In the past week, there’s been several long-winded screeds written about the end of days for publishing at the hands of the exploding supernova that is Amazon. This isn’t altogether a rarity, but I’ve noticed, as print sales continue to decline, ebook sales continue to pick up, and the traditional ways of doing business continue looking more and more like a quaint remnant of a past soon to be forgotten, the bile and vitriol thrown around at those who are at the vanguard of this vast cultural shift have gotten more pressing and severe. First there was Scott Turow’s “Grim News” letter defending big publishing’s (alleged) collusion and price fixing. He followed that up with a somewhat more tempered but still massively slanted and misdirected interview on Salon a few days later. I myself, along with several others, took a swing at the hanging sliders Turow threw into all of our wheelhouses here. After that, there was Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur’s rant on what he calls the “internet con-men who have ravaged publishing”. I fully intend to expound upon his comments a little later, as I did find myself agreeing with bits and pieces of what he had to say about the newspaper business’ futile addiction to elusive web ads, but his overall missive was still very much misplaced. Finally, I ran across this piece by Bryce Milligan, publisher of Wings Press, on what he calls Amazon’s assault on intellectual freedom. It’s been a pretty busy week for the dinosaurs of the publishing industry.
None of this is particularly surprising to me. I’ve seen a lot of this before, watching the legacy newspaper industry’s response when the internet first started to really take a bite out of their once whole-ly locked down apple. The newcomers were usurpers, illegitimate, doing nothing but stealing their hard-earned positions and work. The folks heading the industry at that time were so caught up in the belief that the mechanisms they had been in charge of were the pinnacle of their business, and virtually omnipotent, that they failed to see the handwriting on the wall. It was much easier to lash out and demonize the agents of change than to actually admit to themselves that they had to change as well, or be left on the scrap-heap of history. So bitch, moan and complain they did. For years while their revenues shrank, their marketshare plummeted and their customers–both advertisers and readers–moved on to bigger and better things. The newspaper industry today is roughly 40% the size it was only a half-dozen years ago and still contracting. Their big plans for the future are website paywalls, an argument that really should have been settled somewhere around 1998. They slipped, ignored the reality of change by spending too much attention to the quirks of those bringing it right to their doorsteps and, in the process, doomed themselves to a slow, wasting death. Look closely and you can see the same thing happening to parts of the book publishing segment.
So this isn’t exactly an unheard of development, the disrupted lashing out at the disrupters, and it is more than predictable to see their points of view on the precise business aspects of the issue. Obviously, they will violently defend the status quo mechanisms while disparaging the strange, new and different ways others have found to achieve the same ends, that being to put written works in the hands of readers. That, I expected. It still strikes me as living life with blinders on, but at least it makes sense from a business perspective. After all, the new digital revolution is barely a few years old. The legacy bookselling model has existed, pretty much as is, for decades, if not centuries. You don’t make money that well for that long without developing a nearly-religious belief in your business model. That faith won’t save them, but it is understandable.
One thing, however, that has begun to emerge in these anti-Amazon (truthfully, more anti-future and anti-change) rants is the notion that legacy publishers, editors, distributors, agents bookstores and the authors entwined with them aren’t simply defending a means of doing business; they are beginning to position their plight on a higher plane. They aren’t simply disrupted business people, they are pious defenders of literature, heritage and the very culture itself. Every time I see one of these comments, I can’t help but snort. I’ve even taken to putting down my drink whenever I get the slightest hint I’m reading one of these for fear of shooting some of said drink out of my nose, a fate I’d like to avoid if at all possible. It’s one thing to defend your business and how it operates, even if you do so in absence of facts, reason and rationality. It is quite another to pretend to be martyrs on the cross of literary heritage. Of course, it’s entirely possible they’re not pretending and that would be telling in and of itself. I’ve always approached these types of backwards defenses as willful blindness by those so worried about losing their meal tickets that they refuse to acknowledge the validity of the opposing arguments. But, perhaps, what we are dealing with here are actually “true believers” so indoctrinated by legacy publishing’s dogma that anything challenging its preeminence is immediately treated as heresy.
When a Konrath, an Eisler or any of the other outspoken proponents of the changes that have torn through the industry advocate their positions, is it possible that these true believers don’t see a reasoned argument supported by observation, statistics and facts? Does Turow look at Konrath the way the Pope looked at Galileo when he challenged the notion that the Earth was the center of the universe? Did he consider the matter at hand, looking at all the available evidence and make a reasoned judgement or does he simply launch into an inquisition-style defensive assault that twists logic like a Philly soft pretzel to suit his preconceived beliefs? I sincerely hope it’s the former because, even though I believe he’s wrong, at least he would still retain the possibility that further evidence and reason could have a positive effect. If it’s the latter, no amount of reason will have any effect, except to make the vitriol even stronger because if there’s any one trait that defines true believers of any stripe, it’s that they almost always double down against things that challenge their faith, no matter how logical or reality-based they are.
Read each of the four pieces I linked to above and look for the similarities in their arguments. Far from simply a discussion about the difficulties of transitioning from a print-centric business model to a digital-centric one, they each pine for the glory days of yore, nostalgia for the way things have always been done literally drips from their words. And they each, at various points, make the proclamation that, as the new digital frontier continues to spread over the old physical one, our culture and even literacy itself will suffer for it. The literacy point is somewhat inexplicable to me. How, exactly, can literacy decline through the act of more people reading more than ever? It’s seems a lot like Barry Eisler excellently pointed out on Turow’s allegation that Amazon is trying to destroy bookselling, apparently, by selling lots of books. I guess when logic, reason and facts fail to produce a convincing argument, scare tactics are a consistently easy fallback.
“The end is near! If our business fails, the world will be consumed by hellfire! The people will become illiterate slugs if we’re no longer around to tell them what’s worthy of reading and spending their money on! Without us, our culture will collapse into an horrific hodgepodge of things regular people actually enjoy, without having a gatekeeper like us to tell them it’s okay to like it! What about our heritage? Won’t somebody think about the children and how they’ll be able to learn of their heritage on their own, god forbid, without the facts they’re exposed to being vetted and approved by we professional keepers of what’s right and just! It’ll be the end of days! The horror…the horror…”
Publishing is a business, folks, not a religion. They operate, as they always have, on a business model that allowed them to make money on the written word. Technology has changed the ways in which people can access those words, undermining publishing’s long-standing business model. Now, if they want to survive, they must transition to a model that fits today’s (and tomorrow’s) readers. That’s all this is. The world won’t end. Great masses of people won’t suddenly lose the ability to read. The written word will continue on as it always has, only now with the means of reaching more people more inexpensively and efficiently than ever before. Our culture will not suffer. Our heritage will not evaporate. In fact, they may well be greatly enhanced by what’s coming. The fact that a relatively small number of people who used to make a living putting words in ink on blank sheets of paper and selling them could possibly be out of work isn’t going to doom civilization as we know it.
Print publishing has had a good run. They’ve existed as an industry largely undisturbed for numerous generations, far more fortunate than many, much more successful industries before or after them. Change in life is inevitable. How we deal with that change is what separates the people who keep moving forward, whatever the obstacles and the people who just whine about how much better things were back in their day. Some of these old-guard folks sound to me like they’re desperately in need of a rocking chair, a tall glass of lemonade, a quilt to keep the evening chill away and a nice front porch to retire to. Put enough of them together, and they should have plenty of tales to share amongst themselves about how great things were back in the good ol’ days.
As for the rest of us? We’ve got things to do. There’s a disruption going on, don’t you know?