The Defenders of Literature and Cultural Heritage? Ha!

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?

MacArthur: Print shall return!

In following the plight of the newspaper industry over the past few years, I’ve seen many, many illogical defenses of the fading print segment from people often with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. However, the one I read last week from Harper’s Magazine publisher John MacArthur may well take the cake. It wasn’t so much that he was totally and completely wrong about everything. He wasn’t. In fact, there were entire sections that echoed sentiments I, myself, have voiced numerous times. No, the problem I found was in his tone.

MacArthur’s pontificating came across as certainty. In his mind, it’s a settled issue that print has been proven far superior to the internet, and that this whole web craze will blow over soon enough, returning print to its rightful position at the top of the communication food chain. While some of his points have merit, particularly with regards to publications giving away the farm with no specific plan on how to monetize that, and the very real problems with web ads on newspaper sites, the notion that print isn’t really failing and that digital doesn’t possess some very strong and pertinent advantages over print seems extraordinarily naive. If anyone hasn’t caught on just yet, digital is very much a replacement-type of technology for print, not a supplemental one, and readers in consistent, vastly increasing numbers know it.

Here are a few of the comments from MacArthur, starting with his anecdote of a conversation he had with a group of internet folks he met in a restaurant one day. When asked how they, too, could get in on the internet boom, here’s his description of the exchange:

“It depends,” one of them said smoothly, “on what kind of platform you want to establish, how you want to present your content.” I said that I wanted to publish a magazine filled with sentences, not build a tree house, and the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

I wonder why? Here you are discussing the future with some people clearly excited about the possibilities of the web, and when they make a very pointed inquiry about how you’d want to exploit your material online, you reply with a dismissive crack that shows not only arrogance but ignorance of some of the fundamental points of internet media. If I was discussing the possibilities of online content and was faced with a similar attitude, I don’t think I’d continue the conversation either.

MacArthur may well believe his crack about “platforms” was pretty clever. In fact, later on he notes how much he hates the term “platform” when he mentions that Harper’s is available across several of them. Of course, his obstinance makes me want to run right out and sign up for the internet experience from a publication run by a man with such an obvious contempt for the medium. I’ve got news for him, though. Your beloved print magazine is a type of platform, too. Always has been, and was long before anyone even imagined the transistor, let alone a computer, smartphone or tablet. Magazines, newspapers, catalogs, fliers, etc, etc are all types of platforms, no different than websites, blogs, ebooks, apps or anything else someone can dream up as a means of communicating with people.

I told them the internet wasn’t much more than a gigantic Xerox machine and thus posed the same old threat to copyright and the livelihoods of writers and publishers alike.

This one really got me. His notion of the web as a giant copy machine is simply asanine. Sure, it does have some of that capacity in spades, but it is far more diverse and to label it as such dismisses the massive volume of material created and posted by regular people and professionals alike every minute of every day. Then he went on:

Photocopying had long been the enemy of periodicals…so I had good reason to beware.

Maybe I’m too new to this game, given the fact that I have no recollection of a world before photocopiers, but I have never, ever, not even once, for even the tiniest fleeting second considered copiers as enemies of publishers. I am, apparently, totally incapable of even comprehending such an accusation. I have never, at any point in my life, encountered a situation where I saw a copy machine used as a weapon against publishers. The only possible way this makes sense is if what he really wants here is a world where the only way to access the information in a printed work is to buy a copy. Imagine, for a moment, how incredibly destructive such a practice would be in actual widespread practice. It would also be massively counterproductive to people like MacArthur, too, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that particular point to sink in with him.

Of course, it could be that there’s an enterprising young pirate in MacArthur’s part of town who got himself a copier and runs off copies of each new issue of Harper’s, stapling them together and selling them out of a backpack on street corners. Because, you know, that kind of thing really happens, right? But it does speak to his mindset. Here’s an advancement in technology that has made things infinitely easier and more efficient in so, so many ways, and all he sees is a potential enemy. It explains quite a bit. If this guy still sees copiers as an enemy of publishers, then the web must look to him like a giant, roving, 500 ton beast, spewing fire from its six heads and crushing everything in its path. Somehow, though, I suspect Harper’s offices probably have a copier or two on the premises. And an internet connection, most likely.

It turned out that while web sites might be great for classifieds, they are in general a poor medium for display advertising.

