Sunday, May 10, 2009

New New Thing, again

Pretty much like everyone else in the publishing sector, I've been ruminating on e-books and it's place in the future of book printing. Needless to say, it's just ruminations since none of us can know the impact of e-books, regardless of the many publishing executives running around these days, patting themselves on the back for being innovative and forward thinking. Recently, I've begun to feel as though the whole industry is sort of like a rehash of presidential election 2008, with everyone saying "CHANGE!" in an optimistic way with sparse thoughtful considerations on what this change will mean.

Many in the tech sector along with marketers (generally marketing people who have published books and top-notch clients who pay them high salaries) are pushing for free or cheaper content. Yet, if the demise of newspapers proves one thing, it's that free content will not make the content more valuable to society. I've done my share interaction on political forums, including many debates in recent years about the fate of newspapers, and one striking element in the debates were the number of people who considered first-hand sources exactly the same as second-hand sources. While established newspapers are not always able to provide first-hand sources for every single written sentence, many journalists and newspapers are dedicated to validating as many claims as possible by checking through the sources and trying to ensure that claims come from first-hand sources. Blogs, on the other hand, are not tied down to such grassroots, laborious efforts. Instead, like the politically biased pundits on what passes for tv news these days, they take primary source news and then rant and rave a little bit. Devaluing primary source information monetarily, have newspapers devalued the service they provide to the various communities?

One can divide publishing financially in multiple ways...but what is clear is that production is not the only cost. There are multiple people who are necessary to publication, and all these people are specialized in what they do and need money in order to survive. I would list at least the following:
1) Authors: receive an advance and a royalty cut
2) Agents: receive a percentage of advance
3) Editors: receive a salary for acquiring books and for shaping the book
4) Marketers/Publicists/Sales people: receive a salary for positioning a book in media and within the market place
5) Production/Design: a book needs an interior design as well as a cover that highlights the contents of the book with a visual as striking as the book
6) Financial/Permissions/contracts people: keeps all financial operations going on a regular basis

Say all content was made free and books were kept alive through advertising...what then? How many advertisers are willing to support a new emerging author whose first volume of short-stories would be read by a extremely tiny number of Americans, roughly somewhere about 1,500 to 5,000? How many advertisers would put a flash banner on a collection of poems by an experimental poet whose audience ranges from 400 to 1,500? Would the survival of publishing houses be at the hands of advertisers? Would we all be providing content on par with a formulaic Hollywood movie, one that is guaranteed to draw millions of people?

Outside of business executives and marketing/advertising gurus (technically speaking, marketing and advertising gurus are in the same category of "business" in bookstores despite marketing and advertising gurus somehow labeling themselves as "creatives" these days), the writer willing to give up an advance and royalty are far and between. While there are writers who have finally established themselves materially by means of different academic positions cobbled together with fellowships, there are also many writers who struggle financially. Sure, what they are writing is "intellectual property" but why should their intellectual property be given away for free when many writers need the money? Isn't their writing worth $15 (paperback price...about the same amount as buying one pizza pie) or $24.95 (cloth price...about the price tag of a t-shirt at The Gap)?

We live in an odd world where material goods are priced higher and higher and intellectual goods are worth not even a cent. I remember half a decade ago discussing with a friend in the industry the price of art books, roughly in the range of $40 to $80 (or higher for the highest production art books). For those $80, the art book is in competition with blouses, dresses, a dinner at a fancy restaurant, an expensive bottle of wine, a moderately priced pair of shoes....yet, so many middle-classed and affluent Americans prove time and again that they would rather have clothes over an art book.

What then is the book industry to do? Is it a question of ebooks taking over? I don't think it's as simple as that. In my opinion, for what it's worth, the real problem does not lie with the format of the book as much as the devaluing of content. We live in an age where music explodes because the iPod is marketed properly. Don't get me wrong....I like music. And I liked my iPod until the battery died. But somehow, music seems to be intrinsically different than books.

For instance, music is a short-term commitment of minutes a day. A book is like a long marriage. It's settling into the content. In an age when people consider articles in newspapers dated and too difficult (yes, I know people who consider the New York Times difficult...and from looking up newspaper subscription and viewer rates, those seem to be the majority of Americans rather than the minority), where are the people who will consider the book worth their time, be it a e-book or printed on paper?

As you can see from my paragraphs above, I am talking about a specific kind of book: perhaps something like Greenblatt's Shakespeare in the World, W.G. Sebald's The Emigrants, or Paul Muldoon's Hay: a literary book which always has a limited audience. Is the audience for those books shrinking?

I suppose Murakami and the marketing around that provides one answer: make an author the ultimate cool. But somehow, I cringe at that. Yes, I like Allen Ginsberg but do I think that he's as good a poet as Paul Celan. No. And it's so much easier to market Ginsberg than Celan. In a world where books (in any format) are competing against the internet, movies, cable tv, tv, and music, will there be money for both Ginsberg and Celan?

I have no answers, just random thoughts on this topic which could or could not change much.

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