The Proposition: Readers establish coperative LIBRARIES for copying and distributing Houses‘ e-books. Readers self-organize a network of virtual local libraries that purchase e-books from writers’ publishing houses and distribute free copies to their members.
* * *
The electronic book speeds the process of moving from manuscript to finished product while reducing the cost of duplication and distribution to zero. It’s possible to envision a future economy where readers download all the books they want for free. In today’s existing economy the only technological barriers to free downloads are artificial ones, strapped onto the e-books by their distributors in order to protect their merchandise. Suppose those artificial restrictions are lifted or, more likely, hacked, enabling free, immediate, on-demand, unlimited downloads of all e-books. Most authors already earn next to nothing, and yet the numbers of new books being published and self-published every year is increasing exponentially. Already there’s a wealth of free textual content out there on the internet. Let history take its course and the alternative free-book economy might emerge spontaneously. With even the remotest hope of making a buck having been extinguished, perhaps only those writers truly committed to literary excellence would persist. The alternative, of course, is at least as likely: the field of free e-books would be littered with compulsive crackpots and egotistical hobbyists whose quantity exceeds their quality, whose eagerness outstrips their self-critique.
In today’s economy books are commodities, bought by readers one at a time. The publishing industry limits the supply of books available to readers, both by selecting which books are to be published and by charging a per-book price to readers. Then comes the sales push. The book industry is largely supply-driven: first the book gets written, then it’s selected for publication, edited, formatted, printed, distributed, and sold. Only rarely is a book written in response to reader demand. Instead, readers shop. The books try to make themselves appealing to the casual shopper with eye-grabbing cover art, punchy back-cover blurbs from noted authors and critics, dramatic plot précises and alluring character sketches, highlights of the authors’ credentials and charismata. Then comes the rollout, with prominent positioning in bookstore displays, ads, author’s book tours, well-placed reviews – the industry devotes considerable effort to putting its selected offerings in front of potential buyers.
In our speculative future economy books are no longer commodities, their per-copy price having dropped to zero. Plenty of writers are still writing plenty of books, but with no money to be made there are no more publishing houses, no brick-and-mortar bookstores, no online booksellers. The new era of the free book eliminates the industry’s artificial restriction on the supply of books, but it also eliminates the industry’s artificial stimulation of buyer demand through marketing. A weird new ecology of motivations could emerge, where the reader’s freedom of choice is effectively neutered by a lack of desire to choose. Unlimited supply meets nonexistent demand. Writers, expecting a new wave of readership for their free books, find readership drying up. Without readers, the writers eventually stop writing – the glut of free books would take care of itself.
You get what you deserve, so if you don’t get paid then what you do is worthless. You get what you pay for, so if you don’t have to pay for something then it’s not worth having. Capitalism is the generator that keeps the cycle of supply and demand moving. If the capitalist engine is short-circuited, then society stagnates. People lose their desires and the energy for fulfilling them. If book money stops circulating then readers stop reading and writers stop writing.
I don’t really believe it. There’s enough intrinsic motivation to read and to write that new books would continue circulating even if the money doesn’t. I do, however, expect that the circuitry would be altered, perhaps profoundly, if books were no longer bought and sold as commodities – if instead, for example, books were collectively curated and distributed as societal resources. To read a book is to engage in a private individual activity, but even the most solitary reading experience is embedded in layers of collectivity. To ignore the larger sociocultural context of reading is to accede to a divide-and-conquer ideology that separates readers from writers, from each other, and from the larger social ecology in which reading and writing happen. The divisions have historically been bridged by the book industry, and in some ways the industry’s mediation services have been a good thing. But it’s also arguably the case that the industry creates the gaps that it spans. And there is a toll to be paid, both figuratively and literally, when the industry mans the bridges.
* * *
Recently our daughter took me to a Zombies concert – they were her boss’s tickets, but he was out of town so he couldn’t make the show. I know quite a few of their songs from the sixties, but they had disbanded after a very short run in the spotlight. They recorded an album just before they broke up, but it failed to chart. The band members went their separate musical ways, rapidly fading into public obscurity aside from the occasional airplay of their hit singles on oldies radio. It turns out though that over the subsequent decades that last Zombies album, Odessey (sic) and Oracle, gradually gained a cult following until now it is regarded as a kind of alt-pop classic.
