April 14, 2015

Two For Tuesday: Is The Publishing Industry Doomed?


Is the publishing industry heading into this weird frog's mouth? Is a column inspired somewhat by a Slate photo caption a sign of the BOOK APOCALYPSE? Time will tell!

Is the publishing industry heading into this weird frog’s mouth? Is a column inspired somewhat by a Slate photo caption a sign of the BOOK APOCALYPSE? Time will tell!

Topics discussed: death, On Kawara, bouncy castles, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Slate, disruption, #disruption, e-books, Barnes & Noble, ideology, Matt Yglesias, Uber, martinis, dens, tweed, candelight, Mumford and Sons, Periscope, reporting, reportage, labor, profit margins, Oasis, Stone Roses

Alex: Hi Mark! This weekend I spent a lot of time at Greenwood Cemetery, the (incredible) On Kawara show at the Guggenheim, and the New York International Auto Show. So I spent a lot of time thinking about death! How was your weekend?

Mark: That’s basically my perfect weekend–I wish I had spent doing exactly those things, in that order. (The On Kawara show is amazing, and all of our New York-based readers should go see it immediately. Take the afternoon off. Your boss won’t be mad. Your boss loves conceptual art. And death.) I’m very mad that I missed yet another auto show. I love auto shows. Next year, I’m definitely going to the auto show. Which is something I say every year. Anyway, while I did not get to do any of those things, I did get to spend some time at Jump On In, a Boston bouncy castle entertainment center. The occasion was a four-year-old’s birthday party, but don’t worry: I was invited.

Alex: I assume that Mark Wahlberg was the proprietor of said bouncy castle institution?

Mark: I think so, yes. He and Ben Affleck rotate shifts.

At the bouncy castle, I tried to get the four-year-olds to talk about ideology, but they weren’t having it. (They were too busy bouncing.) So Alex, will you discuss ideology with me? After all, Two for Tuesday is also the only weekly column about the publishing industry committed to ideology.

Alex: The only ideology I subscribe to is that of the sword.

Mark: Excellent. Here’s why I have ideology on the brain. Last week, I wrote a short post about Southwest Airlines and its new and possibly very annoying initiative, which places musicians–and writers–on airplanes to entertain passengers with in-flight concerts and readings. I discovered the Southwest news through a funny Jonathan L. Fischer story in Slate–Fischer experienced the in-flight reading firsthand.

In my post, I mentioned a cheeky photo caption in the Slate piece. Under a photo of a Southwest Airlines plane, an editor wrote “Finally, a fix for the publishing industry’s woes.” I’ve been thinking about this photo caption for the last few days, Alex! I can’t stop thinking about this photo caption! The reason I can’t stop thinking about it is that a) it’s pretty funny and b) it has a kind of self-evident tone that I think is interesting. The anonymous author of the caption simply assumes that readers will get the joke, because obviously the publishing industry has so many woes that it’s funny to suggest this crazy scheme as a panacea. I don’t want Two for Tuesdays to turn into Two Guys Analyze Mildly Funny Jokes (I’m sure there are many podcasts with this basic operating principle), but to put it in Slate terms: Can This Innocuous Photo Caption Tell Us Something About Ideology?

Alex: Maybe! Though I don’t want to dwell on the caption itself—which is fine, but also a caption—so much as the assumption that the publishing industry is in dire straits, which I think is widely-held, despite not being particularly true. For now, at least, things are holding pretty steady! This has been helped by the widely-discussed “plateauing” of ebook sales—which may have had something to do with a slight, if also probably slightly meaningless, jump in print sales—and the fact that bookstores are still surviving (and, in some cases–though, crucially, not Barnes & Noble’s) thriving.

But there’s still a widespread sense that the print industry— the publishing and newspaper/magazine industries—is doomed. That it’s a “dinosaur” industry unable and unwilling to adapt to the times; that it’s filled with “gatekeepers” and superfluous workers (like us!); that there is, in other words, a more efficient, and therefore more profitable way to be doing things.

There are parts of that narrative that aren’t wrong, though they’re not quite right either. The publishing industry has not done a great job adapting! I’m not entirely convinced that the hires publishers have made over the last few decades have positioned the industry particularly well to make crucial adaptations! If ebook sales increase and/or (though probably just and) bookstores rapidly decline, they’re fucked!

Those things are all broadly true, but I don’t think that the assessment that the publishing industry is doomed holds a lot of weight. I think the switch to digital has given people an exaggerated sense that everything will change with it—not only will the novel no longer look like the novel, but the book will no longer look like the book. (This crucially ignores the fact that there is no such thing as “the novel” or “the book.”) The publishing industry contains multitudes—it’s certainly too big and too diverse (at least in terms of holdings) to generalize about in a column with a very stupid name—and it’s likely that certain verticals within it will go extinct, or change rapidly. But I’m not sold that the digital world will remake, remodel, or eviscerate it to the extent that many think.

The most important thing about this narrative is that it internalizes a technolibertarian idea about labor: namely that it doesn’t matter in the digital economy. Few people understand the amount of work that goes into making a book a book—not just the rounds of edits and copyedits, but the packaging, marketing, and publicizing—and that ignorance is particularly well-suited to an ideology that doesn’t give a fuck about work. The promise of digital is to make products available instantaneously at very low costs and that’s a promise that publishing—which requires an enormous amount of labor—isn’t particularly well-suited to meet. Books cost what they do in large part because people make them and devaluing that labor—no matter what you think about “elasticity”—is a mistake.

But I may be a special case here—I read a lot, a lot, a lot of self-publishing blogs because I despise myself and also because I probably have a persecution complex. So, while I think that Slate photo caption is probably benign, I also think they’re coming to get me, Mark! They’re coming to get me!

