the kind of self-published books that are successful. With the exception of 50 Shades of Grey, (erotic Twilight fan-fiction, much of whose success came after it was also traditionally published) successful self-published ebooks have been almost exclusively sci-fi/fantasy. I'm not, in any way dismissing sci-fi/fantasy novels, but it's important to note that the success of books in these genres depends mostly on plot and character and, as has been demonstrated by authors like Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling, entertaining plot doesn't require quality prose. To put this another way, you can write a satisfying sci-fi/fantasy book with some questionable grammar and clunky prose. And I think most readers won't be upset by a few typos in a $.99 ebook. In short, the successful self-published ebooks are the types of books that can be satisfyingly produced by a single person.

But not all books can be satisfyingly produced by a single person. Nearly all works of non-fiction need a fact-checker who, by definition, can't be the author. And every big old history book, for it to be useful for research, needs someone to index it. And if you're trying to make any kind of serious point, you certainly don't want embarrassing typos in your work and, much like fact-checkers, it is impossible for the author to proofread their own book for typos. And it's not just non-fiction that often needs another set of hands. If you've written a police procedural, you probably want someone to make sure police actually use the procedures you've written. Same thing goes for the dresses in your Regency romance, the guns in your Civil War epic, the knots on the ships in your nautical adventure. Maybe you're a thorough enough researcher to get it all right on your own, but wouldn't you rather be sure? And then there are those typos. And there's a reason why pictures books usually have an author AND an illustrator. And this is before talking about actual-change-your-life literature; books that cannot succeed with flawed grammar and clunky prose. If you read any books that require the work of more than one person, or you buy those books as presents for friends or family or want those books to be around for your kids to read in school, you owe it to yourself to occasionally pay full cover price for a book at an independent bookstore. It's basic enlightened self interest. Does that mean you should feel guilty every time you buy from Amazon? No. What about if you use the library most of the time? No. Waiting until a book comes out in paperback? No. Buying it used? No. That's fine too. All it means is that, if you currently only buy books from Amazon, or only used, or only use the library, once or twice a year, or one or two books, buy from an indie. And I'm not letting you off the hook with the “There isn't an indie store near me,” excuse because pretty much all indie book stores ship and hundreds of them sell ebooks in .EPUB. Just find the closest one to you here and once or twice a year have them ship a book to your door. Or make a pilgrimage. If you haven't been to an actual store in a while it might be fun. Probably make a pretty interesting blog post, too. Or, just order books from my store, Porter Square Books, I mean the link is right there.

This post was motivated by one on Bookriot last week, “Readers Don't Owe Authors Shit,” which wasn't nearly as confrontational as the title suggests. The blogger was right, you don't owe the author a good review or any kind of review for a book, even if the author sent it to you or is your best friend since childhood, or is your mom, and there is nothing wrong with getting a book from the library, or buying it used, or borrowing it from your friend or not tweeting, blogging, or talking about it after you've read it, even if you like it. The only thing I disagreed with is her belief that there's nothing wrong with shopping at Amazon. Factually, there is. But a lot of the other responses, including a long and polite twitter debate I had, missed the point. In a money based economy all industries need money, and if you like what an industry does, you owe it to yourself to spend your money in that industry. Not recklessly, not lavishly, not beyond your means. But enough so that you and everybody else can continue to enjoy what you enjoy. How much money you choose to spend on books and where you choose to spend that money has nothing to do with what you owe authors, publishers, or book stores and everything to do with what you owe yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Great article and great response about what readers owe to themselves. I just posted an article on my blog with a similar sentiment (here's the link if you feel like reading it ). It's not about making anyone feel bad for trying to save money (the economy is too bad for any of that), it's more about making sure everyone realizes the potential consequences of buying everything from Amazon. What anyone does with the information is their business.