The reunited band drew a full house, a thousand or more fans filling the vintage downtown auditorium. Though admittedly dominated by old-timers, the audience spanned an astonishingly wide age range, including youngsters who probably find it odd, maybe even a bit disrespectful, to remain seated at a concert rather than jumping up and down directly in front of the stage. After intermission the Zombies played their now-famous album in its entirety, it being the fiftieth anniversary since its original release. Was it just showmanship on display, or did those old musicians enjoy playing and singing their old music together as much as it appeared that they did, performing with practiced self-assurance and receiving with gratitude the exuberant audience response? A lyric from one of the album tracks: This will be our year, took a long time to come. It was hard to avoid making the obvious remark as we walked back to the parking garage: the audience brought the Zombies back to life.
The band had broken up before the album dropped so they never played the songs live: now, here they were, fifty years later, playing it start to finish on a multi-stop American tour. Not only would they play the songs; the keyboard player explained that the band would perform the entire album note for note. The original recording included some overdubs and multitracks, so in order to match the record’s sound in live performance several backup singers and musicians were brought onstage. At times the keyboardist performed his part on a vintage Mellotron, an electronic instrument that John Lennon left behind in the studio after the Beatles finished recording their Sgt. Pepper’s album, an instrument that the Zombies “borrowed” for their own sessions. Mostly though the band member used a synthesizer to simulate the original Mellotron sound. After playing a few songs he announced the end of side one – time to flip the record over.
They sounded just like they did in the sixties, enthused a Facebook post written by a friend of my wife’s who also attended the concert. Not to my ears they didn’t. The same band members may have exhibited the same level of musicianship, they may have played the exact same notes, but their live performance of the album did not sound the same as the album. The amplification and the acoustics combined to produce a rock concert, and a good one; the album, by contrast, is a kind of baroque pop suite, its subtlety and timbre more suited to an unplugged chamber ensemble.
The band and the audience converged in time and space to celebrate an audio recording made fifty years ago. We had front row seats, retail price $180 apiece. I never bought the Zombies album that was simulated note for note in the concert, but I can still listen to it anytime I want for free on the Internet. That’s why bands go on tour: when people can listen to the records for free, the only way the musicians can make money is to perform before a live audience. Just like in the good old days before radios and phonographs.
Recently I read about a company, domiciled in Florida I believe, that can estimate quantitatively, based on empirical analyses of sonic affordances such a key, beat, instrumentation, and “hook,” the likelihood of a pop song becoming a hit. No doubt there are songwriters who use the algorithm to craft and edit their songs. And the algorithm works: the hit-ness score correlates with airplay and record sales and downloads. The correlation isn’t perfect, but it is improving. In part that’s because, with more experience to draw on, the algorithm is getting more accurate. But the gap between simulation and reality is also closing because the music industry increasingly uses the algo not just to predict hits but to make them, with records scoring high on the simulation getting more airplay. And the hits just keep on coming, more reliably, sounding more and more alike. an empirically-based hit predictor algorithm for novels, a “bestseller-ometer,” a convergence between reality and simulation that will make new book launches more successful, more predictable, more of the same.
The other morning our daughter played a fragment of a pop song for us, a song that she and her pals agree is “so gay.” I could see the point, but mostly I was attuned to the algorithm implicit in the song. “It’s so formulaic,” I remarked, not without disdain. “I disagree,” she replies, “but okay.” “No wait,” I persist, “you don’t think the song sounds predictable? I don’t even listen to much contemporary pop music, and it seems like I’ve heard it before.” “It’s your response that’s so predictable,” our daughter replies. “I hang around with a lot of pretentious music hipsters and they all say the same thing.” “Well there you go,” says I: “I don’t hang around with anybody and I still say it. So that means it’s probably true, wouldn’t you say?” She shrugs. “So what? I appreciate the variations within the formula. If you don’t like this formula there are plenty of others out there.” I don’t say it, but I wonder what sort of song would result from accentuating the variations from formula, the idiosyncratic features of a record that do not predict its hit value, and running with them.
Maybe I’m just too predictable, too square in my insistence on creative authenticity and my resistance to manipulation. Not all the good stuff is unpopular; not all the popular stuff sucks. I like a nice hamburger as much as the next guy; I got a kick out of watching the nerdy science teacher break bad. Not everything that’s popular today stays popular – most of the tunes and movies and books that chart this week will be long gone a couple of months from now. By the same token, not everything that’s unpopular today stays unpopular. One of the problems with commercial culture is that a slow smolder gets extinguished before it has a chance to catch fire, being quickly replaced by some other commodity with a lower burn threshold.
