Postcapitalist Books: Book Fetish — Pamphlet 2

The Proposition: Houses Publish BOOKS. Writers, organizing themselves into Houses, publish their texts as e-books, making them available to readers not as commodities but as cultural resources.

The cannibal sits at his elegant hardwood desk surrounded floor to ceiling, rank upon rank, by books. Like his gourmet culinary artistry and his impeccable professional reputation as a psychiatrist, the vast personal library serves as cover: surely this sophisticated blue blood is above suspicion. But isn’t it possible to read his cover? The psychiatrist delicately probes beneath the skull into the mind; the haute cuisinier prepares aesthetically challenging meals featuring organ meats; the killer constructs aesthetically challenging sculptures featuring the bones and hollowed-out skins of his victims. The library too is an artistic set piece, more conventional surely than the cannibal’s other installations. He has opened the books; one by one he has gutted and consumed them; now he positions himself as centerpiece of a vast sculpture of spines and skins of books.

My mental image of a book coincides with the visual image of the books lining the cannibal’s shelves. A book is a physical object that I can see. I can tell a book by its cover: if it has a cover, it’s a book. I can hold it in my hands, read what’s on its covers, flip through pages bound firmly along one edge. The design is simple, elegant, immediately recognizable, iconic. Many books are arrayed on bookshelves in our apartment.

I’ve written several books, but not a single one of them looks like a book from my imagination or from my shelves. The books I’ve written exist only as computer files. Though I can display the words of my books on my computer screen, I can’t see the books on the drive, can’t hold them in my hands, can’t line them up on a shelf, can’t use them as props validating my status as a real writer.

But are they real books? Not until they’re published and bound – that’s what a friend told me over dinner at his place after I’d informed him that I’d recently finished writing another book. It’s not a book: it’s just a pile of paper, and not even that if it takes up space only on a computer drive. I called him a dick maybe half a dozen times and stormed out without even waiting for dessert. That was five years ago – I haven’t seen him since.

Still, he and I have sustained an intermittent email correspondence. Over the past few months I received two parcels by post from him; each contained a book, printed and bound. The first was an edited compilation of scholarly essays, including one that he had written and that I had read and critiqued in draft form while we were still on speaking terms; the second, an edited compilation of archived written correspondences that existed only in manuscript form back then. I was acknowledged in each book; in the front of each my friend had handwritten a personal inscription and autograph. I thanked him by email for the gifts and read them, providing him with written commentary.

Why then, if I send one of my books to a friend, do I feel like I’m asking a favor rather than offering a gift? In part it’s because a printed book has passed muster, having been declared worthy by the publisher, the imprimatur made manifest in ink and paper and glue. But it’s also because a printed book has the look and feel of a real book.

In the old days an author wrote or typed a book on paper, so the typeset and printed copies distributed by a publisher constituted a more polished version of the original manuscript. I write my books on a computer. A downloaded computer file of one of my books is a lot closer to the original manuscript than is a printed and bound replica. Original written or typed manuscripts of famous books fetch a lot of money at auction. After contemporary celebrated authors pass from the scene, will their heirs sell the hard drives on which their forebears wrote their famous books?

In the old old days books were copied out by hand. Copies weren’t identical – not with each other, not with the original. Handwritings varied in legibility and calligraphic artistry; lapses in attention were inevitable; the copyist’s urge to comment on or to correct the source material might find its way into the text. In effect, each copy was itself an original. Two thousand years ago an itinerant scholar could have studied the same Greek philosophical text at libraries from Athens to Pergamum to Alexandria and found multiple different wordings in each copy. When I was back there in seminary school, interpreting the writings of, say, the Apostle Paul, my fellow scholars and I would consult source documents that conformed as closely to the original Biblical manuscript as we could. Instead of relying on English translations we would read the texts in ancient Greek. Instead of relying on a unified redaction of the Greek we would scrutinize variants that appeared in different early fragments, attempting through textual cladistics to trace the variations back to common traditions, tracking generations of copyist ancestors back to the closest approximation possible of what the text must have looked like in the beginning when Paul himself put pen to parchment. But there is no original, nor even any legend about what fate befell it. The original has receded from material existence into essence, spirit, fetish.

