Valuing books

There’s a fascinating, provocative article, What is the business of literature, by Richard Nash trailing the next issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review. In it he poses the question troubling man in the publishing world: what’s the business model for books’ enduring contribution to culture? His argument is essentially against “book fetishism”, the product-centric obsession of publishing: “[T]he business of literature is the business of making culture, not just the business of manufacturing bound books.” Book publishers and retailers need to move towards the provision of “cultural hubs”, arrays of services and products, he argues – much, I suppose, as the music industry is having to shift from an LP or CD-centric model to one combining online sales with merchandise and live tours and films.

The essay starts by noting that books are themselves a technology, and have been at the forefront of consumer capitalism. He cites Rachel Bowlby’s demonstration (in

) that early department stores were modelled on bookshops. “[B]ooks aren’t sitting grumpily in economy class on the airplane to the future. They’re in the cockpit.” I’ve posted here a couple of times about the impressive degree of innovation in publishing (and also here, a post featuring dwarsliggers), rather a contrast to the music businesses’s early response to the digital disruption. But Nash continues: “For the most part, however, the technical and business-model innovations in literature were one-sided, far better at supplying the means to read a book than to write one.”

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The innovation in writing books is now under way. The rapid increase in the number of titles is one sign. The article dates this to: “July 1985, when a company called Aldus, naming itself after the great Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, releases PageMaker. You put PageMaker on a Mac, put the Mac in a new chain of photocopy shops called Kinkos, you rent them for six bucks an hour, and you’ve got Publishing 2.0. Exhibit A: Soft Skull Press, a publisher founded in a Kinkos in 1993, and which I ran from 2001 to 2009. Further exhibits: the hundreds of thousands of zines, chapbooks, and books produced since, many of which begat small media businesses, magazines, and book publishers. The number of U.S. titles created by traditional print publishers, whether of the indie variety like Soft Skull or the large corporate publishers, increased from about 80,000 per year in the 1980s to 328,259 in 2010.”

He argues, too, that copyright law as it stands is a law for the analogue world: “Until recently, it was more expensive to make a copy of a book than it was to simply buy the book. So when society agreed to grant authors and publishers the monopoly, it was a good bargain. Now …. the public has proceeded to make copies anyway, regardless of the previous bargain… As with any law that loses the consent of the governed because it no longer reflects the logic of society, the law is not overturned, just ignored. It recedes into the past, like laws forbidding pigs to enter saloons or alcohol sold on Sundays or adultery or interracial marriage.”

The existing value chain (agent-publisher-wholesaler-retailer) will be disrupted, he concludes. It will not be saved by gimmicks like video embedded in e-books: “The lack of video, the lack of audio, the lack of ways to change the forking outcomes of plot (what is rather crudely referred to as “interactivity”) is a feature of literature, not a bug. And, as it turns out, books are interactive. They’re recipes for the imagination. Conversely, video is restrictive—it tells you what things look like, what they sound like.” Rather, the innovation will be in the value chain – he cites Kickstarter, a subscription model (like the one prevailing in the 18th century), tie-ins with fashion designers, links between book retailers and galleries, and so on.

On the whole I agree with the argument – although I’m a serious “book fetishist” myself, in love with the physical artefact (favourite website to relax by: Bookshelf Porn). Nash underestimates the value of innovations to the object, I think. However, I entirely agree that the disintegration of incumbents’ business models does not mean books have no value. The digitally-driven innovation is rather exhilarating, as long as you’re not one of those anxious incumbents.

I’ve skated over the surface of the article – well worth a read.