* * *
The best-selling novel isn’t always a critical success; the politician who wins the election doesn’t necessarily offer the clearest vision or the broadest competency; the guilty aren’t always convicted; the truth doesn’t always prevail. A generation or two ago the gap between the good and the popular was a persistent source of consternation, but by now we’ve pretty much learned to accept our guilty pleasures. Here’s the first sentence from The Mirage of Social Justice (1976) by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, widely regarded as the ideological father of neoliberalism:
In a free society, the general good consists principally in the facilitation of the pursuit of unknown individual purposes.
Giving people what they want is an act of benevolence; what people want most is what in the aggregate they’ll pay the highest price for; therefore, the more money I make the more good I’m doing in the world.
The distinction between High and Low Art used to make sense, but in a world that blurs the distinction between excellence and individual taste it’s hard to tell the difference. Take television: everybody used to acknowledge it was crap even as they sat on the couch flipping through the channels; now the programs that ironically poke fun at their own idiocy are what pass as sophisticated fare. In 1993, three years before his Infinite Jest was published and four before The Sopranos ushered in the era of the high-end television series, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay entitled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In lamenting the sorry state of TV, which by his own acknowledgment he watched a lot of, Wallace saw not a conspiracy of big networks and big advertising but the media’s adaptation to popular tastes:
It is of course undeniable that television is an example of Low Art, the sort of art that has to please people in order to get their money. Because of the economics of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidized entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field tests in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible. TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar or dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.
In short, commercial culture caters to what libertarian iconoclast Albert Nock called “the dreadful average.” For Nock, Western civilization had long since descended from its heights to mere “economism,” a society built around satisfying the material desires of the masses with a minimum exertion of effort. In his 1946 Memoirs of a Superfluous Man Nock wrote:
Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible power of attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.
What choices are open to us other than to wrap our arms around the sludge pipeline in an ironic avant-pop embrace? Can’t we just walk away? Historically, those who have turned their backs on pervasive philistinism would try to conjure a zeitgeist from the past that could guide them into the future, a reactionary fundamentalism that would restore a lost Golden Age of civilization, where nothing is worth seeing or hearing or reading until it’s been around for a hundred years. There probably aren’t many beautiful dreamers around these days, whose visions of a future Golden Age are enough to sustain them through the decadent present. Most are probably resigned to the dreadful average, perhaps even cultivating it, trying to hold the line against further decline.
* * *
Turning to a blog I visit often, I happen upon a link to a talk, recorded nearly a year ago in Ljubljana and presented by Benjamin Noys, a theorist whose work I’ve followed off and on and whom I suspect, based on only the most superficial of evidence, of a few years back and under an assumed name having engaged me in an amusing intermittent email correspondence. So, to begin with Marx, the recorded talk begins, Noys reading aloud from his own printed text:
Marx, in his work of the 1840s, defines the productive forces as the objectifications of human powers. Under capitalism these objectified powers are subject to alienation, so the task must be to repossess these powers. In the 1844 manuscript he writes: ‘It can be seen how the history of industry and the objective existence of industry as it has developed is the open book of the essential powers of man.’ Marx aims to make this book legible, to return us to a capacity to read, in industry, our own powers.
The book business constitutes one short chapter in the history of industry. A book isn’t just an inert object; it’s an engine, powered by the combined forces of writer and reader. By reifying a book into a commodity, industry objectifies the essential human powers of writing and reading. Originally a medium of communication between writer and reader, the book-as-commodity imposes a barrier between them, alienating them from each other.
How to repossess these alienated human powers? I continue listening to the prerecorded Ljubljana talk. Marx, Noys informs his audience, doesn’t propose rewinding history, flipping nostalgically back through the pages of the book of industry to its early chapters, before human subjectivity became objectified, to the pre-industrial days of peasant farming and craftsmanship and oral storytelling. Engage in struggle, Marx exhorts. But how?
Noys outlines one option: accelerate. Resistance is futile, the accelerationists assert. Instead of slowing down the machinery of alienation, speed it up. Left-wing accelerationists presume that, by pushing the machine to its breaking point, exhaustion will morph into desperation, and desperation will trigger revolt. Destroy the machine or, better, seize the controls! So: accelerate the writing of books; accelerate the automation of publishing and distributing books; accelerate the decline in writer pay to zero; accelerate the book industry capitalists’ return on investment to infinity. Frustrated and enraged writers and readers: cast off the shackles of capital; join forces with one another to produce your own books! There’s no money in it? Pretty soon there won’t be any money in any jobs. Demand universal basic income! No work and pay! Accelerate into leisure and artistry.
