Shouting back at your books

I’ve been very much enjoying [amazon_link id=”190555964X” target=”_blank” ]The House of Twenty Thousand Books[/amazon_link] by Sasha Abramsky. It’s a memoir of his grandfather Chimen Abramsky, the son of a famous Lithuanian rabbi, who ended up in North London as one of the social centres of post-war left-wing intellectual life. Chimen was a book dealer and seller, as well as a noted historian of socialist and Jewish history. Although he had no degree himself, he became a professor of Jewish studies at UCL and an expert on rare documents for Sotheby’s.

[amazon_image id=”190555964X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The House of Twenty Thousand Books[/amazon_image]

The book conveys a wonderful atmosphere of emotional warmth and practical chaos, sociable meals and long, late-night discussions of ideas. It made me try to estimate how many books there are in my house – fewer than 3,000 I reckon, and I’ve been thinking I need to do a big clear-out this holiday.

Still, it underlines again the importance of physical books – 20,000 on a Kindle would be meaningless. You couldn’t have read the notes Karl Marx wrote in the margins of his reading material if he’d been a Kindle-user. Needless to say, I was delighted to read yesterday this fabulous article by Tim Parks on why you need to read a paper book with a pen in hand to scribble on it – it makes it more likely that you will engage with the words, the ideas, if you interact physically with the book. It’s like shouting back at the radio: you have to have a book in your hand to shout at.


Clash of the titans

John Kay’s column in the Financial Times (Authors should back Amazon in dispute with Hachette) today criticises the authors who have written a letter to Amazon siding with Hachette (and potentially other big publishers) in their dispute over e-book terms. The authors wrote: “Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business. None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.”

John says in effect that the authors are naive, and that the big publishing conglomerates are not serving writers (or readers) well: “The large conglomerates that have come to dominate publishing are run by people who love money more than they love books. These support activities have been cut back in the interest of maximising the revenue, from control of access to distribution. Today’s bestseller lists are filled with imitations of books that have already been successful; footballer’s memoirs, celebrity chefs, vampires and female-oriented erotic literature.”

He’s forgotten the crossover categories in this list – the chefs’ memoirs, sporting cookbooks, and vampire-oriented erotic literature – but the point is clear. However, although I agree that one should have no sympathy for Mega-Publisher Corp Inc, I am not as sanguine as he appears to be here about Amazon’s market power. The Amazon-Hachette dispute is a good old-fashioned clash of the titans as they fight over the distribution of producer surplus, and it’s hard to see obvious benefit for writers and readers either way.

Actually, I think the publishing business has responded to new technologies in a far nimbler and more innovative way than the music industry did, in contrast to John’s argument. But the innovation is largely coming from outside the Mega-Publishers and is at the mercy of Amazon for distribution. Amazon does not treat small fry benignly, as Brad Stone’s [amazon_link id=”0316219282″ target=”_blank” ]The Everything Store [/amazon_link]describes.

[amazon_image id=”0316219282″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon[/amazon_image]

There are some unanswered questions about the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Here are  Amazon’s and Hachette’s own statements, and here are some very good questions from Joshua Gans, who is the go-to economist on this issue.

I should add, as always when writing about Amazon, that the links on here go to Amazon because of the associates programme, which covers for me the marginal cost of the blog. If another retailer would introduce a similar programme, I’d switch.

Ape selfies, art and money, and e-books

What’s the connection between ape selfies, the relationship between art and money, and e-book prices?

There have been interesting posts about each of these subjects this week, making the connection clear.

That ape selfie – Wikipedia has rejected photographer David Slater’s claim to own copyright in the picture, arguing that the animal took the photo. David Allen Green wrote a fascinating FT blog about UK law on this question. The law here says the ape can’t hold copyright but it doesn’t necessarily belong to the camera owner – it depends on the circumstances. Green concludes:

“A thing made by an animal may well be appreciated by humans, but not everything liked by humans can be bought and sold as a chattel or as an intellectual property right. And so when such things do occur, we should not seek to monetise them as some form of property; we should instead realise how lucky we are that such wonderful things exist at all.”

Mr Slater’s view is that as a professional photographer, he needs to be able to monetise pictures captured by his camera. Which takes us to a long n+1 essay on payment for art. It used to be that artists (including writers) who made money were “sellouts”, but now the complaint is that it’s becoming impossible to make money from art because of the ease of digital copying. Hence all the intellectual property debates, and the madness of copyright lasting for 70 years after the death of an author, as if length of term somehow compensates for loss of enforceability. As the essay concludes: “One did not become a writer in order to starve, but nor did one become a writer in order to get rich.” (George Gissing certainly didn’t.) And besides – as the incomparable Dave Birch pointed out to me with this link – there are ways of making money, even if not the same ways as of yore.

