Friday, January 15, 2010

TIM BARRUS: A Guest Post About Publishing

The book is the past. No one is saying the book will completely disappear.

But me.

Not only will the book completely disappear (people will not have the resources to make them, store them, carry them around, tote them on flights where weight will be a primary, corporate, airline focus, it already is, and airlines are now charging outrageous amounts for items that take up space much less weigh something even in ounces, no one can afford to PACK the little darlings; print them in companies that themselves are currently going under as their printing profit margins were constructed like the profit margins of the publishers themselves -- no accident there -- where the mass sales of one property were sufficiently profitable to CARRY the rest of the NOT profitable load, construct them from trees, hire union workers to cut down the trees and mill them, replicate the product, truck them -- gasoline/fuel will be managed far more efficiently -- distribute them by distributors in the case of magazines who are, in fact, mafioso fronts, agented by middlemen who may as well be mafioso fronts who will become ephemeral), but the paper and ink monstrosity that is the book cannot possibly continue to suck the vast amounts of energy needed to bring them to a public that is only reading them in declining numbers anyway.

This clinging to the paradigm of the book by the people who love them is a clinging to the past. The past is ALWAYS replaced. The consumer items that will be alloted the above processing will be consumer items that are used and used again repeatedly. Although a few, very, very few people read books a number of times, the number of consumers who do this is so small, it's just not a dynamic figured into the paradigm of who and how many does what with what. Antiquarian book dealers are even willing to now sell books as products in their markets that are still in print. This is important. Because even antiquarian booksellers are reverting to the same paradigm (forced upon them) as publishers and printers where to make a profit (they can't live on what they typically sell as antique first editions because that market is getting very dry, indeed, and collectors are loathe to part with their first editions because the market is totally fucked and they hate losing money) they are having to sell simply old (used) books where the second, third, tenth editions can be found in any junk shop. Acorn Books in SF is now selling frayed paperbacks for a quarter. They can no longer afford to buy high end items like Frank Baum or Jim Morrison who wrote a hundred diaries all at the same time. Jim Morrison was a drug addict but he was no fool.

As cars become four cylinder, electric, hydrogen-powered, battery-powered, the truck has yet to come under the scrutiny that is also coming. The paradigm of the truck on the highway will bite the dust. The train will become a far more economical way to move a product. Books do not move well except in trucks (as newspaper editors know well and there are people who love newspapers, too, but it doesn't MATTER) because of the inordinate amount of packaging that is inherent in keeping glossy book covers glossy. Ditto magazines. My book Genocide was beat up on purpose. Because it fit the milieu but also because a glossy version would have been TWICE as expensive. Going into publishing is no longer a career opportunity for art directors. The LOSERS from art schools go into publishing and publishing has been contracting out art direction for thirty years anyway.

Publishing cannot handle the unions. Publishers can't compete for talent. Today, their payments for art direction is one-third less than it was twenty years ago. Hardly a destination of the future. It doesn't MATTER who loves books. They do not COUNT because they only buy old books. And they pay (as I do) CASH not with a credit card. Publishing is ABOUT credit from the bottom up. People who love books can't AFFORD thirty dollars for a book.

Romantics think it's about the story and they are right. But the platform for telling that story changes or your culture dies.

Publishing is not about books, stories, moving consumer items, culture -- and here's the gig, and NO ONE is GETTING it. Publishing is about CREDIT.

Magazines and books are apples and oranges but only to a point. As editor of Drummer and Mach my most FUNDAMENTAL focus was not on EDITORIAL but was on what the price of paper was going to be in the projected fiscal analysis. Do you think the publisher gave a flying fuck what I printed. He did not CARE (I cared). Our weekly meetings did not take into account editorial issues. I was simply expected to solve them and pay the writers as small a payment as I could squeeze; the FOCUS of the publisher in June was how much was the cost of paper going to be in November. I had to meet with printers and offer estimates. NONE of this was either a romance or a focus whatsoever. The magazines arrived on a semi. I had to hire TEN full-time employees with BENEFITS to unload the truck and prepare the magazines for distributors. It was an assembly line. There were unions. I had to deal with insurance companies, the State of California, labor relations boards, the US Department of Justice, the Postal Service, lawyers, AND Canada. Who can AFFORD this.

I would eventually move from magazines to books. It was NOT that much different.

Every now and then I got to do editorial when I was wrung out and exhausted.

The people who love books simply do NOT understand how tight the thread has become. The fact that they cling doesn't mean anything. If they were a market, it would be one thing, but their numbers do NOT constitute a market. The niche markets are clinging, too. It doesn't matter because the business has reached the point of no return. No pun intended.

Random House
only makes a profit in Canada which they then TAKE from Random House Canada and they then launder it through Germany and reinvest it in the US so it looks like profit in the US or they could NOT GET CREDIT for paper and printing.

It's not about books. It's about bankers and CREDIT. That is the string publishing hangs on.

It can be viewed as either gambling or a ponzi scheme. Take your pick because they are paying Peter to rob Paul and at the top they pay themselves enormous salaries until their business can no longer support (which means their credit has run out) a corporation. They hang on until the day the credit runs out but so does the homeowner who bought a variable-fixed mortgage. They are NO different. The sheriff comes for everyone and the furniture.

They would laugh that some people love books. Because they do not read them. And they do not publish for book lovers either.

But more and more books are being published.


Then, why is this.

Because the paradigm is based on CREDIT. The banks NEED you to owe them money. Until the bottom falls out and it's falling like a rock.

The little book made from paper and trees is doomed even with print on demand.

Remember the scrolls of Alexandria.

Sure, the electric can go. But a fire can burn down a library, too.

Shit happens.

But technology ALWAYS stays ahead of culture because culture is the status quo.

