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Publishing Today

“Printing made us all readers. Xeroxing made us all publishers. Television made us all viewers. Digitization makes us all broadcasters.”


It is not only the publishing industry that has changed since i960—business has changed. The image of Gordon Lish in his book-l ined office at Knopf seems as distant as a story about Max Perkins today, when the top executive and all 519 employees of Hachette work in identical New York cubicles.6

The inexorable democratization of the media/user, pointed out by Lawrence Grossman above, finds its parallel in the flattening of publishing structures. I detailed the small shops that distributed Open City in Chapter 2, and I recounted various small press operations in Chapter 3. Those are gone. Today young people with cultural aspirations don’t go into its business end so readily, and generally avoid knowledge of how it works. It’s not snootiness. They have heard that four out of five entrepreneurs fail, and while MBAs and electrical engineers may embrace those odds, the young “creatives” fear economic insecurity.7 Journals like n + 1, McSweeney’s, and World Literature Today do a great job of promoting literature in translation, but World Literature today rests largely in the hands of big publishers, in a world where business is conducted much differently than it was in the 1960s.

Around 1980 began a series of publishing mergers, the invention of the big-box store, and then Amazon was founded in 1994. According to Albert N. Greco, a scholar of publishing, the peak of this consolidation was between 1990 and 2000. Big publishers bought up smaller ones: News Corp bought Harper & Row and Scott Foresman; Wolters Kluwer bought J. B. Lippincott; Paramount bought three presses; and General Cinema bought Harcourt Brace.8 We may remember reading this on the back pages of newspapers, when those dropped on the driveway.

The pace of acquisitions more than tripled by 2001, when ten US publishers accounted for 82% of all US book sales. As Greco points out, the business logic of the mergers was impeccable: there were economies of scale in printing, distribution, warehousing, shipping, sales force, and advertising. The big publishers’ access to capital was greater, they could differentiate their offerings, and they could more effectively market to the film industry. If Essex House and Gnome Press were squeezed out, we might say “so much the better,” but that streamlining also brought product uniformity.

The acquisition strategy was not lost on foreign publishers. Bertelsmann bought Random House, Pearson bought Penguin, and Reed-Elsevier bought Harcourt from General Cinema. By 2005, when English published The Economy of Prestige, he was able to write confidently of “the big Five.” Here was a major problem for World Literature, as Lawrence Venuti points out: “By routinely translating large numbers of the most varied English-l anguage books, foreign publishers have exploited the global drift toward American political and economic hegemony in the postwar period, actively supporting the international Anglo-American culture.”9

The 2008 recession punished non-English European publishers more severely. Bertelsmann showed a 50% drop in sales. By 2011 the three largest publishers in the world by revenue were Anglophone, as were seven of the top twelve. Hachette Livre sales dipped worldwide. Grupo Planeta sales were also off in 2011, and with “economic conditions worsening in Spain, the publisher faces a difficult 2012.”10 All German publishers shrank except Holtzbrinck.

In Japan, Murakami’s new publisher had a 10% increase in sales, jumping to 14th largest in the world. That’s manga and anime helping the bottom line (he guessed right). Having learned the rules of the game, established authors pay attention to such things, as do aspiring gatekeepers. They are all entrepreneurs. Who among them would venture, as Seix and Barral did, to rev up the old family firm?

While one may doubt that Albert Greco reads French sociology, his analysis shows uncanny parallels to Bourdieu’s analysis of markets in The Rules of Art. In both studies, the cultured consumers of the dominated fraction drive the sales of the genres into which World Literature falls.11 Bourdieu shows in his analysis of Les Editions de Minuit between 1953 and 1969 that critically acclaimed literature does have an economic logic; it may not sell as well as the latest John Grisham thriller this year, but it sells well over time.12 Bourdieu does not take up such problems as the “hand-selling” of books in stores, but Greco does. What happens when “consumers looking for specific titles cannot find them?” he asks: “they exit from bookstores dissatisfied.”13 The bookstore as gatekeeper is in precipitous decline, a victim of inventory limits and low on-line prices.

The new answer to inventory is “the long tail,” as Chris Anderson christened it in 2006.14 Selling small numbers of many books is made possible by keeping inventory in low-cost warehouses and conducting business on the Internet. This formula has made Amazon the biggest bookseller in the world and the largest and most powerful gatekeeper in literature. George Packer, in a recent analysis, writes that Amazon has abolished “the old print world of scarcity” in inventory, and in authorship, and, most importantly, in gatekeeping. Packer notes that Jeff Bezos, in his 2011 letter to shareholders, wrote that “When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there is no expert gatekeeper reader to say ‘that will never work!’ ”15

In fact, the Bezos model of crowd-sourced gatekeeping has begun to erode the importance of professional book reviewers. In shortening the cybernetic loop of publishing and reading and writing, Amazon flatters readers that they too are reviewers and writers, pointing out that it can “distribute globally. Publish once and reach readers worldwide. Get to market fast. Publishing takes less than 5 minutes. Your book appears on Amazon within 24 hours.” Languages are no problem. You can publish “in English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Japanese,” the dominant publishing languages.16

But you can collect royalties only if you live “in the US, Canada, UK, Germany, India, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia.” Amazon offers no effective copyright protection, no Library of Congress registration, and Amazon Kindle will set the price of your e-book in most of the world. The way this concentrates power in the dominantly Anglophone world of Amazon, and a few other Western languages, seems obvious. Garcia

Marquez could upload his books in Spanish, but he would not be able to collect royalties because he was a Colombian citizen to the end. China Keitetsi, who wrote about being a child soldier, could neither upload a book in her native Swahili nor collect payment in Uganda, South Africa, or even in the Netherlands, her countries of passage.

There are other problems. The hidden costs to the writer of entering Amazon attention space are draconian. Like Facebook or Twitter, Amazon reduces all “verbage,” as it calls writing, to the template of its distribution system. Even though it does not yet make a profit, Amazon keeps expanding that template, aided by UPS, the USPS, and FedEx. No Ngugi or Etheridge Knight here; the model of the penny-a-word pulp jungle of the 1920s is more appropriate. Amazon augments the Anglophone dominant fraction by expanding its inventory, by speeding delivery, by suggesting books you will like (because readers demographically similar to you like them). None of this produces real variety, because the process itself is blinkered. As Ted Striphas suggests in The Late Age of Print, Amazon is actually suggesting the genres of book creation, through its close monitoring of ISBN and Bookland EAN codes and various forms of instant feedback.17 There is no Germany to be surveyed by Carl Weissner for its needs.

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