In contrast, accelerationists of the right don’t want to crash into the apocalypse; they want to accelerate through it, pushing the pedal until they reach escape velocity. Writers are already prepared to work on spec for little or no pay. Hell, they’ll even pay for the privilege of being a writer – consider not just the vanity presses but, even more extravagantly, the MFA programs. Meanwhile, readers are still willing to buy books. Steady or rising revenues with costs decreasing to near zero: it’s a capitalist’s dream. But the dream goes on. If publication and distribution can be automated, why not editing? Why not writing? Why not, for that matter, reading? Marx’s objectified powers of labor are rendered obsolete, replaced by the abstract forces of capital, intelligence, and creation. These forces have, first by necessity and eventually by force of habit, been channeled through humans. Now comes the age of the intelligent machine: already faster and more proficient than humans in most realms, the machine is continually learning, continually expanding its powers, continually accelerating into a posthuman future.
The speaker in the recorded video from Ljubljana thinks that neither left nor right accelerationism is desirable or likely. What alternative does he propose? Well, this is a critique he’s offering his listeners, not plan C. But now I find myself captivated by the two variants of accelerationism that he’s served up. Neither one is a plan really; both seem to operate in a rather deterministic fashion, as though the outcomes are inevitable – which makes sense, accelerationism being predicated on the idea of an abstract machine that runs itself. The two variants, right and left, trace the unfolding of more or less the same future trajectory. Riding the machine into the future are two factions: one seeks escape and transcendence; the other, resistance. Are they pitted against each other as adversaries, these two factions? Are the Rights immune to the alienation and desperation into which the machine is accelerating them, or do they somehow hunger for their own abjection, thirst for their own annihilation? Can the Lefts see past the Apocalypse into the Millennium that seems sure to rise up from the ashes? Can either side derail the other’s machine? Will heroes step forward, and villains too? Faster and faster the machine churns out the situations, the conflicts, the confrontations – alienating, but also exciting.
* * *
Accelerationism: it’s a more exciting narrative than the one I seem to be stuck in. Everything seems to be slowing way down. I write less. I read less. I’m neither nostalgic nor hopeful. I rarely talk with anyone, and when I do I usually wish I hadn’t. If I’m strapped to a machine, it must be running out of gas. Not with a bang but a whimper.
Then something happens. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but one thing leads to another, and next thing you know… How often has a story taken shape from an unpromising setup like this?
In this particular setup the machine continues to accelerate, partly by jettisoning its excess weight. Workers have been powering the machine to be sure, but they’ve also been pulled along by it. Now they’re left behind, watching as the machine surges toward the singularity, shrinking into the vanishing point on the technological event horizon. Don’t merely destroy the means of production: seize them, take control of them – the workers never had a chance really, and now the controls are way out of reach. Revert to the pre-industrial age of smallholders and herders, of wandering minstrels and storytellers? It’s the nostalgic yearning for a past that none of them had ever experienced in their lifetimes. Mystical post-apocalyptic millennialism? It’s so difficult to set aside the self-reflexive irony. Demand that the machine reverse its thrusters and return, putting the workers back on the job in the engine room or else just carrying them along for a free ride? Right.
Maybe the obvious scheme is for the redundant workers to start cobbling together their own machine from the obsolete and abandoned components of the accelerating machine that’s left them in its dust. Left to their own devices, the obsolete workers can improvise a world of their own in the abandoned ruins. The problem, though, lies in the central metaphor. The machine isn’t accelerating away; it’s accelerating through. Nothing is left behind; the machine turns even the rubble and the rubbish and the homeless into profit centers.
And maybe too there’s something wrong with the acceleration idea. Corporate profits continue trending upward, but the economy as a whole is pretty sluggish, with the GNP in most advanced Western economies growing at less than 2 percent annually. Other than a lot of job automation and ecological destruction along with some cool phone apps, the technological thrusters aren’t generating much that’s truly innovative or catalytic. Government is shrinking too. Also the book industry: fewer readers and lower sales, with adult coloring books being the fastest growing sector. Mostly what’s accelerating is the gap between the one percent and everyone else. That’s the case even among writers, with revenues increasingly concentrated in the upper tier of bestsellers.
