Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What Is at Stake?

Reading opinions about the book industry on the Internet is not usually good for my blood pressure. The biggest problem with those opinions is they tend to lack two crucial facts about the book industry before being expressed: the human cost of a well-edited book is fairly high and books are sold to retailers and wholesalers at a discount based on their suggested retail price rather than on a net unit price like nearly everything else. (I've talked about this) (Nobody seems to mind that the exact same bag of Doritos costs more at the convenience store than the grocery store, but well...) Without those two facts it is easy to misunderstand the indie argument against Amazon and hard to see how Amazon's low (read “predatory”) prices are bad for books, and thus, ultimately, for readers.

I'm not going to rehash that argument again, because I think it and the debate in general on the health of publishing industry is missing a pretty important answer to a pretty important question: what is at stake? I've touched on this a little bit (What Readers Owe Themselves) and I know I've argued here, there, and everywhere, about the value of indie bookstores, but I don't think I've ever dug deep to the ultimate stakes in reading, to what, ultimately we will lose if Amazon is allowed to (by both government and consumers) become an absolute monopoly in bookselling. And I think the heart of the “cheap books must be good,” belief and its various interpretations and mitigations, is how people answer or misunderstand the answers to this question. So besides bookstores and the sales they generate, what do we lose if there are no physical bookstores? (Excluding, of course, everything that is great about physical bookstores, which, for some reason, a lot of readers don't buy into.)

I'm going to break my answer into three categories; What We Won't Lose, What We Might Lose, and What We Will Lose if Amazon ends up with a total monopoly in bookselling. From that I hope you (though if you're reading this odds are you're probably already with me) will decide to spend at least some of your book money in indie bookstores, to protect what is at stake.

Cheap & quality? Fine. I'll just have GOD CHANGE THE FUCKING RULES!
What We Won't Lose
No matter what publication and distribution structures survive or don't, writers will write books and readers will read them. The media may change, the processes may change, the delivery method may change, but, even if what I believe is the worst possible outcome happens, there will be books and they will be read. Furthermore, as they have throughout history, brilliant, daring, original voices will be heard, maybe not in their lifetime and with an even lower likelihood of any kind of commercial success (Yes, even lower than now.), but they will write and a few of them (Again, even fewer than now) will find readers.

What We Might Lose
One of my favorite things about working in the bookstore is watching total strangers having conversations about some of the most important questions we can ask as human beings, because a random interaction through books lead them to discover they both read and loved a specific work. I'm also a pretty big fan of people vouching for a trashy beach read someone else is holding, declaring they were underwhelmed by a bestseller, offering their own recommendation after overhearing someone talking with a bookseller, or really any kind of interaction between strangers. We filter so much of our lives already (with a fair amount of good reasons) that this fundamental skill of society isn't practiced all that much. Bookstores are one of the places it is, but I don't think this kind of interaction is inherently tied to retail bookselling. This kind of interaction could happen in libraries (not that their funding is particularly strong) and there is a chance online social media sites like Goodreads, LibraryThing, Facebook, and whatever else gets invented next, could find a way to create this kind of randomness. But you have it in bookstores now, and given that it's impossible to show an ROI on “Providing a space for people to learn and practice empathy and community building through the unscripted, unstructured, spontaneous interactions of people who, really, when it comes down to it, don't particularly give a shit about each other,” there's a chance it will disappear if bookstores do.

Much like the random community, author events aren't inherently tied to a retail bookstore environment. Libraries do some already and I actually think publishers should try to send authors into more non-bookstore venues like bars, coffee shops, farmers markets, as opening acts for concerts, etc., anyway. I also don't think we've really explored the potential for online events. The challenge is that, most author events don't make money. For a bookstore, the ones that don't are made up for by general book sales and more successful events, and are part of the overall business model, whereas if a bar hosts a few readings and nobody buys any books and nobody buys any beer, that bar is never going to do another reading. We might find alternatives to the book store reading (honestly, I think book stores should explore alternatives to the book store reading) but, even if we do, odds are, we'll have even fewer events in the world than we do now. I should also argue that author events, in whatever form, are more than just a chance to get your book signed; they are the chance to participate in culture. The actual creation and appreciation of why we're humans and not gorillas. They are one of the very few venues where people who are not artists can participate in the creation of meaning and significance. To get a little sappy, author events can be profoundly inspiring. Like books, they can change your life. And they might find a way even if bookstores do not.

Technically, otherwise, I am a gorilla.
What We Will Lose
I don't see how publishers as we know them could survive. Eventually Amazon would subsume them. The first thing we would lose with publishers is editing. As I've said before, there are types of books that can get by with minimal editing (Shit, some books can sell a gagillion copies without any evidence of being edited whatsoever.) and there are types of books that need an editor, need an extra mind struggling over them to reach their potential. And, I believe we're already seeing the effects of a reduced investment in editing. I've read a number of good books that could have been great books if the publishers had invested in another year of editing. If Amazon reaches its goal of absolute domination, very, very, very few books will reach their potential.

