Sunday, November 14, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Band of Thebes had a post this past week about the decline of print.
Did you buy a physical book in September? Was it a lonely experience? The Association of American Publishers announced their September results, showing drastic declines in printed book sales, whether purchased in a store or online. Electronic book sales have nearly doubled.
In addition, phone companies are phasing out physical phonebooks -- a mixed curse, as BoT concedes, and numerous big publications are going to stop publishing print editions: U. S. News & World Report in December, and the New York Times "sometime in the future." "Enjoy it online while it's still free, this month and next," BoT warns darkly. "The NYT website pay wall is coming in the first quarter of 2011."

There are (at least) two different things going on here, I think: one is the apparent decline of ink-on-paper publication, another is the question of free online resources. I see no reason why the Times necessarily ought to be free, and of course nothing is free, someone is paying to keep those pixels glowing. I haven't been paying that much attention, since I've never read the New York Times with anything like regularity, but I seem to recall a pay firewall for NYT content not all that long ago, in human as opposed to Internet years. I was surprised when I learned that the firewall had come down, but that was at the same time that we began hearing about the crisis of the Newspaper.

Unlike many people, I don't seem to have this sense of entitlement which decrees that all media should be available on the Web for free, even though I grew up in the age of broadcast media, with radio and TV available to all for no more than the cost of a receiver. But you got what you paid for, and you always had to deal with commercials. (Not so long ago one of my right-wing Facebook friends complained about advertising on TV and on the Internet, and claimed that he'd pay more for ad-free access to both. Pardon me if I don't believe that, if only because he loves complaining too much to give it up, and preferably complaining over trivia rather than substance.) On the other hand, print media were available for free (supported with tax dollars, of course, not really free) in public libraries. It was in libraries that I discovered print news media far superior in terms of information and variety of views to TV and most radio.

Even when cable TV came along, you were paying (at least at first) for reception, not for content. That never offended me in principle, especially with the promise of access to more stations than most of us could get outside of large cities. But all that promise quickly faded, and of course I hadn't been watching TV since the mid-Sixties. Most Americans seem to have embraced the explosion of junk content on TV (ESPN! ESPN2! Reality TV!), which didn't keep them from complaining about it. Cable ended up carrying the logic of centralized electronic media -- and really, of commercial media in general -- to its conclusion. Audiences were and are the product, to be sold to advertisers. Premium channels like Showtime and HBO have apparently provided limited niches for real creativity, but capital-intensive media are always going to have this problem.

Somewhere I saw an interview with the genius Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, who remarked philosophically that making movies is expensive, and he wasn't really surprised if investors didn't want to support his habit, since the movies he made were not particularly commercial and wouldn't repay the investment. This has always been the problem for artists who want autonomy to do what they want, but need patronage to produce what may have no (or insufficient) audiences waiting for it. But that, I suspect, is another post.

What worries me about the decline of print is the changing model of distribution that goes along with it. You don't buy a copy of the book that you then can dispose of more or less as you please -- lend, hand down to another reader, give away, sell, or for that matter chop up or burn if you want to -- you get a license to a digital copy that you don't own and which the distributor can legally recall at will. (This is presumably a legacy of software licensing, which works according to the same model.) According to this article, which crystallized my personal wariness of the Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook reader allows for some book sharing, but in general libraries are still figuring out to how to adjust to e-books. Many readers blame the libraries, says the blogger, but the real roadblock lies with the publishers. (One commenter, who accuses the blogger of being "innacurate" [sic], thought that the fuss was about prices. If it weren't that so many people are so dumb, I'd suspect the commenter of being a shill for the publishers.) It's all very well if you have a Kindle and a credit card and live within range of Amazon's wireless signal, but not everyone does; and with the economy not looking good, I'm not reassured by the promise of cheaper e-reading devices or e-books. I worry about the future of lending libraries, as they used to be called, if books can't be lent anymore.

By the way, I notice that the local Borders bookstore will be closing in January. This doesn't concern me much, except to sympathize with the staff who'll be losing their jobs, partly because the store had been paring back its stock for some time. Maybe it will help the independent bookstores, mostly downtown, who always got most of my business anyway. (I bought books at Borders with discount coupons; if I was going to pay full price, I went to an independent.) Big bookstores, much as I love them (I nearly fainted the first time I walked into the University of Chicago's Seminary Book Co-op, but that was a very different kind of place), are dinosaurs; independents may be like those little ratty mammals that survived the big extinction that wiped the thunder lizards out.

By the way, lest it seem I'm dodging BoT's provocative opening questions: Yes, I bought nineteen physical books in September. Nineteen. Four new books: two from independent local bookstores, one from a chain with a discount coupon, one ordered online from an independent dealer. The rest were used, from a mix of local dealers (including the public library's book sale), and online independents. Was it a lonely experience? Not particularly -- buying books has usually been a solitary practice for me. But I'm not a typical American (surprised?).