Some might argue that the premodern era of unique variations from a nonexistent original persists into the postmodern age. A text operates in dynamic relation with readers; every reader is different; and so every reader reads a different and unique text. That’s a fine abstraction, though it might not prove particularly satisfying to most actual readers or, for that matter, to most writers. In an age of mass production and efficient supply-chain logistics and capitalism there is a more direct and tangible way for readers to have their cake and eat it too, to have one’s own unique hard copy of a book that’s identical to the original: I bought this one, and so it’s mine.

Commodity fetishism, Marx called it.

A lot of work goes into turning the writer’s manuscript into a real book: copy editing, formatting, cover design, printing, shipping, storage, sales. Materials too: paper and ink and whatever it is that hardback covers are made out of, trucks and fuel, warehouse space and retail shelf space. Each link in the chain triggers a transaction: paying the workers, paying for the materials, paying managers, paying taxes. The cumulative difference between cost and price is profit, which is the excess you are willing to pay over and above the book’s merit as a text so that you can take it home from the bookstore as an elegant object to be mounted proudly on your bookshelf as an emblem of your sophistication and taste. Profit is the quantifiable measure of fetish value.

What do you get if you strip away all of the time and materials that go into transforming a text into a fetish object? Is it the leftover residue that remains after you strip the book of its bookness – the pile of paper or, even less, the jumble of electronic bits on a computer drive? Or is it the real book, the original text, the words of the writer?

A commodity isn’t just an isolated object displayed on a shelf; it’s also a nexus of commercial exchange. A commodity is subject to the mechanisms of supply and demand. Its use value to the purchaser is part of the exchange price, but so too is its fetish value. Fetishes are more valuable if they’re hard to get – that is, they command a higher price if the supply is limited. An original Picasso sells for far more than a print. Printed books aren’t particularly hard to get. Still, there are costs, and so supply isn’t unlimited, and the price per copy is significantly more than zero. But a lot of the cost is intangible, incurred in transforming the book into a fetish.

Strip away the labor and materials transforming a book into a fetish object and you get…an e-book. No printing and binding, no shipping and warehousing, no holding it in your hands and displaying it on your bookshelf. The cost of production is lower than that for a physical book, and so is the retail price. What’s surprising is that the prices for e-books aren’t even lower. It is possible that readers have come to realize that the value of a book is to be found in the writing, not in the packaging. It’s also possible that readers choose to download books for which there is little fetish value – pulp fiction that you’d rather carry around in a brown paper wrapper, never wanting to acknowledge your bad taste in public or to your house guests. Maybe in college you lined your dorm room walls with empty PBR cans; now you’ve got the vintage wines and the single-malt scotches on display. Cheap trash calls for cheap downloads; reserve your hardback budget and your shelf space for the classy stuff.

I used to buy books. I’ve got shelves full of books. Though I’ve read them all, I rarely do anything with them now other than glance occasionally at the spines. They take up a lot of space, and they’re a lot of work to haul around when you change residences. My personal library contains maybe half of the books it once did, the ranks having been purged mostly the trashy stuff when I was packing boxes for a move to France. And I’ve not replaced the old books with new ones. I don’t buy e-books either. I get my books from the library.

Driving to the local branch library is no less convenient than driving to the bookstore at the mall, though I acknowledge that buying books online would be far more convenient than either option. If I’m looking for some particular book from the library I typically reserve it in advance, online. If all goes well I’m notified a few days later that my book has been transported from the main library and is waiting for me to pick up from the reserve stacks at my local branch. Popular new titles have waiting lists, which means a delay of a couple of weeks, sometimes more, before I can get my hands on them. Sometimes I want a book that isn’t in the library’s holdings; then I have to make a special interlibrary loan request, which can take a month or more to fulfill. Obviously I don’t get to keep the books I check out from the library, and I don’t always finish reading them before I have to return them. Still, I don’t have to buy them.