The thing about editing is it has a terrible ROI. A great book will sell as well as a good book. Frankly, the actual quality of the book generally has very little impact on the way it sells. Which brings me to a less discusses role publishers play in society. They sustain themselves commercially and produce works of quality. They are one of the very few cultural businesses. Not only do they produce works of culture and promote works of culture, they inject the fact of culture into our economy. Publishers argue that art, literature, culture, are aspects of society worth spending our money on. It's not just that publishers produce and distribute specific articles of culture, but that they argue for the fact of culture in our commerce. Sure, most publishing is commercial, but MOST is very different from ALL. Furthermore publishers are able to use those barely edited gagillion copy selling dollops of fleeting entertainment to subsidize the art that will eventually define our world and educate people living in it. Without publishers, though plenty of books will reach the public, even less little literature will. (Yes, even less than now.)

Nothing? That's the most important thing to me.
So what is at stake? Well, if you're willing to read just anything that happens to end up in front of your eyes, aren't really concerned whether or not good writers can make a living by their writing or at the very least, can meaningfully augment their lifestyles with writing income, don't feel a responsibility to occasionally help support the reading priorities of others, and don't particularly care how well a book is written, whether or not it has the capacity to change you or the world you live and/or is committed to the idea that writing and reading are profoundly human acts, central both to our understanding of the world and our happiness while living in it as well as being about the most complete and satisfying form of entertainment you can get your hands, then nothing is at stake. Absolutely nothing. No matter what happens, you will get what you want.

For everybody else, everything from the convenience of last minute birthday presents to the strength of American literary culture is at stake. Even if you're not sold on the value of physical bookstores in and of themselves, and even if you believe we'll find a way to continue some of the important acts of bookstores, there just won't be enough money in publishing for the creation, promotion, and distribution of art. In a lot of ways, this idea is similar to the “debate” around human driven climate change. Sure, you can take the chance that we are not driving climate change and the chance that a scientific breakthrough will solve the problems of climate change, but if you're wrong civilization as we know it could end. With books, you can take the chance that Amazon will sustain the most important parts of publishing and selling books, that intrepid entrepreneurs will find ways to fill the gaps created by the demise of bookstores, and that new technology will allow great literature to reach readers, or, you could pay an extra few bucks every now and then to keep those things alive. Seems like no decision at all.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Another Post About Taipei

Near the end of her brilliant, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan introduces the idea of “word casings.” Word casings are “words that no longer had meaning outside quotation marks. English was full of these empty words--'friend' and 'real' and 'story' and 'change'--words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks.” The quotation marks in words casings, at least as I interpret them, act as an indication that the enclosed word is beyond meaningful definition and that any usage of the word is a self-conscious application of an ersatz version of what was once an accepted and powerful idea. So the word casing “love” would mean something along the lines of: a feeling that matches enough of the characteristics of what people used to consider love, knowing that there is no stable meaning of love and the feeling I am describing to you as “love” may be totally different from what you would describe as “love.” Word casings are a potential natural progression of post-modernism that some would see as liberating and others as cynical.

Tao Lin ends his new novel Taipei with a word casing. After a drug experience makes him certain he has died, the protagonist Paul “heard himself say that he felt 'grateful to be alive.'” The passivity of the moment is breathtaking. Paul still didn't necessarily feel something but rather “heard himself say” that he felt something, and that something was not an actual feeling per se, but what he suspected had been defined as “'grateful to be alive'” back when we still had faith in the definitions of words like “grateful,” “alive,” and “to be.” Tao Lin's style is based on this profound passivity (more on that soon) but this moment takes it to a strange place. There is a chance that Paul, in his perpetual detachment, in his utter lack of ethical thought, in his drug use/abuse, and in his milieu of cynicism is most honest and meaningful in this moment with this word casing. There is a chance that, at this moment, the quotation marks aren't an avoidance of the effort of definition, aren't a cop out, aren't lazy irony, but are a vital to expression of the character's true self.

I often describe Tao Lin's writing as “autistic.” The actions are there but all of the emotional content has been stripped away from them. Another way to describe Tao Lin's style is as the logical conclusion of Heminway's anti-lyricism. The prose is only a dictation of what is said, done, and thought. It would be journalism, except journalism has at least some kind of commitment to cover statements and actions that are interesting, or, at the very least, relevant to a wide range of people. Lin, however, tends to write about someone like him. Even when not as directly autobiographical as Taipei seems to be, Lin's protagonists tend to be young male Asian-American writers living in New York. It's an unsettling, often unpleasant style. It rejects some of the basic agreements of literature. That said, though I can't say I “like” Tao Lin or “enjoy” reading him, there is something powerful about what he writes. He is doing something dramatic and different and cannot be ignored.