When the status quo is a hierarchal structure and the top is only kept there by credit and the ponzi scheme mechanism, the thing either changes or it dies.

The offset printing press went the way of the monks with feather quills in twenty years. Monks with quills took over a hundred years to be replaced.

It isn't a question of what anyone LIKES or LOVES. I love bananas and look we have no bananas. It is a question of what is going to be RELEVANT just like it was a question of what the paper might cost in November when you have just paid the printer for last June (because he is extending CREDIT) as it quickly becomes July.

No one knows how stories will be told.

And that is the issue. The platform is irrelevant. It comes and goes.

I am SURE there were monks who steadfastly penned books well after Gutenburg. But they do not COUNT. They are irrelevant. What counted was that more people could read.

More people are going to be able to read because that is the trend of technology. I have BEEN to China which is the NEXT market. and books are an item of the educated aristocracy. The vast numbers Tom Friedman talks about do not buy books and there are no books to buy. But there will be.

is correct. No one knows yet what that platform will look like. But we know what it will not look like. It will not look like a Barnes and Noble because the infrastructure isn't there to make a profit BASED ON CREDIT.

Why would you send ten thousand copies of The World is Flatter Than a Pancake to the village of Bo Chi Che Wong when there is no place to put them and the people who can read have all moved to Shanghai. The problems are enormous not the least of which is censorship.

It's far more efficient to censor a search engine.

Or make your own. So what if Google leaves China. The Chinese have their own search engine and it serves as many numbers as does Google. They all just happen to live in China. It is a NUMBERS game. I don't like it. I deplore it. But I know how it works. I have written my last scroll.

That is the future whether anyone likes it or not and whether Greek monks are writing on scrolls or not.

CREDIT is what holds the umbrella up. It is FUNDAMENTAL that most books are bought on credit cards and most bookstores and most publishing companies owe the SAME banks who are in the business of EXTENDING CREDIT. They do not CARE if you make a profit. They CARE that they can extend you credit.

I would be a monk but I am washing my hair that night. Books are the past. The culture can't support the model. It needs an instrument that can hold a thousand books and can be purchased in the village of Bo Chi Che Wong on a credit card.


Art Durkee said...

Only thing I can strongly disagree with here is that books will stay around as art objects, if nothing else. There is in fact a big revival of hand-done printing going on right now; small press, art book design, special editions. It's an artisan's revival, nothing to do with big publishing (which I agree is about economics more than anything else). There is an art to hand-made, hand-printed, hand-bound books that will sustain book design and book-making, as objects of art, in exactly the same way that other artists use "antiquated" technologies to make their art, too. Andrew Wyeth used egg tempera for his paintings, which is a Medieval painting technology rarely used anymore; but Wyeth revived it, and it's alive again.

Books are more than just tools for carrying information—even if, en masse, that's what they are, and that's how the big publishers view them. Books are also beautiful objects in themselves. And for that reason, if no other, there will always be beautiful books around.

Old technologies do not vanish when they still have a purpose, even if those purposes change over time. The history of technology is full of people proclaiming some older tech was dead, only to have it return in an artisanal form, or because it allows people to do things that the newer tech doesn't. I have a collection of vintage analog synthezizers that make sounds the modern digital software synths cannot and do not; so they're still useful. There is a revival of vinyl LPs going, so DJs can use scratch techniques they can't with CDs. And other examples, and so forth, etc.

Lance M. Foster said...

I think we can all agree things have changed. Change is life, life is change.

I can dig what Tim is saying, and what Art is saying. I agree with the short term. Say, the next ten-twenty years. Perhaps. I see the tumult in the publishing world as a reflection as the tumult in the physical world. Haiti is just a taste of things to come for all.

I love books. I also remember forgotten deities. I know how to use an atlatl, and how to make stone arrowhead points, and eat "weeds" and "varmints." We throwbacks will also be here, haunting the gates to the underworld, even if we are the few struggling over scrolls and clay tablets. All empires collapse, and this one is already showing the signs. We carry the old ways.

I am looking at a hundred years from now. There will be some books but not many. Not like we make them now industrial-style. Even the old books (today's books) will have rotted past use in most places. The digital world, if it exists at all, will be in the hands of the very few ultrarich. It will not be a world accessible to the rest of us. IF it exists at all.

So gather your flowers while ye may for the next decade and enjoy all the Kindles and Vooks you can make and afford. Nothing lasts forever. Not even the earth and sky.

Art Durkee said...

Lance, I have a whole shelf of my library devoted to sustainability and "small tech" tools, such as you're talking about. Those skills you're talking about are the very old ones that have endured, for the reasons you say. If we add to them some of the newer ideas we've had, I think it's possible to not only survive the "end of days" but overcome it.

I don't believe in the apocalypse. I believe in apokatastasis.

Lance M. Foster said...

Art, I am not talking about "the end of the world", but "the end of the world as we know it." I am not a conventional doomer ;-)

It' s not about the world "ending" but about change that will be greater than our present system can survive and that will be very ugly before things stabilize again in hundreds of years. It takes too long to write about it. But our challenge is based on the decline of cheap energy (not just for cars, but petroleum for heat, for building new energy structures, for food, etc.) and the unpredictability of climate change (drought, mass migrations and unrest, etc.)

You should check out The Archdruid Report, I think you'd enjoy it. Plenty of things to think about.

Art Durkee said...

Now that I can agree with, Lance. I appreciate the clarification.

Change beyond the recognized is exactly what i think a lot of people fear most. The unknown being scarier than the known, even if the known is horrible. (Which circles back to some of Tim's points.)

One thing I occasionally find myself reminding some friends who are environmentalists about is that it's not about the end of the world: it's about the end of the *human* world. Or the human-dominated world.