Here is an example of his line of thinking that I actually agree with, to a point. I, too, believe that websites are lousy vehicles for display advertising, particularly when the advertising you’re pushing there is simply a replicated version of the exact type used in printed publications. He’s totally correct that ads like this are very easy to ignore, they’re a waste of time and money for publications to chase after, and, no matter how low the price, they’re not terribly effective for advertisers, either. I have never believed that display ad supported publication websites are the way to go for the long run.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that the web isn’t an effective vehicle for advertising and promotion, it undoubtedly is. Just not for trying to duplicate the exact process and mechanisms that have historically worked in print. The problem with his argument, to me, is that he seems to be saying that, because the one way they’ve tried to generate ad revenue online (the simplest and least imaginative way, not coincidentally) has been largely a failure, that means that ads on the web will never work and they should just give up. That’s the kind of thinking that has greatly contributed to the newspaper industry losing 60% of its revenue in less than a decade. Keep up the good work on that.

As the ever-more-demanding Internet God continues to bleed writers and publishers…the advantages of advertising in print become more obvious.

More obvious to whom? The advertisers who are fleeing print in droves? The readers who are doing likewise? The print salespeople who have increasing trouble earning a living on lessened commissions? I understand that this is what he believes and, in some respects, he’s right about things like inavoidability and adjacencies in printed material. But just because he believes it, doesn’t make it so.

The problem with this is that, even if he’s right, it doesn’t matter. The digital transition is well underway. No matter how great he thinks his print platform is, readers and advertisers are the ultimate judge and they’re speaking with their feet, walking away from print in steadily growing numbers. You simply can’t ignore that fact. While it may be true that he believes print is better, the people ultimately holding his purse strings don’t necessarily agree.

This is the crucial issue with why so many former print titans seem to have lost their way. There is no simple answer to how to generate needed revenue online, and they just can’t understand how something they believe is inferior can continue to grow while they languish. The pool of money is moving to digital, from advertisers and readers alike. We’re past the point of no return. You can have the greatest, most effective print platform in the world, but if all the money isn’t in print any more, you’re doomed to failure. You have to go where the money is and find a way to get people to spend it with you. And nobody cares how great you think print is if that’s not where they want to put their dollars.

Patrick de St. Exupery insists that the internet, whether paid or unpaid, doesn’t just reduce the value of writing, it destroys value. This may stem from a whole generation growing up never learning to distinguish between a blog and an edited, thought-out piece of writing.

Hmmm…maybe I’m suffering from this. Was MacArthur’s piece that I’m talking about here an edited, thought-out piece of writing? Is this? I’m writing on a blog, so does that mean this is simply a slap-dash collection of incoherent sentences? That’s ridiculous. It’s a totally dismissive opinion toward any and all writing that exists outside of the publishing gatekeepers. If your works appears outside of the established publication websites, then it simply must be inferior. Beside that, regular folks are apparently too stupid to distinguish genuinely quality writing approved by the gatekeeper class apart from the ground up mush produced by the rest of us.

I, personally, don’t underestimate readers like that. I wonder if he’s ever considered the possibility that, if readers can’t distinguish between his publication’s work and the work of people like me, maybe that’s an indicator there isn’t actually that large of a gap in relative quality, if one exists at all? Probably not, I’d imagine. Just to clarify things, by the way, I’ve thought out writing this over the past several days. I’ve also copy edited it, something I believe my 15 years of experience working for various publishers as an editor, no less, qualifies me to do. Does that mean I’ve cranked out Pulitzer Prize winning material here, or made certain every last syllable of every word in each sentence of every paragraph is a model of perfection? Of course not. But neither is his self-proclaimed edited, well thought-out piece.

The difference is that I’m not claiming that only pure gold drips off of my keyboard. This is an opinion piece where I’ve used my knowledge, personal experience and beliefs to contest what I believe was a shoddily constructed argument from an old guard print protectionist. His was exactly the same, only from a different point of view. I think his real problem is that his piece and my humble effort exist on the same plane, with the same availability to the same readers, and can have the legitimacy of his positions and mine judged not by editors, publishers or other gatekeepers, but by actual readers on equal footing. It’s an entitlement mentality, truthfully, one that stems from the internet undermining not only publishers’ ability to control who gets on the playing field, but their control of the very field itself.

He claims that the internet is undemocratic and exclusionary, but what institution could be more of those elements than the locked down print world of the recent past? These guys who make arguments like this one ultimately reveal the same bias in the end. They always show a contempt for the capacity of their audience to determine quality of material on their own. I think they secretly fear that the works they push really aren’t that superior and, given increasing opportunity, the readers they depend upon will see through their sham. Otherwise, if you truly trusted your readers to know quality when they see it and gravitate towards it, why would you have any issue with pitting your work against the supposedly inferior ramblings of us outside-the-gates barbarians?

To close, here’s another refutation of MacArthur’s opinions by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic’s website. I wonder if MacArthur considers it a well thought-out, edited piece? If I had to guess, I’d say probably not. After all, as he claimed at the very end of his screed, he is planning to translate his piece into a speech which he’s being paid to give later this year, so it must be of higher quality. I wonder if he realizes that paid speaking engagements are a type of platform, too?

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