The thing is, I shouldn’t have to buy e-books either. There are no variable costs associated with printing, transporting, warehousing, and distributing copies of e-books, so I ought to be able to download them for free. And I shouldn’t ever have to return downloaded e-books to the library either, since an unlimited number of copies of the same book can be made and distributed at no cost.

It turns out that you don’t actually “return” an e-book to the library: it’s just that your time-limited online access to the book expires. Not only is the individual library user’s access to the e-book time-limited – so is the library’s. In effect, the library rents e-books rather than buying them. After a certain number of people borrow the e-book, or after a predetermined interval of time has elapsed, the library’s right to loan out the e-book expires. The library then has to pay another fee to the publisher in order to renew its lender’s license for that book. Instead of letting readers take advantage of the cost-free duplication and distribution potential of e-books, the publishing industry turns book usage into a metered transaction – like buying gasoline at the pump. Instead of charging libraries less for e-books, the publishing industry ends up charging them more.

I remember when watching television was free. Instead of a cable or a satellite dish you had an antenna on your roof or on top of your TV set to catch the signals. Of course the shows would be interrupted frequently by commercials, but access cost the viewer nothing. I still watch basketball games and television serials and movies online for free, without subscribing to the networks or buying the films. Maybe I’m a pirate, watching shows made available to unscrupulous viewers like me by virtue (or by vice) of hacker ingenuity. Or maybe it’s all perfectly legal – frankly I’d rather not know. Either way, I’m paying the cable a lot of money every month for the minor thrill and the possible risk of working the system.

It must not be that hard to hack a television signal or an audio recording. How about hacking a book? It requires persistence to scan and upload a physical book one page at a time, but the technology is readily available and the process is straightforward. How about e-books? Nothing to it: just click the button. But not so fast. The book industry has gone to great lengths to make simple things difficult, to make free things cost money. If you buy or borrow an e-book from most sources, the book has been e-rigged, so that duplicating it is impossible. You can’t even give your own e-copy of the book away or resell it or lend it to a friend. You might have paid for it, but do you actually own it?

Cable could be free to the individual user, just like the antenna-captured transmissions of yore. Of course the cable doesn’t lay itself: an extensive infrastructure must be put in place. But these are largely fixed costs. Once the cable is laid down and the connections to the houses are made, the ongoing cost of transmitting the signals is reduced to a fraction of the startup expense. Imagine a nation, a city, a neighborhood agreeing to pay collectively up-front for the cable infrastructure and a small ongoing fee for transmission and maintenance, in exchange for free ongoing access to cable services by every user within the collective. Instead of a metered commodity paid for in perpetuity by individual consumers, cable would be a public utility. Like the library.

For an e-book, the traditional fixed costs – writing, editing, formatting – remain. It’s the per-book variable costs of printing, warehousing, distributing, and shelving physical books that are eliminated. Still, the book industry persists in selling e-books one at a time, the expectation being that the fixed costs can be covered by selling enough e-copies. But doesn’t this economic model have it all backward? Variable per-unit costs are zero, so the per-book price too should be zero. What’s needed is a means of covering the fixed costs of turning a manuscript into a book, because the individual e-book copies can be distributed freely to one and all.

In short, the e-book industry would be replaced by an e-book utility.

Strangely, money might not be the main obstacle to establishing a book utility. Few published authors are able to earn a living from book sales alone, while many writers prefer the freedom of self-publishing even if the expectations of financial gain are significantly lower than what corporate publishers offer. And of course the short story publishing world thrives even though, for most publications, the writers aren’t paid at all. If as a writer I could make $10,000 per book distributed through a book utility would I be satisfied? Yes, especially if I knew that the book would be widely read. How about $5,000? $1,000?

But who would pay me my $1,000 if copies of my book are being freely distributed to readers? Nobles and bishops aren’t in the habit of patronizing writers these days. Not many novel-writing grants are bestowed by governments or charitable foundations. University-level teachers of creative writing can presumably get paid enough to subsidize their own creative writing endeavors, but those gigs are few and far between.

