Monday, September 05, 2011

Labor's Days or, Are Books Dead and Can Authors Survive?

James Baldwin
As I was trying to winnow down the many things I wanted to write about for today, Labor Day, I realized that I could return to something I'd touched upon before, which was to explore the fate of writing as a career in the face of the economic, political, technological, and cultural changes currently underway. After starting a few drafts of what I wanted to say, I thought to myself, this sounds so dreary and such an awful way to start off the week, especially given the recent gloomy news about no new net jobs being created last month; the strong US and European consensus around policies that will only exacerbate the ongoing economic stagnation and unemployment crisis; and the looming "jobs speech" spectacle involving the President we'll see later this week. As a result I told myself that I'd instead post some pro-labor videos, links and so forth.

But in cleaning up some of my bookmarks, I came across one from a few days ago that made me think today would be a very good day to broach an aspect of the larger topic I'd explored in my review of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. One of the main threads in Lanier's book concerns the fate of all industries touched by digitization and, by extension, the fate of careers linked to those industries.  I won't rehearse my reading of Lanier's important tome except to say that I increasingly see what he discusses, and in some cases decries, coming to pass.

To give one example, I think of his concern about the widespread ceding of personal expression to more automated and systematized forms of commentary, and I consider all the bloggers I used to read regularly and would love to continue following, who have ditched even periodic, personalized posts--about all sorts of things--for Facebook and now Google+ entries, Twitter quips, Tumblr reposts, and the like. (I belog to all these services, though I really only frequently post on Twitter.) Many of these linked commentaries offer glimmers of the originality the bloggers once displayed on their own pages, but they are often severely boiled down versions of what they once posted. What they gain in time, and perhaps in readership, we lose in terms of the former depth and richness of their voices. I personally want to hear what they have to say, at some length, rather than just seeing links and "Likes" and short, witty responses, but I know I'm in the minority on this.

Julia Álvarez
Perhaps the larger and most pressing concern of Lanier's book is how digitization is leading to a hollowing out of the middle classes by technoogically and structurally destroying a series of industries. This sounds alarmist, but as he shows, it is occurring no matter how much we might want to deny it.  In considering his arguments, I have been mulling the funding and thus existential crisis the United States Postal Service, a necessary and public good, whatever its flaws, now faces because of the increasing use of digital mail services, from emails to billing.  The Post Office doesn't register in Lanier's book, but its technological challenge underlines and connects to something everyone should be thinking about and trying to address. Last month, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as part of a debate on the "End of Books?", writer and critic Ewan Morrison took up this particular thread of Lanier's when he delivered his bracing talk entitled "Are Books Dead, and Can Authors Survive?" and his conclusions, particularly for labor and "writing" as a profession, were quite serious.

I'll recap his talk below, which appeared in abridged form in the Guardian, but first let me say that despite his title Morrison (nor Lanier) is not arguing that "books" in any and all forms are dead; as the swift transition to and rise in publication of e-books shows, the book as a concept, as an artifact, even if only digital and virtual, as a commodity, is not going to disappear. People are still reading, people are still writing, and people will continue to acquire books, for pay or for free, for the foreseeable future.  The likelihood of those dystopias where books are burnt (Fahrenheit 411) or banished (Brave New World) seems increasingly unlikely.  (Though, I will say, and elaborate in a subsequent post, if we vest everything in technologies that require electricity, what happens if the lights go off?) Concerning "cloud" books and technological control, as Amazon now wields it, Lanier has posed some important questions that Morrison doesn't raise at all, among them: who really owns--and has complete access to--not just the rights or content, but what persists of the material aspects--the text itself, in whatever form--of digital works? For, as Amazon has already displayed, it can arbitrarily remove (and thus effectively ban the sales of) books from its site and e-readers at will, but shut down the possibility of lending them out.  You buy the "book," but...who owns it, really?  I'll also note that Morrison does not press the larger argument about contemporary late capitalism and its discontents, the endless corporate push for commoditization and monopolization, and the collusion of the governments and politicians it buys (and owns) to write laws that benefit these "persons," as the US Supreme Court again affirmed they were in their Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling last year.

The common issue that concerns both Lanier and Morrison is whether the economic and cultural ecology developed over the last 100 years with publishing, and in particular literary publishing, is sustainable in light of digitization. Morrison begins his comments by stating that

Yes, absolutely, within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books. But more importantly, ebooks and e-publishing will mean the end of "the writer" as a profession. Ebooks, in the future, will be written by first-timers, by teams, by speciality subject enthusiasts and by those who were already established in the era of the paper book. The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

Gertrude Stein
As grave as that sounds, his argument unfolds like this: over the last 100 years, a fairly substantial number of writers in the United States, the UK, Canada, and other developed countries could live off writing as a career. Many could live off advances, though increasingly fewer over the last 15 years have been able to do so; they could live off freelance gigs; they could live off jobs in and around the publishing industry that were buoyed by it and related and contiguous fields (journalism, bookselling, etc.).  Perhaps the heyday was the period from the 1950s through the early 1990s, and this occurred despite various global and local economic shocks, conglomeration, the shifts in distribution and bookselling. In other words, a vibrant if ever-shifting publishing industry in the West ensured that many authors at least made something off their work.  Yet as e-books gain ground, however, publishers make less money, so advances have begun to fall and publishing as an industry shrinks.  Morrison notes the moment in 2009 when British publishers, already suffering from weak sales, started cutting author advances by as much as "80%."