Mark: Your response puts me in a difficult position, because it is articulate and eloquent and says what I wanted to say, and I hate when that happens. I hate it. And I hate you, too. So there.

Wow, that felt really good to say. It’s been really building these last few weeks, hasn’t it? Surely Michael Schaub wasn’t the only one to feel the extreme tension.

But yes, I do think that the Slate caption, as innocuous as it is, reveals a deeply ingrained and pervasive ideology, which I, like you, find mostly wrongheaded. It’s true that publishing, with its emphasis on physical retail, its hugely differentiated product base, and its “inefficiencies” (i.e. people like you and me) seems to many people like something out of the dark mid-twentieth century. Where is the disruption? Where are the extraordinary profit margins? Where is the fundamental ineffability that masks the absence of actual, tangible products or benefits? Uber we’re not.

Still, we’re not stuck in the past, despite what your frenemies on the self-publishing blogs tell you. (They are coming to get you, by the way.) Some of us surely are, but our colleagues–and the many people we meet in all corners of the industry–are thinking deeply about all of this stuff, and are, I think, making real progress.

To be clear: yes, we’re having a conversation about ideology provoked by a Slate photo caption. This is probably somewhat silly. And indeed, it may seem like we talk about this kind of thing all the time. Perhaps we do! But this is a set of assumptions we encounter all the time–at least I know I do.

Whenever I tell anyone I’m a book editor, his or her first question is always about publishing’s relationship to the digital age. Most people are shocked when I tell them that all of Melville House’s books–and most books from other publishers–are available as e-books, and have been for years. I never ask about their impression of the publishing industry, but that’s because it’s obvious from their questions. Their sense of genuine shock at my answers tells me something: it suggests that people think of book publishing (which, as you say, is such a broad category as to be almost meaningless) as a relic, when in fact the difference between not adapting brilliantly to new technologies and rejecting them outright is pretty enormous.

The question that’s worth asking is: why? Why is that people continue to think this way? Is it because we find the narrative of the self-publishing advocates and Amazon and #disruption inherently appealing? Is it because we think of publishing as inhabited by old-fashioned, martini-drinking, den-occupying, candlelight-writing-by people in tweed, rather than cool people like you and me, who know all about Mumford and Sons and Periscope?

Alex: This is probably the most sweeping Two For Tuesday we’ve done yet and, Jesus Christ, it was kicked off by a Slate caption in an article about a publicity stunt conducted by a discount airline—I don’t know if anything is as funny (or depressing!) to me as that. It’s possible that this was kicked off by some insecurity, but I don’t think it’s that—I don’t feel particularly insecure about the publishing industry’s present or future, I just think we’ve maybe been building to this. (That said, Matt Yglesias has the power to kick off the most #fire Two For Tuesday ever, so let’s hope he never gets the launch codes.)

I think this conversation gets at something important, though: disruption is fundamentally appealing. Everyone wants to be ahead of the curve. Everyone wants to do things better. Everything wants to be more efficient. Everyone thinks that there’s a way to do all of these things in a way that doesn’t disrupt the product itself.

I think that this gets at something about this column and, hell, about this blog, too—this isn’t really a column, or a blog about the publishing industry so much as it is about a very specific subset of the publishing industry. We publish and care deeply about books that we think matter—they have to show results, sure, but we also see them as contributing in a broader sense as well. I guess, to speak rather broadly, we care about literary fiction, nonfiction, and reporting (or reportage, if you’re a weirdo), which is a percentage of what a big house does but is 100% of what we do here, or at least very close to it.

My problem with the disruption narrative is that it’s focused on “improving” production without ever actually thinking about what goes into production itself. The problem with publishing, if you’re Jeff Bezos, is that it’s labor intensive. You want books to be cheaper. But if you want books to be cheaper, they have to be cheaper to produce and the problem with the part of the industry that you and I work in is that it’s particularly labor intensive—we toil over making books better. We toil (I hate that word, but fuck it) to make books matter and to make them continue to matter over a long period of time.

It’s certainly possible that technology will aid and abet that process to make the kind of work that we do redundant—improving the quality of books and improving the visibility of quality books—but I haven’t seen anything disruptive, anything more “efficient,” that actually does that. For the most part, on the contrary, the disruptors have had the opposite effect—the result has been an industry that puts out more crap and that doesn’t have the resources to support the good stuff that it works on (in part because it’s putting out more crap). If there was a way we could put out better books quicker, cheaper, and more efficiently I would be first on board to sign up, but I haven’t seen that. Instead, I’ve seen people move towards a model that instead relies on outsourcing the kind of work we’re engaged in—a model that turns us into contractors.

Part of the problem is that I think that the corporate publishing model as it stands is unsustainable—that it demands higher profit margins than are possible for the kinds of books we want to see. But that’s a subject for another Two For Tuesday!

Also lol omg this all started about a photo caption. But I guess this is an overlong column named after a bad classic rock radio trope, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Come at me, disruptors.

Mark: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ is right. Is this column our Second Coming? Our Be Here Now? Our some other bloated, cocaine-fueled album by a 1990s English rock band? Should we play some Stone Roses, or am I not allowed to pick the music after your disappointment with my Joni Mitchell selection last week?

Alex: We should play Queen. Queen rules. “Nothing’s gonna stop us now!” And, uh, something else.

Mark: Ugh, okay. Fine. I mean, I’m an Eastern European, so I’m genetically predisposed to love them, even if, intellectually, I think Queen is horrible.

Alex: Queen is wonderful on every level. Here are two killer Queen songs.