Ewan Morrison recently published a piece in the Guardian asking — and answering — if books are dead and whether authors can survive. It’s worth looking at because it proves an unwelcome point: that even well-educated and highly regarded writers sometimes fail to do their homework.
Morrison’s piece is filled with factual errors (Richard Sarnoff is not the CEO of Bertelsmann), some of which are market-distorting (Barnes & Noble does not sell more e-books than print books; B&N sells more e-books than print in its online store). The discussion of the long-tail phenomenon repeats the economic commonplaces, which are wrong (best-selling books have never sold more copies than they do today). These are just some of the things I caught; you may feel invited to assume that there are even more loose stones beneath this shaky edifice, but it’s rarely worth digging to the bottom of a dung heap.
Yet I cannot escape the feeling that Morrison speaks for many people in all areas of publishing. Eschatology is the defining meme of this industry wherever it is practiced. Gloom and doom, gloom and doom: it is the prevailing narrative, and it has been at least since I got into this business 30 years ago. Thirty years ago the culprit was television, and McLuhan (who wrote books) was viewed as the prophet of doom. I recall the marketing director at Rutgers University Press, my first employer, telling me that “libraries are on their way out” and reading in Publishers Weekly about the death of the midlist author. Morrison, amusingly, has not heard that the midlist author is already dead and determinedly shoots this poor fellow once again. Today it’s the Internet or the shrinkage of attention spans or a poor educational system or the price of eggs. It’s always something.
What is it about publishing and publishers that make them so resistant to the medicinal benefits of optimism?
Of course, if you like movies that end with an apocalyptic bang or the triumph of the vampires, there are plenty of squeaky doors and drafty, unlit attics to keep you on the edge of your seat:
- Library funding is in secular decline. The impact on academic publishers is clear and significant
- Various uses of digital technology alter the cost structure of publishing, but incumbent publishers are not always in a position to benefit from it (the disruptive technology challenge)
- The open access and “information wants to be free” movements undermine marketing programs and pricing even as they add new costs for monitoring usage after the sale has been consummated and may lead to litigation expenses
- The competition from other media shrinks the amount of time available for the consumption of text
- For a variety of reasons (demography, economics), established markets are growing slowly, putting pressure to make investments in faraway lands with different business and political cultures
- Large technology firms (Google, Amazon, Apple) have taken control of the agenda and have shown little curiosity about (and some contempt for) the practices of investing in content
- For some unfathomable reason, some people do not view copyright as benignly as most publishers would like them to
I guess it’s about time to sing “The Eve of Destruction.” You can find many versions of it, including Barry McGuire’s classic, on YouTube.
If you don’t know the song, imagine yourself back in 1965, a period of great social and political turbulence. Then flash forward to a PBS fundraiser, which rounds up geriatric Baby Boomer entertainers (Jay Black, Martha Reeves, Roger McGuinn, Eric Burdon, Michelle Phillips), and packages them with a dollop of nostalgia and professional back-up bands. Operators are awaiting your call. On the episode where Barry McGuire appears, the host, John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin’ Spoonful, introduces the performer and song by intoning solemnly that the song is as relevant today as it was way back in the Sixties. It is a long eve that lasts for 50 years. And it will be with us for many more, as PBS continues to rebroadcast this program
While publishers strum their guitars and sing the same songs that they have been singing for as long as there have been publishers, perhaps we may find some solace in the bare facts of the case. The demands for information and analysis have never been greater. The consumption of text (increasingly on screens) has never been greater. The globalizing economy opens up new markets, especially for English-language publishers. The explosion in the amount of information and media types puts greater emphasis on reliable guideposts. The alleged loss of attention is immediately offset by anyone who attends law school, studies for a test, or works through the regulatory thicket to open up a small coffee shop. The other media types that potentially compete with publishing are gradually being integrated into new publications. This list can go on for as long as anyone spends a moment to think about it.
Much as I get a kick watching McGuire (he sounds so authentic), the publishing industry needs a new anthem. No, not “Paperback Writer,” but something that captures the spirit of an industry that is setting out to explore the frontiers of a knowledge economy. This industry is a growth industry, if only its practitioners would admit it. I hope that readers will provide some candidates for an anthem in the “Comments” section.
My own nominee is Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”:
I stand up next to a mountain
Cut it down with the edge of my hand.