Which takes me onto the third link, this post by Toby Mundy criticising Amazon’s philistinism in selling books at ever lower prices by squeezing publisher’s margins. He frames it in terms of the contribution of the book form – long, complex, detailed – to the human achievement of civilisation – but finally makes it an argument about short term consumer gains versus the long term: “The result of these changes will be a much diminished eco-system for stories and ideas, with many fewer publishers and authors earning anything. Ultimately this may benefit a small number of people who hold stock in Amazon, but it will do precious little for our wider culture.”

The common theme is the value of culture, of course, in its form as a photo or book say, and how that value is distributed. It is about monetary versus non-monetary value, and about power in the marketplace and the polity. The specifics are new, the debate is old. All property involves social conventions derived from power relationships. When I sit in a cafe to have a cappucino, I have purchased the liquid in the cup, but not the cup – the owner would be outraged if I walked off putting the cup in my bag. That’s the convention, and the price for the drink reflects competition among local cafes.

I think the mistake many people make in thinking about who gets the value from digital cultural products is to assume that the market from which content creators (or publishers) will get their dibs are the same as in the offline world. The technological ease of copying (cf Walter Benjamin, [amazon_link id=”0141036192″ target=”_blank” ]The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction[/amazon_link]!) means the conventions have to change, and changing social conventions is never a smooth process. But George Gissing was poor long before the Web, despite being a marvellous writer, and I’m willing to bet David Slater will be a better-known and potentially more prosperous photographer post-ape selfie incident.

[amazon_image id=”0141036192″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Penguin Great Ideas)[/amazon_image]


The thirst for understanding

The yearbook from the Publishers Association is always an interesting snapshot of the UK book market. The news this year was that a big (19.2%) increase in the value of digital sales to £509m in 2013 didn’t quite offset the small-ish (-5.2%) decline to £2,880m in physical book sales. The total was down 2.2% overall to just under £3.4bn in sales. The detail is always interesting too. Prices of physical books were up 2.3% in the year, with the biggest increases in non-fiction and academic/reference books – sales in the schools market were down after a couple of years of stonking rises. Intriguingly, the report doesn’t give e-book price changes – I wonder why? By far the fastest growth in e-book sales has been ‘consumer’ e-books ie. not academic, professional or school.

Last weekend there was an article in The Guardian about the revival of Penguin’s Pelican imprint of accessible non-fiction works. This weekend Lorien Kite in the Financial Times has reflected on the news about the Pelican series flapping back into existence. They were the product, he writes, of a more optimistic time when the spirit of self-improvement was strong. The first 10 sixpenny Penguins published in 1935 sold a million copies in four months.

Actually, I think the 1930s were not that optimistic,but rather similar to the 2010s in the degree of uncertainty people feel about the future. There is a great thirst for understanding. But what about books now, when they face such stiff competition from other, trivial, attractions like Candy Crush Saga and Instagramming one’s meals? Kite concludes – and I agree – “Yes, publishers of non-fiction feel embattled but there is plenty to reassure them, not just in the success of titles such as the million-selling [amazon_link id=”0141033576″ target=”_blank” ]Thinking, Fast and Slow[/amazon_link] by Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist – or, for that matter, Piketty’s [amazon_link id=”067443000X” target=”_blank” ]Capital in the Twenty-First Century[/amazon_link]. The popularity of online lectures such as TED talks, the continuing boom in literary festivals, even the internet voluntarism epitomised by Wikipedia, all suggest that the self-improving impulse is alive and well.” In the UK industry figures, the number of units of physical books sold declined 7.3% in 2013, but in that mix was a 22.7% decline in fiction sales compared with a 3.3% drop in non-fiction sales. Penguin looks sensible to be pushing on non-fiction at present.

What’s more, the publishing industry is showing signs of navigating its digital transition rather better than other business sectors. I’d *really* like to know what’s going on with e-book pricing.

Incidentally, I came across somewhere yesterday – I can’t remember where so tell me if it was your tweet! – this from Kahneman: “We don’t think as much as we think we think.” Great line.

[amazon_image id=”0141033576″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Thinking, Fast and Slow[/amazon_image]

Complementarity and serendipity

After writing yesterday (in The Economics of Shelfies) about the complementarity between e-books and physical books, and arguing that in general different vehicles for ideas are complements rather than substitutes, I happened to read this last night in Tom Standage’s [amazon_link id=”1408842068″ target=”_blank” ]Writing on the Wall: Social Media – the first 2000 years[/amazon_link]. It’s about the circulation of handwritten poetry among groups of friends and family members in Tudor times:

“The printing press was now a century old, but rather than making obsolete the copying and sharing of documents in manuscript form, print actually increased the importance and prevalence of handwritten text. Printing pushed up demand for paper throughout Europe, encouraging production and making it cheaper (its price fell by 40% during the 15th century) and more widely available.”

The passage goes on to explain the fashion for creating ‘miscellanies’ or commonplace books, large handwritten notebooks, sometimes shared.

[amazon_image id=”1408842068″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years[/amazon_image]

I’m about half way through the book and will review it later this week.