In short, I’m probably not the only one who feels like everything is slowing down. I understand that most people are working harder and longer for less pay, that maybe even filling in a coloring book is a challenge when it comes to filling in one’s limited down time. And for what? It’s harder to stay fully engaged in work that seems so pointless, so destructive, so stagnant. That’s not just my view either: the Gallup pollsters find that only about a third of American workers are “engaged employees” who are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”
Maybe there are two machines. One is the accelerating engine, run by and for the one percent, devoted primarily to increasing investor profits. The accelerator pushes workers harder and faster until, inevitably, it cuts them loose. The other engine, the decelerating one, is characterized by widespread apathy, disengagement, anhedonia, hopelessness. Together the two engines are playing a zero-sum game, with the accelerating engine being fueled by the decelerating engine. Sort of like the human batteries energizing the AIs in The Matrix (though that seemed like an awfully inefficient energy source, as well as a rather pointless expenditure of that energy just to keep the illusory world up and running).
Fictional narratives – sometimes books, but more often TV and movies – function as components in both engines. The fiction industry is a component in the accelerating engine, a source of revenues and profits. The industry’s product – fiction as a commodity – keeps the decelerating engine chugging along, serving as circuit breaker, escape valve, recharger, distraction, and propaganda device for the workers whose efforts to turbocharge the accelerator are grinding them down into obsolescence. Too cynical? The Matrix was marketed as a wake-up call for would-be insurgents, but mostly it spawned two really bad sequels while generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the accelerating engine. The red pill is the blue pill.
I suspect that a lot of writers would like to seize control of the accelerator, to oust the capitalists who run the book industry and take the helm themselves. Instead of being paid 12 percent of book revenues, the writers could make, say, 80 percent. Even if I weren’t a writer myself I would see the merit in an anarcho-syndicalist reorg of the book business. One overriding question perplexes me: why hasn’t it happened already? Especially now that e-books have become technologically feasible and are increasingly accepted by readers as a legitimate format, seemingly no obstacles remain to prevent groups of writers from organizing themselves into publishing houses that they own and run collectively. Instead what we see is self-publishing: individual writers operating as one-person libertarian entrepreneurs, each writer focusing exclusively on getting his or her own book into the marketplace. Instead of remaining solo practitioners, why don’t writers join forces, sharing the risk and the work and the reward? Maybe it’s excessive self-assurance. People typically believe that they are better drivers than most; professors, that they are better teachers than most. Writers probably tend to believe that they are better writers than most. Their own books will attract more readers, hence more money, than the inferior books written by their inferior peers, who would just drag down their own earnings were they to join forces. Perhaps worse, the self-publishers, secure in their writerly sense of superiority, may be less likely to subject their work to rigorous external editing, up to and including the possibility of shelving their work as unworthy of publication. There are no reliable and impartial filters protecting the would-be reader from the deluge of hubristic self-publication offerings.
In the book industry’s accelerator machinery it’s the agents and publishers and booksellers who filter, sifting through the vast supply of manuscripts in their search for the chosen few while shunting everything else into the scrap heap. The filters aren’t writers; they’re readers. In a sense they’re acting as readers’ representatives, selecting books that they think have a good chance of appealing to a significant sector of the reading public. But they’re also acting as the investors’ representatives, selecting books that have the best chance of earning a positive ROI. It’s the confounding of these two representational stances that makes the industry filtering apparatus suspect. In selecting and promoting books, the industry professionals purportedly act on behalf of the writers and the collective readership, but their judgments are necessarily compromised by prioritizing the interests of their investors. They’re looking for books that fuel the accelerator machinery, that serve as effective circuit breakers, escape valves, rechargers, distractions, and propaganda devices for the decelerating 99 percent in order to benefit the accelerating one percent.
* * *
In selecting and promoting books, the industry professionals purportedly act on behalf of the writers and the collective readership, but their judgments are necessarily compromised by prioritizing the interests of their investors. Instead of relying on co-opted industry pros to filter the slush pipeline, why couldn’t the readers themselves take on the filtering role directly, championing books that they themselves deem worth reading rather than relying on industry middlemen to separate wheat from chaff?
One obstacle confronting a possible reader-operated filtering process is similar to that facing writers as well as consumers of other commodities: readers are accustomed to acting as individuals, making choices based on personal tastes. But personal tastes aren’t all that idiosyncratic: they’re catered to and shaped and manipulated by the industry pros, not individually but collectively, as market niche segments. Then there’s the supply-driven flow of books, with readers queueing up at the end of the pipeline to shop among the new offerings that have been preselected for them by the retailers. A reader won’t have been exposed to the thousands of author submission letters that inundate the agent’s email inbox, but a reader will have seen thousands of prepackaged books lining the shelves of bookstores and libraries, will have read maybe hundreds of books. Readers have acquired some expertise in selecting books they want to read and in evaluating books that they have read, even if they’ve never sorted out the criteria by which they make their choices.