But there's something different about Taipei than his previous prose. Some barrier was broken, maybe with drugs or at least their depiction, and Lin's reportage style lead to some very un-jounalistic, un-Hemingway writing. Along with the basics of motion and the conversation (often painfully awkward), the narrator dictates Paul's thoughts and feelings, some of which are breathtaking and original. A few examples.

The antlered, splashing, water-treading, land animal of his first consciousness would sink to some lower region, in the lake of himself, where he would sometimes descend in sleep and experience its disintegrating particles and furred pieces, brushing past, in dreams, as it disappeared into the patterns of the nearest functioning system.

Paul laid the side of his head on his arms, on the table, and closed his eyes. He didn't feel connected to a traceable series of linked events to a source that had purposefully conveyed him, from elsewhere, into this world. He felt like a digression that had forgotten from what it digressed and was continuing ahead in a kind of confused, choiceless searching. Fran and Daniel returned and ordered enchiladas, nachos. Paul ordered tequila, a salad, waffles with ice cream on top.

On the bus Erin slept with her head on Paul's lap...Paul stared at the lighted signs, most of which were off for the night, attached to almost every building to face oncoming traffic—animated and repeating like GIF files, or constant and glaring as exposed bulbs, from two-square rectangles like tiny wings to long strips like impressive Scrabble words with each square its own word, maybe too much information to convey to drivers—and sleepily though of how technology was no longer the source of wonderment and possibility it had been when, for example, he learned as a child at Epcot Center, Disney's future-themed 'amusement park,' that families of three, plus one robot maid and two robot dogs, would live in self-sustaining, transparent, deep-water spheres by something like 2004 or 2008. At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had, to him, begun to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness. Instead of postponing the nothingness on the other side of death by releasing nanobots into the bloodstream to fix things faster than they deteriorated...--technology seemed more likely to permanently eliminate life by uncontrollably fulfilling its only function: to indiscriminately convert matter, animate or inanimate, into computerized matter, for the purpose of increased converting power and efficiency, until the universe was one computer.

Really, nobody knows why we do what we do. We know the most recent reasons for our most recent actions, but the ultimate source of me typing these words at this moment is the same fundamental mystery of matter from energy or consciousness from matter or thoughts and emotions from consciousness. But we all have an illusion of the answer, an adequate understudy for the ultimate truth, an ersatz basis that allows us to continue doing. Paul is severed from the illusion of knowing what is going on in his life and why it is happening, and the cut itself is so clean, he doesn't even seem to realize it happened. Like everyone else, Paul just keeps moving, just keeps doing, saying, and thinking things, but unlike everyone else, he doesn't have a reason why. Lin has surgically removed it.

Sometimes the result of this surgery is excruciating. It is just agony every time Paul talks to anybody and my awkwardness is embarrassed whenever Paul talks with Erin about their relationship. And there is a lot of him just doing stuff. Just going to parties, just looking at the internet, just eating, just doing. There have been some vigorous, passionate, negative reactions to Taipei, and honestly, I can't blame those readers for hating this book. In some ways, by severing Paul from the basic illusion of human significance, Lin has severed his book from the joy of reading.

But then there are moments like those quoted above where Paul's intellect and imagination just take off. He imagines time. He imagines existence. He takes whatever boring, stupid, meaningless shit is happening around him and, without lying to himself about his value in existence, dresses it in the significance of lyrical metaphor and imagery. “Realizing this was only his concrete history, his trajectory through space-time from birth to death, he briefly imagined being able to click on his trajectory to access his private experience, enlarging the dot of the coordinate by shrinking, or zooming in, until it could be explored like a planet.” There is a process here, something I haven't pinned down, about meaning, that even if we don't enjoy, we should experience.

Literature is the laboratory of human experience. Just like science, literature only gets better if writers try everything, if writers take risks, if writers fail, and, just like science, you don't know who the Newton is until you know who the Newton is. Could it be Tao Lin? We'll only know when enough critics replicate his equation for gravity.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Good & Bad Possibilities of Random Penguin

If you make another Random Penguin Tumblr I will eat your cat.
Though its been coming for a few months the world now officially has a Random Penguin; a publishing company that will be responsible for about 25% of all English language books. (Here's a handy list of countries whose GDP will be smaller than Random Penguin, compiled by the juggernaut of awesome that is Melville House.) The Big Six have become the Big Five and many expect we'll end up with the Big Four soonish. It's hard to blame these companies for merging. The Department of Justice, whose case against now only Apple has slid from dubious to downright embarrassing (though, apparently not embarrassing enough to lose), essentially legislated against any kind of publisher-lead attempts to rein in Amazon's predatory pricing, dramatically limiting publishers' ability to work towards a stable and sustainable market. Ironically, one of the options still open to publishers, because I guess we misplaced those anti-trust laws that helped save the American economy a hundred years ago, is to create an entity with enough market share to be able to push back against Amazon. To put this another way, Amazon can not afford to take down the Buy Button from all of Random Penguin's books, whether or not Random Penguin kow-tows to Amazon's discounts or negotiates the next ebook contract to look like the agency model.