One result has been a return of a concern from the late 1990s, which was the fate of "mid-list" authors. When I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief Yaddo residency in the late 1990s, I recall that the New York Times and other publications were issuing dire articles about the fate of mid-list writers, and some of the more senior mid-list writers at Yaddo were concerned about their books in the pipeline and their careers. Harper Collins infamously canceled 106 contracts, many of them by mid-list authors, as part of its brutal restructuring in 1997. But by the early 2000s, this problems appears to have abated. Now, as Morrison argues, it's worsening again. Midlist writers, he points out, have often proved to be "the Research and Development department of publishers in the 20th century."  He cites Don DeLillo, but one could name such authors as the acclaimed Jonathan Franzen, for example, or Terry McMillan, whose early books, while acclaimed, were not best-sellers, but who went on to claim that mantle.

One response has been that mid-list writers have turned to self-publishing e-books or working directly with agents to publish their works, embracing Chris Anderson's "long-tail" approach to sales. In practical and commercial terms, the long tail is "Amazon and iTunes, Netflix, LoveFilm and eBay," or 40%-60% of the market, the bounty of completed works that lay mostly hidden before the appearance of online stores and rental sites like the ones above.  This shift has empowered consumers while consequently blunting, and in some cases destroying, the old hierarchy of publishers and PR firms, working in collusion with booksellers and distributors, in pre-marketing and promotion, mass marketing, and "limited shelf space for 'best-sellers.'" This is not a good thing in some ways, or that industries no longer exist, but they have less impact than they once did, and will decreasingly so, except for those already well-capitalized publishers and authors who can dominate the new online sites.

Yet Morrison makes a crucial point that echoes Lanier: few authors and publishers can survive from earnings alone in the new "long-tail" world. Some will do very well, but most will not. Why? Because of a basic fact about digitization: there remains no way to ensure that digital works can be copy-protected, and thus freely distributed, and in a world in which millions of people increasingly expect digital products to be free or available at very low costs, it will be nearly impossible to protect most digital products, no matter what their content. He cites industry after industry that has fallen by the wayside, not only in terms of the physical product itself, but, I'd argue, the entire apparatus built up around it that provided jobs, from service to white collar.

There's the film and home video industry; even just released films are now often available online for free, no matter how doggedly Hollywood, the US and other governments crack down. The music industry, which has been transformed into a shell of itself; artists now make their money through touring rather than sales, and some once best-selling musicians are lucky if they sell 1,000 or 10,000 digital copies of their work, since they're almost always free online fairly quickly. Some areas like classical music can barely produce albums anymore without subsidies. The porn industry: once a billion-dollar money-maker, pornography of all sorts is also widely free online, with homemade porn and webcams displacing the free paid videos.  The computer game industry; the newspaper industry; the photographic industry; telecommunications; even the Internet itself, which is rife with (seemingly) free services, including this blog's host; though "free" is not exactly the case, as Google/Blogger do track and monetize every byte of information passing through J's Theater and every other service they offer.

Whitman, "The Unexpressed"
(from whitmanarchive)
Publishing, and digital e-books, then, are hardly immune. First, the established publishers must watch as Amazon, Google and Apple become the dominant players. Amazon is the master marketer and merchant; Google is a master quantifier and digitizer; and Apple is the master of proprietary hardware and software. Lawsuits have hardly set any of this trio back. Anyone publishing e-books, as my observation of C's experience has shown, must reckon with each of these three behemoths, and they are steadily making it harder to gain a toehold onto their sites.  Amazon in particular has been awash in self-published texts, as well as "spam books" and pirated works; so great are the numbers that it has had to take steps to control the flow of new "books" uploaded to its site. Apple, on the other, recommends working with "aggregators," or middlemen, to surmount the numerous hurdles you encounter publishing anything on iTunes or in the iBookstore on the iPad desktop.