Another obstacle to reader filtering is the supply-driven flow of books, with readers queueing up at the end of the pipeline to shop among the new offerings that have been preselected for them by the publishers. But agents and acquisition editors also make their selections after the manuscripts have already been written; they’re just positioned a little further upstream, before the manuscript is packaged into a “real” book. Could readers make informed choices if they weren’t able to rely on the prominent shelf placements and the blurbs and the reviews? Could readers move upstream, reliably identifying good books, books they’d want to read, even before those books hit the marketplace, even before they’ve been selected or rejected by the publishers?
Should they? It’s doubtful that the dreadfully average reader’s tastes are more highly cultivated than the average agent’s or pubisher’s and bookseller’s. There’s no money in poetry, Robert Graves acknowledged, but then there’s no poetry in money either. The problem isn’t that the average are average; the problem is that the industry caters to the average because that’s where the money is. It’s not the average reader who objects to the selection lining the bookstore’s shelves; it’s the exceptional reader: the cultivated, the eccentric, the refined, the divergent. The book industry thrives on popularity, not artistry; on money, not poetry. Replacing the industry’s acquisition specialists with reader opinion polls or bestseller-ometer algorithms might be able to replicate the status quo for less cost. If you like X, you’ll like Y; people who bought X also bought Y: more convergence on the popular, less risk, less scatter. The average reader might welcome the standardization, the reliability of finding a good read on the shelves.
Scholarly publishing offers an alternative precedent for reader filtering in which the selection criteria are governed less by popularity and more by excellence. Articles submitted to academic journals are subjected to peer review, with specialists evaluating the merits and flaws of work conducted by fellow specialists. The writers of texts published in academic journals are also the primary readers of those same journals, their own research shaped largely by others’ research reported in journal articles, so it’s presumed that the writers and reviewers of scholarly articles subscribe to the same standards of quality. Publish or perish – scholars are paid to write. But it’s not the sales receipts that count: scholars are judged worthy of receiving promotions or large grants based on the perceived excellence and impact of their work on their fields of study, even if that work is so esoteric that only a few specialists read and understand it. Of course the peer review system doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, being subject to cronyism and competition and groupthink and the thousand other distortions that flesh is heir to. Still, the merits of peer review must give us pause.
What would it take for the writers of fiction to be rewarded for the excellence and impact of their work rather than its popularity? In an analogical system of peer review devised for fictional texts, manuscripts would be sent out for evaluation to two or three writers working the same fictional territory. Fiction writers are also fiction readers, their sensibilities as writers shaped to a considerable extent by fictions they’ve read, so they should be able to make informed reliable judgments about the quality and distinctiveness of other writers’ work. But, whereas the readers of academic journals consist almost exclusively of actual and would-be writers of journal articles, most readers of novels are not themselves also novelists. Consequently, readers might evaluate a novel’s merits using very different criteria from those espoused by novelists. That doesn’t necessarily mean though that readers will default to lowbrow sensibilities best suited for judging a popularity contest. Literary scholars devote their careers to analyzing and evaluating novels at a high level even without writing novels themselves.
Fiction writers do make money from sales of their published works, or at least they hope to. But fiction too has secured a place in the academy, with professors in creative writing programs getting their pay mostly from students’ tuition rather than from book royalties, with magazines that specialize in publishing short stories being read mostly by other story writers honing their craft or assessing the lay of the fictional landscape, and with a few nonprofit publishing houses putting out good highbrow books that might not have enough economic potential to interest the commercial publishers. Peer review makes sense in academic fiction, just as it does in other branches of scholarly pursuit. But if peer review were to replace industry review, readers might be confronted by a bewildering array of fictions created by “writers’ writers” whose works are as unapproachable by the uninitiated as are journal articles on the neurochemistry of sea slugs.
NYC versus MFA, the publishing industry versus the academy: both organizational models establish fiction writing as a profession, financed in the one case by readers and in the other by would-be writers. In both models the bosses and middlemen have a big say: in NYC it’s about who gets represented and published and publicized; in MFAs, it’s who gets hired to teach and who gets promoted and what classes the students are required to take. In both models a lot of money changes hands, while only a small percentage of fiction writers are able to make a living practicing the profession; in both models the bosses and middlemen take a big cut. Both models are tightly organized, hierarchical, linear production systems.
