Saturday, June 6, 2009

Disappearing ink: "The Nation" (June 8, 2009)

The current issue of The Nation has Elizabeth Sifton's lengthy piece about the decline of book publishing, and while the usual suspects are named (market decline, the internet, e-books, a lack of "serious" readership) the tone of the article suggests an "us" vs. "them" approach to the brave new whirl in what lies ahead for the publishing industry. In tandem with an article on "The Last Book Party" by Gideon Lewis Kraus in the March issue of Harper's, the future of ink-on-paper is bleak indeed, if you imagine that technology can only wreak destruction and ruin on the printed word.

But industry uncertainty and conjecture can see only so far. "The future always looks like a void on the other side of the farthest thing we can safely predict," writes David Rotherberg in his article "Information Ecology," appearing way back in the Spring 2000 issue of Parabola: it was the edge of a new millenium, and he was speaking of the increasing appeal of nostalgia at the time. It is always easier (and more comforting) to look back at the known past, forgiving or forgetting all of the turmoil and confusion of the times, than to look at the blank slate of the future.

And so, too, with the fears and insecurities of the publishing industry in Sifton's article. Publishing has suffered serious setbacks in the market, and not just with the economic downturn, when compared to the boom times of the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., before the intrusion of the internet and its turning of the once-mighty word into mere "content"). She does correctly outline the enfolding of independent publishing houses into larger corporate entities, who have turned profit-margins, rather than good books, into quarterly business goals.

"Along with old-time skills, the trade publishers risked losing their nerve and cultural daring. This is a well-known sad story. The money men trusted editors less and marketing people more; literary experiment was frowned on, though gambling on popular authors was acceptable--and they all bid to publish the same ones. They became more and more alike, competing to overpay for the same celebrities. ... The corporations that consolidated the publishing houses, like the Silicon Valley children of today, saw book copyrights as valuable 'content' with plenty of cultural cachet that could be 'synergistically' exploited--optimally by the other arms of their media empires."

Sifton has few kind words for the devaluation of the mass-market books that do take up much shelf space in remaining bookstores -- celebrity tell-alls, media tie-ins, self-serving political items she refers to as 'booklike objects" -- that take away from the vital literature that, preumably, would take its place. Public libraries seem to have reached a balancing act with new technology and the remaining ink-and-paper trade, by installing banks of computers that draw in a public for internet access who might then check out a book or two, usually by a best-selling author in a well-known series.

The dire predictions for publishing's disappearing ink, of course, are marked with unknowns. Sifton seems to take special aim at the purveyors of internet content, and she seems bemused by the fact that many of the caretakers of the "open-access Eden" she claims they wanted now choke their sites with advertising -- which Americans have come to expect, but which devalues the content found there:

"It's a colossal irony to have the guys and gals of Amazon, Google and their ilk lusting for free book 'content' as premium material on which to stake their enlarged claims to commercial riches. For these clever mathematicians and engineers who are shaping the electronic business of our time and the archives of the future, these baby-faced young entrepreneurs, have risen to their mercantile eminence without encountering books, and don't think they need to. 

I enjoyed the fatuous surprise of Google's Sergey Brin discovering that 'There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site.' Translating this backhanded recognition of value into his own debased lingo, he understands that books make for 'viable information-retrieval systems,' information being the only cultural signifier he recognizes, evidently. His company's amazing presumption that book people should simply hand over the keys to their priceless kingdom shows how completely he and his colleagues misunderstand what is at stake."

Will we miss what we had? Will we mourn the loss of reading-for-pleasure in twenty years? Not likely. Sifton's dire predictions seem to point the way to a darker age when easy-access, advertiser-driven information replaces knowledge, but most likely it will only be new market forms of books and reading that the publishing industry itself will come up with. It doesn't look as much like the end of the industry as it does finding new ways of dancing with the devil.

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