Thursday, March 4, 2010

Book It

Here's one of those "stop what you're doing and read this" articles. Jason Epstein, the author, has been around book publishing since the early 1950s; between the article and the author blurb, he takes or is given credit for things ranging from the invention of trade paperbacks to the much-loved Reader's Catalogue of the 1980s.

But you can read "newspapers" into this nearly everywhere it says "books." Honestly, in some places you can read "department stores."

Epstein, in two printed pages in the New York Review, manages to both support the view of unstoppable revolutionary change caused by digitization -- which we in newspapers usually call "the Internet," but his is a better word -- and be skeptical of the more high-falutin' claims for it.

On the one hand, "it is no wonder that publishers with one foot in the crumbling past and the other seeking solid ground in an uncertain future hesitate to seize the opportunity that digitization offers... New technologies, however, do not await permission. They are ... as nonnegotiable as earthquakes.... The resistance today by publishers to the onrushing digital future [arises] from the understandable fear of their own obsolescence and the complexity of the digital transformation that awaits them, one in which most of their traditional infrastructure and perhaps they too will be redundant."

And, "digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into the air and only the ultimate filter -- the human inability to read what is unreadable -- will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats's nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary's haikus."

But from this, Epstein adds, "readers will be guided by the imprints of reputable publishers, distinguishable within a worldwide, multilingual directory ... [titles] will be evaluated by competent critics and downloaded directly from author or publisher to end user while software distributes the purchase price appropriately. ... With inventory expense, shipping and returns eliminated, readers will pay less, authors will earn more, and book publishers, rid of their otiose infrastructure, will survive and may prosper."

But no Jeff Jarvis is he, dismissing the "utopian fantasy that in the digital future content will be free of charge and authors will not have to eat.... Newborn revolutions often encourage utopian fantasies until the exigencies of human nature reassert themselves." (Gosh, is he a secret reader of TTPB?) He has no belief in "the assumption of e-book maximalists that authors who spend months and years at their desks will not demand physical copies as evidence of their labors and hope for posterity."

His article also discusses file-sharing, the fragility of digital content, and the abuses possible from it -- "Digitization will amplify our better nature but also its diabolic opposite." He ventures into business models and sees somewhat what is happening in newspapers in terms of the specialization of functions vs. a vertically integrated newspaper company: "The cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal, requiring only the upkeep of the editorial group and its immediate support services... Small publishers already rely as needed upon such external services as business management, legal, accounting, design, copyediting, publicity, and so on." A large part of the Crisis of Copyediting is that newspaper copy editors see themselves as key parts of the editorial group, whereas others (in newsrooms and out) see theirs as simply a production job (therefore outsourceable) as opposed to a direction-setting creative role. Well, that fight's been going on since I first showed up in a newsroom in 1975, and doubtless before.

I'm sure all this is derivative, but rarely have I seen it said so well, so concretely, so succinctly, and without taking sides for "the way it was" or "the way it ideally should be." But even with this, a note creeps into the essay, the same note one hears from so many journalists who were with newspapers in the 1970s and 1980s, and now long for a digitalized future in part out of their disgust at how the counting house subverted their ideas of nobility:

"From the beginning of my career I have been obsessed with the preservation and distribution of backlist -- the previously published books, still in print, that are the indispensible component of a publisher's stability and in the aggregate the repository of civilizations... By the mid-Eighties I had become aware of the serious erosion of publishers' backlists as shoals of slow-moving but still viable titles were dropped every month.... This demographic shift turned the book business upside down as retailers, unable to stock deep backlist, now demanded high turnover, often of ephemeral titles."

This he blames on tax law changes and the era of Walden and B. Dalton, with their vest-pocket stores, replacing the lower-rent independent downtown bookstore that stored loads of back titles up on the second floor. The digital world, he foresees, will turn this around by eliminating the need to physically stock backlisted books -- you can either read them electronically, or have them printed and bound on request at a store. (For backlist as an economic mainstay, read "classified" in newspapers. For tax law changes, read rulings against department stores and manufacturers being able to jointly set exclusivity on advertised pricing.)

But ultimately, the mall bookstores stocked those books because that's what people wanted to buy -- and the independent bookstores didn't close just because they were downtown, but because people weren't certain they could find what they wanted there, whereas they figured B. Dalton would have it precisely because it was ephemeral. (Kathleen Woodiwiss, anyone?) It misses that in most locations big enough to have a mall, the Waldenbooks succeeded because it was better than the local bookstore -- assuming there even was one, or more than one. It doesn't mention how Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild were simply the Amazons of their day and provided a stable income to publishers.

It harks back to a golden age when one could work in the business of ideas without having to be too troubled by the need to sell, sell, sell every day. That era didn't just end because of rules on inventory. As the cost of printing came down with the end of hot type and its need for huge machines and engravings, more and more could be published. As people had more choices for entertainment -- which is what reading usually is -- many of them chose to spend their time reading Dog Fancy World instead of Time. Nothing wrong with Time, but only so many hours in a day; when there was no Dog Fancy World, Time would fill the ... time. The cultural subsidy of the middlebrow caused by people's only being able to pick from Column A or Column B was ending.

Now, with the cost of printing effectively zero -- and thus more and more choices available -- Epstein's belief that readers will be guided by the imprints of reliable publishers seems a pious hope. Many readers believe Matt Drudge is a more reliable publisher or editor of news than the New York Times. Others believe the same of Arianna Huffington.

Near the end, he writes: "E-books will be a significant factor in this uncertain future, but actual books printed and bound will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom." One could hope for a similar role for newspapers, even with the different economics; but then one would be written off as standing against the hurricane, particularly by those who feel that newspapers irretrievably lost their souls when Gannett sold Wall Street on quarter after quarter of higher earnings instead of quarter after quarter of more journalism.


Wayne Countryman said...

Thank you for pointing out the Epstein article, David, and for your insights on and beyond it.

Perry Gaskill said...

Thanks for passing it along; there are other interesting nuggets one can pull from the Epstein piece:

"The nihilism—the casual contempt for texts—implicit in this ugly fantasy is nevertheless disturbing as evidence of cultural impoverishment..."

It can be argued that some of the contempt is not casual at all. That, in fact, there are factions who see disruption as a means to advance an agenda and replace one hegemony with another. Clay Shirky, among others, points out that though Google, for example, provides a means of keyword search on topics, there currently exists no trust algorithm to gauge the validity of a source. Therefore, I'm not so sure Epstein is just indulging in pious hope in assuming readers will value the reliability of publishers.

Epstein also has valid concerns about backlists and, at least it would seem to me, this reaches beyond just publishing into the realm of technology itself; the current nature of digital records is iffy in terms of how they can be permanently archived. There has been a lot of discussion among IT people about this and, so far, no real solution. The archival problem also raises an interesting dilemma:

One of the things which hasn't gotten much buzz lately but which has been around for almost 40 years is Project Gutenberg. And during that time PG has, by necessity, adopted digital formats to be compatible with as broad a range of reader computers as possible. What this means is that although the survivability of each public domain work is enhanced, it also means each work is easy to copy and pass around.

So you have this situation where a Kindle can provide at least some means of providing compensation for a writer spending years in a garret typing away, but there's no easy way to insure the survivability of the writer's work if Amazon decides to move to a newer version of the Kindle, for example.