In contrast, the third way – self-publishing – comes across as undisciplined, unprofessional, hectic. Some might regard this unrestrained chaos as a mark of distinction, a bottom-up anarchic DIY movement akin to punk rock and Occupy. The implication is that systematic organization is a control mechanism imposed top-down by the capitalists and their running-dog bosses to keep the people in line. Review? Who needs it. Get your novel out there; let the marketplace decide whether it’s any good. But isn’t that just the sort of libertarian divide-and-conquer propaganda that the bosses might want to promulgate among the underclass in order to keep them from forming a united, effective resistance, or even a viable alternative?
* * *
The only thing keeping me from reading any published e-book anytime I want for free is a technological barrier strapped onto the books by the corporate distributors. I wonder though whether I would want to download a free book that hadn’t been vetted by somebody, hadn’t been deemed worthy of publication and therefore worthy of exacting a price from readers. The same goes for library books: would I want to check out a book that neither the library nor a donor paid for? As reader I’m caught in a paradox: I want to read books for free, but I don’t want free books.
Commercially published music, commercially broadcast TV series, commercially released movies: I can get most of them for free anytime I want on the Internet. I acknowledge that the artists’ creative work is worthy of compensation; at the same time, I regard as excessive the markups charged to purchasers and subscribers, with most of the proceeds going to the middlemen. Again, a paradox: I might be ripping them off, but if I played by the rules they’d be ripping me off.
Over the past decade the music industry has been radically reshaped by free downloading. Musicians don’t sell many albums anymore; they don’t even sell singles. Instead they get paid a small percentage each time someone listens to or downloads their songs for free from an online platform. How does the platform make money if it’s giving the music away? It sells ads and user data. Do the musicians earn as much from downloads as they did from selling recordings? No. If you want to make money in the music business, you do it by performing live and by selling merchandise. The recordings — composed, scored, rehearsed, performed, edited, mixed, mastered, packaged — are what musicians value the most artistically, but recordings have the least monetary value. Recordings are the attention-grabbers, the free giveaways luring fans to concerts and clubs and merch outlets.
Eventually the book industry might undergo the same transformation: readers download books for free; platforms pay writers a percentage for each download; platforms make money from ads and data. I’ve seen such platforms; on one of them writers can make money via product placements in their stories; the more prominent the placement, the more the product figures in the story itself, the higher the potential return to the author. At the beginning one of my fictions a character orders a Bass Ale: maybe I should make inquiries. Authors will use their novels — imagined and crafted, polished and packaged — as free advertising for their new careers as touring public readers and online t-shirt salesmen and writers of embedded ad copy.
What you’ve got here is a paradox of capitalism: that which the creative artist and the audience value most highly, that which draws them together, offers the smallest financial return, dwindling to the vanishing point. The platforms that stage aesthetic encounters generate their return on investment from big data analytics and small custom-crafted ads and upsells to premium subscriber services, for which the artists and the fans and the algorithms provide free labor. Artistic creation and aesthetic enjoyment are valued economically as traffic.
It’s easy to make a supply-side case for decommodifying e-books, distributing them not through bookstores or lending libraries but through duplicating libraries. There are no marginal costs incurred in copying and downloading an e-book, so there’s no reason to charge readers a fee. And there’s no reason for readers to borrow and return e-books to the library, since the virtual supply of free e-book copies is unlimited. Handling returns just incurs unnecessary bureaucracy and costs; let the downloaders keep their copies. From the supply side, e-books are already decommodified, at least in principle.
Demand-side analysis also supports the duplicating library idea. Hackers and pirates have pulled music, video, and text from behind the paywalls, effectively decommodifying content by reducing its cost to zero. Online platforms have turned piracy into a business model, operating already as free duplicating libraries for listeners, viewers, and readers. The platform economy is most fully realized in the music business, where listening to recordings has been reduced to traffic, fueling the online advertising and data analytics and fee-based user services by which the platforms make their money. Listeners provide free labor for the platform’s core business, but since they don’t have to pay directly for content they’re generally satisfied with the arrangement, and if they require an ad-free listening experience they can pay the platform a monthly fee for upgraded service.
