Here’s a letter I wrote to my girlfriend, whose fourth book was published on August 31st. I’ve been looking at her Amazon numbers, and I’ve been noodling around, trying to figure out what the world of books looks like—in part because I want to know how her new book performs, in part because I come from what you could call a “publishing background” (once upon a time, I wrote editorials for a left-wing newspaper and worked as a copyeditor for a textbook publisher), and in part because I’m writing a trade book meant for an audience wider than the mere hundreds who’ve read the last four. I haven’t figured anything out, but there’s a germ of a cool idea here, in the notion of primitive disaccumulation I mention. See what you think, I’m working on it. Meanwhile, that trade book is at 54,000 words, close to completion. We’ll see where it goes.
The possibility of ordering a used copy of the book six weeks after publication makes me ask several questions about the delivery systems we take for granted. They’re all analogical questions, and so they’re probably insufficiently digital to compute in and for our time. Even so.
Is publishing already on the road to ruin paved by the music industry–stuck with defending copyrights that apply to material artifacts? Is ordering a used book six weeks after publication something like waiting for the DVD instead of seeing the movie at the theater? Well, no, because the studio gets paid either way, but yes in the sense that Netflix reduces the cost of seeing the movie to a small fraction of the Cineplex price. No in the sense that the Cineplex delivers the full “movie-going experience,” the darkened theater and all that, but yes in the sense that improved “home entertainment systems” erase the difference and let you stay at home.
I want to think of the music business as the template of the future for publishing. Emphasis on “want,” I’m not sure of where either business will go. But look at it this way. More people listen to more music, and more people produce and distribute their own music, than ever before, but sales of CDs keep declining. Why? A rhetorical question, I admit. Because the production and delivery of the goods have become so DIY: you don’t “pay” for the content except in the time it takes you to mix the beats and the sounds, or download the tracks, or set up the webcam and perform.
There’s also the sensibility of sampling at large here. This speaks directly to your ideas about changing audiences, in video and in books. You and I are accustomed to reading whole books, “cover to cover” as they used to say, in a straight line. That’s how we learned to write books that had beginnings, middles, and ends. But when you think about it, the research for the books we wrote was always a sampling of the archive, for me anyway it always involved ransacking the books of other authors. I admit to a certain systematic method of reading when it’s “on background,” when I’m trying to get educated, but not when I’m writing something, then it’s just pillage the index and pull out the quote.
So the music industry works both ways, for and against my argument. The money is in the tours and the concerts now, only there. The business model says work toward an iTunes template, beef up the bottom line when it comes to selling the recordings. But the kids will always be a step ahead, able to download shit for free. Except as gifts, or as the totems of middle age, the material artifacts, the things (CDs) themselves don’t exist. Does the publishing industry face the same future?
More people read more stuff, and more people produce and distribute their own writing, than ever before: the blogosphere has changed everything. Here’s the rub. The reading audience has expanded, but the market hasn’t. What does that mean? What can that mean for writers like you? The Slate series was a kind of test–they paid you, but less than they used to, and the content you provided was original, but there’s no justifiable alignment of real effort and actual reward here unless you’re an itinerant musician happy to get paid anything for a gig.
And now that I’m into the thematic. This will piss you off, but hey. In the grand scheme of things, in the history of capitalism, “primitive accumulation” was the decisive move, the decisive moment, in the making of the modern world. When you turn everything into a commodity, you know where you stand–on quicksand, on the vicissitudes of the market. It took a long time, and a lot of hangings, to convince the beggars and the thieves and the outlaws–not to mention the ordinary people with mouths to feed–that once-common things, things just there for the taking, like the air and the land itself, had become commodities you had to buy to be used. It took three centuries and a lot of Indian hating.
And now? I said the reading audience has expanded but the market hasn’t. Could we then be witness to a process I’ll call primitive disaccumulation, and characterize as the fitful and incomplete removal of artifacts and activities once contained within the circuits of the commodity form? That’s my guess.
If I’m right, you and I won’t be happy as authors expecting sales and royalty checks. Especially you, and I say that because you’re the better writer with the wider audience, not because you’re more cravenly market-driven than I am. But as old-line socialists, we can be happy about this strange process