What about libraries? The infrastructure is already in place: counting local branch facilities there are more than 16,000 public libraries in the US. Suppose a thousand libraries bought my book for $10 per copy: that’s $10K right there; I’d be fully patronized, not by a single government grant or a sugar daddy but by a thousand $10 grants. And the cardholders would benefit. Each of those thousand libraries, by purchasing its single copy of my book, would acquire the right to duplicate and distribute e-copies of it to any or all of its members, for no charge, with no returns and no waiting.

At least a physical book is a stand-alone system: pluck it off the shelf and you’re good to go. To read an e-book you need to load it onto a device. Admittedly these devices cost money, but the good news is that the price has come down substantially, to the point where now you can buy one for less than the price of two hardback books. That’s still more than nothing, and more than some readers might be able to afford, even if the device does give them free unrestricted ownership of every book they download from the book utility. Checking out a physical book from the library costs you nothing, even if you do have to go there to pick it up. The book checkout does, on the other hand, cost the library something: not just the one-time price it paid for the book, but also the physical shelf space and the labor required for reshelving the book once you’ve returned it. Which is the better use of a public utility’s money: to pay for space and labor to handle physical inventory, or to make e-readers available for free to patrons who can’t afford them?

In an era of shrinking government, public libraries face tight budgetary constraints. Even if the library could give away unlimited free copies of each and every book in its holdings, it would still have to pay for its own copy, which for budgetary purposes would cost the library no less than the book it lends out one patron at a time. The incentive to stock the virtual shelves of the giveaway public book utility lies not with the local government but with the local readers. All it would take is for one person to buy a copy of a book and donate it to the local library: then all of the other library members could download their own free copies.

But what about the fetish value? The economic value of a book to the individual purchaser is its purchase price. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Suppose the e-book utility scheme were to come into reality, with readers downloading their own copies of e-books for free. If a book costs nothing to own, is it worth anything? Maybe a free download is valued only if it’s been pirated. If it’s a book that most people pay good money for but that I’ve managed to get my hands on by hook or crook, then the book retains its commodity fetish value even if I didn’t spend a dime for it. I even get the added thrill of sticking it to the man, thereby enhancing my own self-perceived fetish value as a post-capitalist renegade. What happens when there’s no man to stick it to?

But the man isn’t likely to be going away any time soon – at least not voluntarily. The value of a book to its publisher is its return on investment: aggregate sales receipts less total costs. Total costs are the sum of fixed and variable costs. E-books can be reproduced and distributed for no variable costs, so sales need cover only the fixed costs. Once those fixed costs have been covered, then every additional copy of the book is sold for pure profit. The main fixed cost in producing an e-book is the writer’s time and effort, which the industry compensates at far less than minimum wage, so the e-book publisher can turn a profit on a book long before its author breaks even. Now suppose that e-books were distributed not as commodities but as a public utility. Individual copies of books would be sold only to libraries, with aggregate sales intended to cover the fixed costs, consisting mostly of the writer’s work. If revenues exceed costs the publisher would still net a profit, but the ceiling would be pretty low, since there are only so many libraries, with each buying at most only one copy of each book. The economic benefit of mass readership goes not to the commercial publisher, nor even to the writer, but to the readers themselves – free copies for everyone. Would commercial publishers go for this sort of arrangement, where profits are systematically capped? Put it this way: they haven’t done it yet.

Whereas most books attain only modest financial and cultural impact, a few achieve significant profitability and fetish value: the bestsellers. Although high sales volume doesn’t make a book any more scarce or rare a commodity than it was before, its status as bestseller makes it more attractive to readers, driving sales and profits even higher. The industry derives a significant proportion of its profitability from bestsellers. In our imagined book utility an e-book is bought only by libraries, and only one copy per library. If every public library branch in the US bought a copy of a book, that’s 16 thousand copies total. At ten bucks a pop the book would generate $160K in aggregate revenues – not a windfall, but not bad either. Still, most books probably wouldn’t achieve such widespread societal distribution in the book utility model. Let’s say the average book is acquired by a quarter of the libraries: that’s 4 thousand copies and $40K revenue. The publishing industry would probably abandon ship, unable to generate enough return to compete with alternative opportunities available to investors.

