Where's The Bailout For Publishing?

In a recent article posted on the Daily Beast, Stephen L. Carter says:

Like a lot of writers, I am wondering when Congress and the administration will propose a bailout for the publishing industry.

Carnage is everywhere. Advances slashed, editors fired, publicity at subsistence levels, entire imprints vanished into thin air. Moreover, unlike some of the industries that the government, in its wisdom, has decided to subsidize, the publishing of books is crucial to the American way of life.

Seriously.

Books are essential to democracy. Not literacy, although literacy is important. Not reading, although reading is wonderful. But books themselves, the actual physical volumes on the shelves of libraries and stores and homes, send a message through their very existence. In a world in which most things seem ephemeral, books imply permanence: that there exist ideas and thoughts of sufficient weight that they are worth preserving in a physical form that is expensive to produce and takes up space.

He goes on to say:

In a library, you can stand beside the shelf and run your finger along the spines. You can feel the book-ness of what has been written. It is a very unsophisticated reader indeed who conceptualizes the library principally as a place to obtain information. A library is a shrine to the book. When we eliminate the name “library,” as some universities and communities have done, creating such vulgarities as “information resource centers,” we are, implicitly, denigrating the very object that the library is intended to preserve. The book, we are saying, is not important; only its information content matters.

You can read the rest of the article at The Daily Beast

Mr. Carter’s bibliophilia is not all that different from the lust-for-vinyl that keeps purists shopping for LP records rather than making the switch to digital music. Digital music hasn’t killed music, and digital content will not kill literature. In fact, digital music has ushered in a new era of choice and freedom for both artists and their audiences, and the same is now happening with books. If that revolution results in the death of some businesses, some unsustainable business models, and some delivery systems, so be it. Progress inevitably sacrifices some of the old in order to usher in the new.

Where once we had music megaconglomerates dictating what music would be made available to the public, fixing the prices and formats of the music they released such that their span of control reached as far as our very headphones and speakers, thanks to digital music and the web, now we have individual artists and music fans calling the shots for themselves.

Indie bands are offering their songs individually on their own web sites. Consumers can create their own, customized streaming web radio stations online, and even create and download their own ‘mixes’ directly from the source music files of such forward-thinking artists as Beck, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead—with the artists’ full approval and involvement. Musicians have the means to reach out to their fans as never before, and those fans have unprecedented access to their favorite musicians. Music has become as much about building community as the music itself, and both artists and consumers are the beneficiaries.

Priorities have at last been appropriately re-shuffled: the artists, their music, and the community are the only things that matter now, the delivery system (CD, LP, MP3, etc.) has become irrelevant. Of course the music megaconglomerates are unhappy about this, because the delivery system was the piece that used to be their bailiwick and primary profit center. When you cut out the middleman, the middleman is never happy about it.

The same kinds of changes are now in their infancy where publishing is concerned, but to my mind as both an author and a reader, they can’t come soon enough. Indie authors are following the lead of their musician brethren, bypassing publishing conglomerates and other gatekeepers to reach out directly to a readership. None of this would be possible without the digital revolution in print and Web 2.0.

And just as record industry executives before them, the titans of mainstream publishing are doing all in their power to stop—or at least slow—the technological and cultural progress that spells their doom, rather than embrace the new opportunities available to them. I’m afraid that they, and Mr. Carter, are part of a dying breed.

Ask anyone under 30 if they mourn the loss of chain record stores like Tower, The Wherehouse and Licorice Pizza. With the exception of those vinyl purists, the answer will be either, "No," or, "What’s a chain record store?" Give it maybe 20 years, then ask someone under 30 if they mourn the loss of chain bookstores. Give it 20 more and ask if they mourn the loss of paper-pulp books.

A long time ago we learned that The Medium Is The Message, but we also learned the message is typically manipulated to suit corporate needs. Where the mass media are controlled by profit-driven corporations, the message is forced to the back of the bus: behind profit, corporate vision, marketing concerns, political concerns, and even packaging concerns.

Mr. Carter, while you and others fret over the cultural impact of a change in semantics that may one day see libraries referred to as “information resource centers”, the rest of us celebrate the improved reach and accessibility technology can bring to literature. Free the message from its corporate-imposed shackles and it will proliferate seemingly of its own accord.

Fear not, Mr. Carter. First we had the stone tablet. Then we had the parchment scroll. Next came the codex. And when Gutenberg came along, I have little doubt he faced the outcry of people like yourself who found the printing press a poor and vulgar substitute for the hand-copied texts of the day, but progress prevailed, to society’s benefit.

If the written word is worth reading, worth knowing and sharing, how can making it more widely and readily accessible ever be a bad thing?
 

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