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.


  1. Your thoughtful insights about the demise of the publishing industry and potential destruction of literary culture as we know by Amazon is but one part of greater problem facing the world's economy: How do we make sure that everyone can benefit from the information economy that seems to be reinventing world's economy on a measure unseen since the introduction of industrial processes in England over 200 years ago?

    The creative economy was the first casualty of the information economy. Music was hit first with music file sharing websites like Napster and its iterations, as were home video stores and the movie theater industry by Netflix and its progeny (though I'm not sad to see Blockbuster fall), as well as brick and mortar bookstores with rise of Amazon. However, as we enter the middle part of the second decade of the 21st century, few industries seem immune to the high-tech innovations of the new economic paradigm. 3D printers are poised to ultimately destroy manufacturing; online professional services like legal zoom will destroy many jobs in the legal field; online education is reinventing higher education while lowering academic standards at the same time; and the information economy is even attacking primary and secondary education as new education software powered by complex algorthims can even assess writing in a way that's far quicker and more consistent than a human can. From self driving cars replacing cabbies, to self checkout lines at the grocery stores, there are very few professions out there that aren't being affected by the high-tech revolution. The question now is this: With so many jobs being eliminated or devalued by the high-tech revolution, will there be enough jobs in the future for a growing global population? And if not, what are the social, economic, and political implications of having massive numbers of people without jobs or a future?

    Conservative economists will simply point to 20th century economist, Joseph Schumpeter and his idea of creative destruction, for an answer to these questions, but I'm not sold. The last time we had a transformation this drastic was during industrialization. During that time, the tradesmen's jobs were largely destroyed by industrialization, thus there are very few cobblers, coopers, wheelwrights, millers, and blacksmiths today. However, those jobs were immediately replaced by jobs in factories, which ultimately strengthened the labor movement and built the modern middle class. I'm not sure that's happening so much today and I'm not sure global policymakers are regulating the new economy in a way in which everyone can benefit. If you can't code, you really can't participate in a lot of what is going on in the information economy. My fear is that this transformation is going to happen largely without government regulation and action. But unless world governments want massive numbers of unemployed or underemployed people on their welfare doles, thus creating a situation for serious social and political unrest, they need to figure out a way to shield large numbers of people from the negative externalities of the information economy. One minor solution would be to mandate that corporations pay you for mining your personal data while online; right now, they do this for free. Changing the global economy so everyone can benefit can be done and, if it is not, the year 2025 might make 1848 look like a minor uprising. Then we'd have some real "creative destruction" happening.

    1. What's interesting to me about technology replacing human workers in all industries is originally the idea was seen as a way for humans to live comfortably without working at all. The robots would take care of most things, and people would be able to live lives of leisure. Of course, with capitalism the drive is profits for owners and shareholders and so, rather than a system being set up where humans could work less and still live well, the new surplus value created by technology just went to the top and workers had to find new employment. Sometimes technology created new jobs, sometimes it didn't.

      I do think we are starting to see some possible alternatives though. I've written about this early, but small-scale, local-centered production, like what's driving the craft beer industry now, might be a potential model that leverages technology and globalization while providing jobs and industry. For Amazon specifically, it is less about the technology itself, for online bookselling or even ebookselling, concerns for piracy included, doesn't really threaten publishing. The problem is that Amazon sells books for less than they cost to produce and distribute. Their book prices are artificially low, subsidized by their other industries and Wall Street that keeps pushing the price of their stocks up and up, regardless of the general lack of profits. Sure the rise of online shopping gave Amazon the opportunity, but online shopping didn't dictate they use predatory pricing to dominate the market. That was their business decision.

      Thanks for reading, commenting, and adding a historical perspective. Maybe you'll write a book on the differences between the industrial revolution & the internet revolution in terms of socio-economics?

  2. Unfortunately, the Internet has killed my attention span, thus, I don't the patience to write a book.