Monday, May 09, 2011


The long quote below is from a piece by Dan Agin in the Huffington Post last February.  Dan Agin is Emeritus Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago. His latest book is More Than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk To Our Children. He's also the author of Junk Science: How Politicians, Corporations, and Other Hucksters Betray Us.  He is an expert on autism and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Traditional American publishing is in the process of folding.
From the standpoint of philosophy, everything folds eventually, so what's the big deal?
Well, the fact of folding is usually not as important as the reasons for folding. Looking at reasons, causes, provoking events, often helps us understand how the world works. . . .
After 66 years of watching the American publishing circus and publishing as an "author," my personal views are as follows:
  • Most publishers don't read books, they just display them on shelves in their offices.
  • Most acquiring editors don't read books, they just acquire them and negotiate contracts.
  • Most copy editors don't read books, they use software to locate possible grammar and punctuation problems.
  • Most literary agents don't read books, they just read opening chapters or proposals for books and sell books to editors based on the book's apparent "handle", its "take-away", its "feel-good" score.
  • Most marketing and publicity people in publishing don't read books, they read blurbs and look at book jackets and attach a book to market demographics.
  • Most publishing accountants don't read books, they just add up the profits and losses of the various imprints of a conglomerate.
  • Most booksellers don't read books, they sell books the way most people in publishing acquire books -- as physical objects with "handles."
The consequence of this monstrous list is that in American publishing books have for the most part been sold to the public with a focus on the book jacket, the jacket blurbs, the size of the book, the typeface, the timeliness, the fame of the author -- but hardly ever sold to the public because of the words printed on the pages of the book. . . 
The publishing people who believe this are so wrong.
The hundred year focus on packaging rather than on content is the most important cause of the present crisis in American publishing.
The writer Leo Tolstoy once remarked that every time he dipped his pen in the inkwell on his desk, he left some of his blood in the inkwell.
What the public wants (certainly the literate public) is not the book jacket, or the typeface, or the quality of the paper, or the "feel" of a book -- what the public wants is the blood and guts of the author, the contact of the reader's mind with the author's mind -- and the most efficient vehicle for that contact is now the electronic book, the E-book.
Of course, if you just sell books and don't read them, how would you ever know this?
My “inner circle,” a sort of kitchen cabinet of women my age, education, and -- in three cases -- more or less my genes (cousins), reads books and has read since they first learned how in the late 1940’s.  They read all kinds of stuff.  What is above is VERY hard for them to grasp, but they feel the change.  I keep trying to explain what has been dark, behind the scenes.
Another way to describe it is to say that publishing, which is the subsidizing and distributing of print in the form of books, was once guided by the informed editors who presumably were people of good taste and judgment, able to recognize good writing.  Recently, since good writing is subjective and requires education of some kind, publishing has given up on “good writing” as the governing principle and gone to “high sales figures” which often key to “the lowest common denominator” in the public.  The quality and kind of books published now is not even determined by general polling of bookstore sales (like the New York Times best-seller list) though such surveys have come to be how we make political decisions (with results to show for it).  
The decision about what to publish is now dependent on those who do the marketing:  what some salesman thinks will sell.  Roughly as helpful as the algorithm Netflix uses to recommend movies for your queue.  Even though publishing is now able to print via “print-on-demand” systems, so that they need not justify the cost of a run of thousands of copies of a book at one time, the saleman still thinks in terms of high sales because one “best seller” is much easier to promote than an array of books, particularly those of various types and subjects.
In the past authors didn’t always make a lot of money, but at least there was some reputation involved.  Now the amount of money IS the reputation.  When the world is commodified, the quants own everything.  What they do has greatly distorted the world of the author.  Ironically, at the same time that they care only for books with high sales regardless of content, one of their sales strategies has been to move the focus to the author, the same way that movies are financed by touting who is in them.  
Publishers have not hesitated to falsify, intensify, inflate, and skew what the author created -- all in the name of sales.  The push-back against this, the cry for false “transparency” in the name of “truth,” then spawns another level of derived writing that proclaims that IT is true. Even academics who should know better get caught up in argument over categories and criteria, distorted by the fact that they themselves are victims of the same kind of commodification.  Education is now “sold” on the basis of the economic viability of graduates and the excitement professors generate in the interest of fund-raising.
What supports and masks this deterioration is a century of in-good-faith reading by people who love books, both as objects and as containers of story and idea.  What jerks the “covers” (whether paper or hardback) off the marketing illusion is the escape of print into cyberspace and, even more radically, the escape of the actual stories and ideas into a host of media, even back to the original human storyteller, though mediated by image.  The most complex scientific molecular reactions can now be conveyed by “cartoons” that illustrate interactions otherwise only describable by mathematics.  

The last barrier, the ability to comfortably read in bed, has been removed by eReaders.  I am interested that my kitchen cabinet, now with aging eyes, has discovered audible books for car trips and while doing small tasks.   It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to understand all this.

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