But what if the writers owned and ran their own publishing companies? Eliminate the variable costs and the time lag entailed in turning books into commodities, eliminate the middlemen and investors, and most of that $40K per book goes to the writers. Now maybe the writer can earn a living wage. Then there’s the multiplier effect: each book purchased by a local library could be freely copied and distributed to a dozen readers, a hundred readers, a thousand… An e-book distributed widely and freely through local book utilities could attain a cultural cachet equivalent to or surpassing that of a bestseller even if no money changes hands. I’m guessing that a lot of writers would go for this arrangement, even if it meant abandoning the dream of making a fortune by writing industry-published bestsellers.

If, for e-books, the commodity form of value passes into obsolescence and is replaced by the utility form, would commodity-based metrics likewise pass into disuse? Maybe not. Sales and downloads are measures of popularity. It could be argued that popularity is the best metric for estimating societal value. That’s how most government officials are elected in a representative democracy: whoever gets the most individual votes wins. The cynic will point out that elections can be bought, that voters can be swayed by sales campaigns, that popular elections measure not what’s best for us collectively but what the greatest number of individuals believe – or are led to believe – is best for them personally. In short, democratic elections are a lot like capitalist marketplaces, where the candidates are the commodities. Might as well keep selling books one at a time if that’s the best we can do.

Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.

That’s what Oscar Wilde had to say on the matter. In moving beyond the commodification of books should we adopt the point of view of a Victorian-era decadent aesthete who also attained pop celebrity status during his heyday? Maybe.

I don’t like to think of my fictions – neither the ones I read nor the ones I write – as works of art. It seems pretentious, precious, presumptuous. At the same time, I don’t regard my fictions as entertainments – trivial, frivolous, demeaning. Maybe I’m just a middle-class Midwestern middlebrow at heart. I’m equally ambivalent about why I read fictions, and about why others do, or should. When it comes to evaluating fictional texts I lack conviction; I’m intimidated when critics promulgate their literary judgments as established truths, but I’m enough of a snob to dismiss popularity as bad taste.

Here’s a variant on the Wildean epigram: Science should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself scientific. I endorse this maxim wholeheartedly: scientific findings should be held to standards higher than popularity. If most environmental scientists assert that humans are causing global warming, I expect their consensus to be based not on what they stand to gain personally in terms of money and prestige, not on groupthink, but on reliable empirical evidence evaluated according to rigorous standards. Or another variant: Justice should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself just. Amen to that. I would hope that a defendant is found guilty or not based on the weight of the evidence rather than on the lawyers’ rhetorical seductions or the bandwagon of majority opinion taking shape in the jury room.

Are there objective or universally accepted criteria against which the merits and flaws of a fictional text can be weighed? Are there literary critics with such impeccable taste that their judgments cannot be doubted? No and no. Beauty, some say, is in the eye of the beholder: does that maxim translate into a beauty pageant where the eyes have it, where the sum of individual purchasing decisions or “likes” determines the winner? In the preceding pamphlet I proposed that the book industry runs like a beauty pageant where individual winners and losers might be selected by popular vote but where all of the contestants are selected by the pageant organizers. Maybe this is the most persuasive fetish value bestowed on every published book: it has been entered into the contest, prejudged by the judges as meeting high enough standards to join the competition. The published book is imbued with the plenitude of having been chosen, an aura that precedes and presages its enshrinement in material form, a plenitude not intrinsic to the book itself but bestowed upon it by the judges who, sequestered from public view, perform their transformative magic. It is the exercise of this occult power, investing word with spirit and spirit with matter, that transforms a published book into a fetish object. It is for the exercise of this transformative power that the magicians – the publishers and their agents – receive in tribute the fetish value, which is the price paid over and above the book’s cost of production, over and above its use value to the reader. Which is the profit.