But a lot of questions and concerns remain about Random Penguin (I know that's not the official name, but it's cuter, and it saves me a word every time I write it, all of which I used for this disclaimer). Here's my take on the good and the bad possibilities in this merger. Let's get the happy shit out of the way first.

Says here "Monopoly" is trademarked, so you can't use it in court.

The Good
They'll say a lot about “the publishing of the future,” and other board room jargon, but this merger, first and foremost is about defending publishing from Amazon. It is a couple of private companies realizing the government would not protect them from unfair business practices defending themselves. This merger was designed to create leverage against Amazon and it will. Anything that limits Amazon's power is good for books. Even though very few, if any, other publishers will be able to negotiate terms with Amazon the way Random Penguin will, Random Penguin will open the doors to new types of contracts and new approaches to contracts for everyone. And, they'll be able to say “no.” Other publishers have successfully said “no” in the past, but 25% of English language books saying “no,” has a much different volume.

There's been a kind of awakening in publishing since the demise of Borders. Publishers have always said they value independent bookstores and those in publishing who work directly with us, like our sales reps, generally do their best to demonstrate that value. Yet, for every lofty moment of quotable praise, there was a collection call, a restriction of credit, a short discount. But that's beginning to change. As indies get better at being 21st century bookstores, as the effect of show-rooming is better understood, as we delineate and discover the paths of, um, “discovery,” it becomes clear that indie bookstores influence book sales far more than is reflected in their market share. Sure it's direct show-rooming and social media and author events and the serendipity in the shelves, but it's also relationships with readers who are influential with their friends and family, leading the buy local movement, and guiding and generating coverage of books in local media (e.g. how many more readers picked up The Ocean at the End of the Lane after seeing the little article in the Globe about the line for tickets to our reading with Neil Gaiman? Impossible to know, but whatever that number is, I bet most of those sales didn't end up with us.) In short, publishers have realized indies are a vital, though indirect, force in book sales and publishers are beginning to find ways to support us for that.

A lot of those ways are back room stuff about dating (when we pay) and discounts (how much we pay) that don't effect things customers see, but make our accountants, maybe not happy, but certainly less crabby. If Random Penguin decides to lead this effort to support indies for all those sales they create the momentum for but lose to Amazon (and they said they would), they could help revitalize indie bookselling in America. If Random Penguin is successful with whatever programs it develops, whatever large publishers remain will likely follow suit. Existing stores will expand. Fewer stores will close. More will open. More bookstores is good for publishers, everybody who works in publishing, authors, and readers. Hooray!

I only read the death parts of Death & the Penguin
The Bad
There's a reason why we have anti-trust laws, even though we don't enforce them anymore. Monopolies are bad for consumers and bad for the economy. I mean, imagine if something went really, really wrong with the parent companies, like what happened to Publishers Group West, and, regardless of the state of books, the company responsible for 25% of English language publishing declares bankruptcy. What if they just make a string of really, really bad publishing decisions and end up having to struggle to make ends meet? What if there's another recession? What if they get sued? What if they get swindled? Too much market concentration makes the industry extremely fragile and publishing just became very concentrated.

Furthermore, though we all hope publishers are different, gigantic corporations tend to be really bad at long term thinking. There is absolutely no guarantee Random Penguin will play the indie long game described above. When those quarterly profit margins start to loom, we could hear talk of “efficiency,” or “streamlining,” or “eliminating redundancy,” or maybe even “modernizing,” which will translate to folding imprints, most likely the more vibrant, more interesting, more literary, and thus, less profitable ones, laying off support staff (both of which are likely to happen at some level anyway), switching to freelance editors and squeezing authors and book stores. In short, they might act like EVERY SINGLE OTHER GIGANTIC CORPORATION IN THE WORLD, with the end result being fewer interesting authors getting published, less support for those that do, and probably zero practical financial acknowledgment of the sales efforts made by indie bookstores. We'd end up in slightly worse world with another juggernaut to worry about.

The results are probably going to be somewhere in the middle. To survive, Random Penguin will have to have some kind of conflict with Amazon, but whether that conflict improves publishing in general remains to be seen. I imagine they will make an effort to support indies and I'm also pretty sure they're going to act like a big stupid soulless corporation. But even with the best of intentions that kind of market concentration causes problems. Power, as literature and reality have been telling as long as there have been both, tends to create far more problems than it solves.