Published books are second-guess books. I mean the writer does the best he or she can to achieve a book, and then the second-guess about its quality and goals comes from an editorial committee that knows nothing and cares less about the interests of the writer. Their purpose is to make money and burnish the reputation of the publisher, but also to keep everyone employed and the institution functioning.
Therefore, publishers are opposed to risk. Their idea of safety is sort of like someone walking through a field of land-mines: they are careful not to put their feet on untrodden land where no one has already taken the risk of setting off an explosion, usually because of fear of content: someone saying something that’s offensive or that should otherwise be suppressed, like the directions for making a dirty bomb.
I resist any kind of curating or editing because I do not want to be in the position of Raymond Carver or Thomas Wolfe, who are considered great BUT only because of the second guessing of editors who changed the writing, presumably for the better.
Once the issue of content is settled (which can be dismaying and limiting for writers, often destroying talent and censoring what can be written), there is another issue that has reared its head out of the swamp. Because traditional books are objects for commerce, they are regulated at the points of production, transport, and sales, mediated by agents and salesmen in bookstores. Copyright is a good example of legal mediation of print book content, which is regulated in large part by interstate commerce law and treaties between nations. I was disconcerted in the Eighties when I went to preach in Canada, carrying along some denominational books, but they were impounded at the border because they were American. The law is to protect Canadian writers from American domination.
My book, “Bronze Inside and Out,” is pirated online, evading the University of Calgary Press which is the publisher. They say there’s little they can do about it. We’re not TOO disconcerted because it only strips profit — money is a different, if derived, issue than intellectual rights. Payment by a university press is covertly not about money but rather about credits toward tenure. Since I’m not an academic, I get almost NO money. Since the University needs its Press for credibility and to develop scholars, and therefore keeps the lights on and the receptionist paid, they aren’t too worried. And I am writing books to get information out there that I want people to have, so I’m not too disturbed. I just won’t do it again.
How much should government intervene in publishing? The whole scenario has been changed by the creation of the internet. If the government can’t enforce copyright because national boundaries are erased and bookstores are evaded, if they can’t control the writing or online publishing of anything, if the picture is too big now to censor on the grounds of decency (one man’s tentacle porn is another man’s seafood), and if there is no way to tell how many copies are being observed, downloaded or forwarded, the old pattern of print publishing is forever gone.
Adept computer people tell us that everything that has ever been online or in a database CANNOT be permanently removed. Someone somewhere (or a lot of them) have already downloaded and recorded it all in private locations. I don’t use the Wayback Machine, but other people do.
The ability to monitor the flow of data across the entire world Internet amounts to continuous surveillance of individuals, something we have always blocked government from doing — in theory at least. Phone tapping is one thing, tracking devices are another, and correspondence — even in-house memos — are still another. In a time of terrorism and sabotage, the situation is far beyond anything we can even understand, much less control. Hackers don’t worry about it.
A far more immediate government involvement is being litigated without many readers paying attention. It is about price fixing. Because of the many ways to sell print, it’s possible to undersell, to manipulate pricing. It is rumored that when Amazon tells you the price for a book it factors in how much it thinks you want it by checking your buying history, your location, your level of education, and whatever else some techie thinks should be put into the algorithm. Such an agreement breaks free trade laws. I was disconcerted all over again when the price of a book I wanted — nothing special — was listed as costing hundreds of dollars. A few days later on the library computer, it was bargain basement. But there is no way to bargain.
It is illegal for the government to access records of what books you checked out from the library, but not the records of what you bought online. Of course, probably it’s easy to hack local library records. Library books are often acquired at contract prices that are lower than general prices, because the numbers are great enough to guarantee profit.
There are so few major publishers that if they agree that books should be priced at a certain level, they can make it stick. If the book is a material object, some of the price has to be the cost of production: paper, printing machine, storage, distribution, promotion. Since copies sold are the main way the public tries to understand quality, artificially inflating the price can act to impress the public that it is an increase in quality of content. The New York Times Best Seller list does that. Since more people mean more copies, more sales, more profit, more reputation, urban venues dominate and stigmatize regional books.
One of the accusations concerns the pricing of ebooks on Amazon. The smoking gun is an email (!) proposing punishment for Random House because they didn’t agree to the proposal among the major publishing houses to control the price of ebooks. Pricing ebooks is tricky since they are “virtual”: they have no manufacturing or storage costs, and content is not localized physically, so no transportation. Content becomes more important because everything else is gone. But computer techies don’t do content.
One of the most crucial and lucrative ways to profit from print now is databases, esp. personal addresses used for marketing, either sales or research. This is a secondary profit from doing business online. Most people seem oblivious to this, which means that Facebook is making zillions by accumulating and selling marketing data. This is particularly true of books being sold from used book sources or books focused on specific categories of readers, whether they are children’s picture books or porn.
Mike Shatzkin is from a book sales family and maintains “The Shatzkin Files” which constantly monitors and analyzes changes in book sales. Like so many other forms of commerce, esp. in the arts, there has been major uproar which he claims is finally settling down. From 2010 to the present he has organized the Digital Book World Conference, meant to analyze and get out ahead of change. Now he has stopped doing that because he feels we are either entering a time of consolidation that will be fairly stable or there may be some change coming that is so unexpected no one can predict what will happen.
It might be on the scale of a collapse of civilization as we know it. I don’t think Shatzkin would be surprised and neither would I. The Internet is completely dependent on power supply and delivery networks that are as virtual as any other coding. It takes battalions of techies to keep the systems from corroding over time. Monopolies and abuse by platform companies are as easily developed as international espionage and interference. They interact.
This post comes from reflection on two main sources:
U of Calgary Press
As a bit of added interest, the U of Calgary Press recently issued me a check for my royalties due. It was for $29.97 in Canadian funds. I’m on the US side. My bank called a few hours ago. They charge $30 to process international funds. What should they do about the three cents?? I was laughing too hard to think about it.