But now we’re imagining a transformation not only of the book but also of the world that the book occupies – not the fetish but the niche. In the olden days, when books were copied out by hand, the book was enshrined in a library. The ancient book was valued as a cultural resource, a rare object, an artifact around which the community could gather. Copies weren’t distributed among the people; instead, the people came to the copy, admiring it, studying it, paying it homage. In the modern era, mass-produced copies of books were set loose to circulate in the marketplace, being bought and sold as commodities. The book became a consumer good, a node linking seller and buyer in the capitalist exchange circuitry. Now, in imagining books as public utilities, we’re talking about freeing the copied books entirely, no longer restricting their circulation to those able and willing to pay the price. Would the book be restored to its status as a cultural resource? Or would it be swept up in a widespread late-capitalistic race to the bottom, where the value of work is discounted to the vanishing point?

Maybe – and this might just be my personal crackpot theory – the freely distributed book presages the next phase in the expansion of human society. In the premodern era texts were precious cultural icons, positioned at the center of human settlements, surrounded by ramparts and protected by citadels. The modern era decentered books, dispersing them throughout society as commodities. Still, supplies remain limited. Maybe now, with free duplication, the dispersion of books could extend the parameters of human society itself. A book no longer points to itself or to those who own it; it no longer centers or circulates. Instead the book permeates, becoming part of the culture itself, as readily available to any and all as the language in which it is written. No longer constrained by walls or exchange networks, the book as a carrier of culture is freed to extend itself without material or financial limit. In that world, books would serve as transport terminals, as portals opening into an expanded multiverse.

On what criteria should books be deemed worthy of inclusion in a society-wide Grand Central Station of portals? And who should render the decisions? The answers might not make themselves evident until we – writers, readers, books – begin to occupy that cultural multiverse. The precise curatorship by which the ancient libraries added painstakingly copied books to their holdings would seem excessive in an era of free reproduction and distribution. Marketplace democracy – widespread popularity among consumers that translates into sales – would likewise no longer be necessary. Maybe Oscar Wilde’s aphorism would prove apt. Artistry, like knowledge and justice, need not be barricaded or hoarded as a scarce resource limited to the elite. When it’s free, when it becomes a universal societal resource, good judgment can be cultivated by anyone.

Alternatively, if most of us find ourselves immiserated in the late-capitalist apocalypse, we might all be looking for the cheapest, most effective escape routes we can find, even if those escapes are purely imaginary. Then maybe the standards for judging fictional texts, for judging the portals to which they grant their readers access, would have nothing to do with art and everything to do with survival.

I’ve never read a book on an e-reader. I received one of these devices as a present a few months back but I still haven’t used it, haven’t even looked at it, don’t know how it works. I read books the old-fashioned way, by picking them up in my hands and turning the pages. Meanwhile I’m touting the e-book – why is that? Well, for the reasons I’ve already outlined: speeding the transmission of texts from writers to readers, eliminating variable costs of duplication and distribution, cutting out the middle men and the profits they extract from the publishing business, giving writers and readers more of a say in deciding which books are to be deemed cultural resources. I fully subscribe to all of those benefits. And eliminating the fetish value of the printed book? Alas, that’s where I fall short.

I wasn’t one of those kids who read every chance he got, who couldn’t keep his hands off of books or pry his eyes away from the pages. When I was eight years old I didn’t write short stories, didn’t script and stage theatrical performances with my neighborhood pals, didn’t fantasize about being a writer. I’ve never collected first editions; I have given away many of my old books; I check books out of the library rather than buying them. I write fictions on a computer. Toward the end of one of them the main character, an unpublished novelist named Bud, is browsing through a bookstore. He overhears someone reading aloud. As he gets closer he recognizes what’s being read: it’s one of his own books.

Bud ducked down the next aisle of books, looking for his name in the alphabetical array. He found the right stack, then the right shelf. There were two copies of each of three books bearing his name. He recognized the titles: novels he had written and stuck in a drawer awaiting a miracle of discovery.

No one can accuse me of being a realistic fiction writer. In my fictions the fetishes often turn out to be more real than just about anything. My own books remain undiscovered, so there’s still time for me to fix this scene, to purge Bud of his fetishistic fantasy, to have him, say, browse through somebody’s Kindle and be surprised to discover some of his own books in the collection. But I know Bud, and I know he’s not that sort of guy.

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