Besides this there's another issue: a consumer's legal and innocent downloading of copies of digital works she has already purchased means they can unintentionally or intentionally but easily end up circulating electronically, and widely (think shared servers, flash drives, cloud services, sophistical digital recording, ripping and cracking technologies, etc.); filesharing services now traffic not just in the newest songs by hit artists, Hollywood blockbusters, or gangbang videos, but in books, including fairly obscure, scholarly ones.  Writer Daniel Alarcón has written about codex book piracy in Peru and other parts of Latin America, but a far more extensive form of book piracy is already underway.  Not only Google, but anyone with a scanner or access to one can transform a print book into digital form, and upload it as a .pdf, and even the most vigilant publisher is helpless if this ends up on a filesharing service. What Morrison also underlines is that every attempt to legally address the problem of digital piracy has led to drastic lowering of costs, which he says is the "slippery slope" to free content.

Ultimately, Morrison and others see a "race to the bottom" in place now. Apple and publishers have been fighting Amazon over pricing concerns, but overall, e-books sell for far less than hardcover books or trade paperbacks, and they are an increasingly larger share of overall book sales. Moreover, as more and more people move to digital reading--and this is already happening in school systems across the US--and younger people acclimate to reading electronic and digital texts, the market for print books will continue to fall.  So what can we do? Morrison notes some alternatives, like crowd-funding; advertising; and producing apps and paid blogs.  But the feasibility of this over the long term and for as large a group of writers (or people in any of the above fields) as has been the case is small. Exacerbating this is that authors many see great personal and immediate incentive to flee the established publishers, but ultimately it is the presence of a publishing ecology, of writers working with publishers and vice versa, that protects the value of writers' labor, at least to some extent, while also providing the larger network of jobs and opportunities that we think of in relation to publishing, some of which (like working in bookstores, independent, chain or otherwise) are rapidly disappearing.

There is also the possibility of a living wage for cultural producers, including writers, but as we have seen over the last 30 years, state-sponsored socialism, even in democratic socialist countries like the Scandinavian ones, is ever under assault, and there are the numerous real-world histories and examples of what occurs when the state underwrites: it wants a say in what's produced. Sometimes this is benign, but as the example of the Soviet Union demonstrated, it can be the exact opposite.  There is the much older patronage system, which will surely return as well: the rich, though no longer titled, will commission works as they see fit. The aesthetes among them may pay for works of the highest quality; the narcissists may seek works that flatter them most; the philistines may play at shocking their class; the ultramoralists and fanatics will try to bury anything that violates their creed.  We will also see what has already long been under way: children and people of privilege, who need not be concerned with or only tangentially worry about how they'll pay their bills, can choose whatever career they like, while those without a financial base can only play the lottery of career-making and hope some combination of talent, luck, charm, and appeal win them a space.

Murasaki Shikibu
ukiyo-e by Suzuki
Harunobu (c.1767)
Morrison believes we have got a "generation" before the "writer" as a profession is completely done with, unless we take the political step of demanding that writers get paid a decent wage for their work. Lanier argues for a more subtle and potentially effective form of monetization. I look at both proposals and wonder how either, even if enacted in parts of Europe and Canada, say, could ever occur here. In a society now deeply suffused with neoliberal and libertarian ideology, no matter how much they've failed in reality, it will be very difficult to get people to consider anything of this sort. But perhaps not impossible. You--we--never know unless we try. The same is true for unions, for regulations in general, for any liberal--other than classical or neoliberal--and progressive approaches to the world around us. That is what I think. My conversations with scholars who attest to how difficult it is to publish their work in book form; with publishers who are quaking at the changes underway; and with fellow creative writers who are endlessly seeking out routes suggest that something is afoot.  In his response to Morrison, soon-to-be-published novelist Lloyd Shepard, disagrees with all of this depressing chatter. Some of what he says is true, and optimism is a better pill than pessimism, even facing what appears to be the worst.  Yet I agree with Morrison and Lanier that digitization will only increase as we go forward, and with it, the world as we've known it, including the world of books, will continue to change too.

He concludes plaintively:
I ask you to take the long view, to look a generation beyond where we are now, and to express concern for the future of the book. I ask you to vote that the end of "the book" as written by professional writers, is imminent; and not to be placated with short-term projections and enthusiasms intended to reduce fear in a confused market. I ask you to leave this place troubled, and to ask yourself and as many others as you can, what you can do if you truly value the work of the people formerly known as writers.

On this Labor Day, this is an important--you could say a crucial, but necessary, utterly necessary--charge. Let's get to it.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John, I wouldn't disagree with most of what you write here, except one critical item: Morrison's assertion that "over the last 100 years, a fairly substantial number of writers in the United States, the UK, Canada, and other developed countries could live off writing as a career." It's hokum. Total hokum. It's a combination of the availability heuristic—the only writers we know are the ones that made money, therefore writers make money—and just willful blindness. Think of all the famous writers who had dayjobs. Then look at Mad Men and remember that publishing was just as white and privileged.

    I agree that we have to continually fight for depth, whether in analog or digital publishing. And for respect. But we do not need to preserve a status quo ante that was allegedly good for writers. It is very for very few writers, those ones now doing the complaining.