An Article Damned Well Worth Reading

There is an article by Clay Shirky you must read.  You must read.  I’ll admit I nearly skipped it after the first paragraph (which contains the most weary of tired accusations).  I’m glad I didn’t.

Here are a few excerpts:

The traditional industry belief — if you don’t live in a big city and have a lot of money, you deserve second-class access to books — is being challenged by a company trying to say “If you have ten bucks, there’s not a book in the world you can’t read.” If the current industry can’t keep their prices high while competing with instant distribution of a vastly expanded literature — and that seems to be their only assertion worth taking at face value — then it’s time for them to figure out how to make a business out of improved access.

As a rural resident, I’ve spoken this argument in trad-writer-dense and industry-dense environments.  The level of interest is usually expressed with a nod and a moving-on to topics of greater import.

At worst, I’ve received a head-patting reminder that most small towns do indeed have libraries for their citizens.  It never seems to occur to them that small towns have small libraries, and small libraries have small budgets.  Sure, the newest bestseller will be there—which is what the industry is most hoping for—but the diversity of books will be narrow—which does not at all concern the industry.

The essence of the argument—the only people in the world competent to oversee the publication of good writing are executives at five large corporations—won’t bear much direct scrutiny.

This needs no direct commentary, either.  Neither does the following quote.

Packer mocks self-published authors, noting that half of them earn less than $500 a year, without noting that the average payout for anyone sending a manuscript to a traditional publishing house is $0. The legacy system is mainly characterized by a refusal to deal in small-batch authorship, a model that made sense when the unit price of a book was any number above zero, but makes no sense today. If ten million people think something is dreck, and fifty people like it, those fifty should get what they want.

But this one, I’ll add to:

He wants to increase access to ebooks in order to make money, of course, just as the publishers want to restrict access in order to make money. Bezos doesn’t love books (something his critics never fail to note, as if selling things designed to be sold is an atrocity) but his motivations are producing better outcomes than those of the dominant cartel. If we have to pick between two corporate strategies for making money, the one offering more access is better.

The fact that anyone who loftily lays claim to enriching the lives and minds of readers will be froth-mouthed with repugnance over easy access to diverse material boggles my mind.  Dress it up in whatever artsy, anti-corporate, culture-warrior rhetoric is currently popular, it’s still, at its core, an argument to maintain an exclusive status quo for the benefit of a relative few.

Should writers be paid for their work?  Yes, and paid well, thank you very much.  But the publishing industry mightily, heartily, and firmly disagrees.  The industry prioritizes many other things above payments to writers.  After all, the writer is the only participant in the process who is paid but twice a year, and repeatedly and gleefully told to never expect to make a living at their trade.  They’re also among the first creditors publishing companies don’t pay when financial trouble hits.

That means that what writers create is the least important component of the publishing industry, or written works are indeed widgets that can be created by anyone at all, and/or writers have been well-trained to believe one or both of those notions.

Should there be a monopoly on book publishing and distribution?  Of course not.  But I raise my eyebrows when I hear that fear from folks who want to control the market and access to it themselves, who have indeed controlled large portions of it for many years.  Such folks don’t think access on both the supply and demand side shouldn’t be controlled.  They think it should be controlled by the right people.

But don’t tell me to “resist” the monopoly by patronizing competitors that cost me more and give me less because of the “principle” of the matter.  I don’t pay my secretary to make accounting errors and be rude to my clients.  I don’t pay a mechanic who takes three days to do an oil change.  I don’t return to businesses whose greatest word-of-mouth advertising boils down to, “Buy from us because we’re not them!”

And in conclusion, my favorite quote from the article:

In a democracy, the only test any book should ever have to pass is whether the reader likes it.

Article discovered via The Passive Voice.

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