Friday, December 2, 2011

Deja Vu All Over Again

Plus ça change ...
Most towns in Britain are without an adequate independent bookshop. The distribution of books and magazines, outside a few fortunate centres, is in the hands of powerful chains of shops. These chains apply to books and magazines simple tests of quantity. Below a certain likely selling figure, they are not interested, and will not even offer the item for sale. (They are said also to refuse certain publications, on "moral" grounds. These are not exactly apparent, when one looks at the familiar counters.) Thus the successful book or magazine will get around, but the book or magazine which might be bought, if it were available on anything like equal terms, will in many cases simply not be there. Even in paperbacks, where there is quite good distribution of the full range, there is increasing pressure towards the book that will sell quickly, so that there is no problem of holding stocks. If this situation is allowed to persist and develop, the real opportunities of the coming of cheap books will be missed.
The only factor missing from this description of the dismal state of bookselling in the UK (though it should also sound familiar in the US) is online sales, and of course e-books. That's because it was written more than forty-five years ago.

I'm almost done reading Raymond Williams's Communications (2nd edition, Chatto & Windus, 1966), which is where I found the passage I quoted above, on page 153. It's a short book, but full of information and ideas and recommendations. I'll probably be quoting from it again in these parts. What caught me about the quoted passage is that it describes a state of affairs that I thought was relatively new: the corporate concentration of media, the reduction of information to a commodity, the way this process causes even newspapers of high circulation to be closed down because though many people buy them, they don't get enough advertising revenue. And though Williams doesn't say so, it's the audience/readership that is the product in the media as we know them -- including the increasingly corporate Internet -- to be sold to the customer: the advertiser. He does describe the phenomenon, then relatively new, of "inter-company and public opinion advertising", which aims "at no direct or (for most people) conceivable buying. The products they advertise could only be bought by quite large organizations, and often only by quite specialized trades" (40). What they are selling is prestige and image, perhaps the corporate equivalent of a great ape pounding its chest and bellowing its prowess to the world.

The concentration of the media -- where a dwindling number of conglomerates own more and more production and distribution companies, whether television and radio stations or newspapers and magazines -- has gotten worse since Williams wrote this book, and he was not the first person to point it out. But it's important to remember that the problems we face aren't new. (The brief history of media and entertainment Williams spins in one chapter will be useful to anyone who doesn't know much about it yet.) It's also important to remember that solutions, good ones, have been proposed all along the way. But nostalgia for a golden age when every town had an independent bookstore, run by a literate and knowledgeable proprietor, while newspapers printed the truth and left opinion to the editorial page, is as misplaced as most nostalgia.