The only ones who fare poorly under postcommodified platform capitalism in the music business are the musicians. Most never made much money in the old commodified record business, but now they make only a few cents per thousand streamed listens. With ready access to low-cost sophisticated technologies that turn their laptops into recording studios, musicians can cut their own records for a song, releasing them to a worldwide potential audience via the internet, further driving up supply and driving down prices. The platforms welcome the burgeoning supply of cheap music: more music, more traffic, more ad and data revenue.
The book business hasn’t gone as far along the track laid down by the music business — yet. But all of the components are in place: electronic product, platform distribution, writers’ ready access to low-cost self-publishing technology. On the music platforms the unit of distribution is the individual song, with the artist receiving a small payment each time someone listens to the song. As a consequence the traditional multi-song album has been rendered nearly obsolete. Short stories, the textual equivalent of songs, are already available for free from online literary magazines. Just as albums are assembled from smaller units — songs, movements — novels are divisible into chapters. Novels can be disaggregated into chapters by releasing them one at a time as serial installments, making the format more compatible with the small-unit distribution precedent. There are platforms where authors post free installments of ongoing longer works for free, with the platform making money by ads and data mining. Even more extreme textual disaggregation is possible in platform capitalism: I’ve visited a site where books are posted online and the authors are paid by the number of pages clicked.
It costs nothing to download an e-book on the net, but writing the book is labor-intensive. By decommodifying the sale of individual copies there is no mechanism for compensating authors for their creative labor. Per-copy royalties paid by commercial publishers only partially compensated most authors; now, in platform capitalism, even that meager compensation mechanism has been dismantled.
These economic paradoxes cannot easily be resolved within the framework of capitalism. Socialism? The government could select good books, compensate the authors for them, then distribute them to any and all. In effect, the government would curate and disseminate a collection of culturally valuable texts, operating a national duplicating library paid for by taxes and made available to all citizens. Not every book that’s written would be included in the library’s holdings, because the acquisitions department would subject each submitted book to rigorous vetting. Books passing muster would be made freely available to readers, with no profits being siphoned off to corporate middlemen and investors.
Given the current political climate, what’s the likelihood of a new socialistic governmental intervention being launched in the USA in the near future?
But what about an anarchistic intervention?
Eliminate all of the middlemen: not just the capitalists but the government bureaucrats too. The true intermediary between the writer and the reader isn’t the agent, or the editor, or the publisher, or the bookstore. It isn’t the government. The intermediary between the writer and the reader is the book. Together, readers and writers would assemble the best collection of books possible, establishing the acquisition criteria and vetting the books through a systematic review process. Together, readers and writers would set up a widespread distributed network of collective local duplicating libraries. A member of each local library would purchase a single copy of each e-book that passes the vetting process, thereby adding that book to the library’s holdings. Then all of the local library’s members could download their own personal copies of e-books in the library’s holdings for free.
Would readers go for this scheme? The answer depends in part on the elasticity of demand for books. The duplicating library makes books available for no cost to everyone but the person who purchases a single copy of each book for the local collection. Would free access increase readership? Studies show that high-volume book readers tend to have more money than infrequent readers, so maybe they don’t care about having to pay the cover price for books they want to read and own. On the other hand, income is no predictor of how frequently people check books out from public libraries, which supports the logical expectation that readers would rather not pay for the books they want to read. Would low-income people start reading more books if the purchase price were lowered or even eliminated? Presenting yourself as a reader – name-dropping the latest lit fic, lining your shelves with ranks of hardbacks – might function as a marker of higher cultural status among the well-to-do. Would this status indicator be eliminated if even poor people can afford to have well-stocked personal libraries? Alternatively, is it conceivable that participating in a radical new model for selecting and distributing books – an anarchistic model that pushes back against the capitalist order, a model that regards books as cultural resources, a model in which readers take a more proactive role – would generate broad appeal across economic strata?
Expected demand drives the commercial publishing industry. A book of great merit but of limited popular appeal might never get past the manuscript stage, might never find its way from writer to readers. By transforming books from commodities into cultural resources, more space would open up on the virtual shelves for the excellent but commercially limited works of fiction, expanding the range of choices available to discerning readers frustrated by the dreadfully average selection offered them by the vendors of literary economism.
There’s the tragedy of the commons to be considered. A local public lending library need pay for only one copy of a book in order for all of its members to borrow it for free. For a local anarchist duplicating library to accumulate an acquisitions fund by charging annual dues to members seems onerous. Instead, just leave it to the individual library members to buy a copy of each vetted book on behalf of the collective. But who is going to be the one to ante up, rather than waiting for somebody else to pay? Maybe some sort of status marker goes with buying a book for the local library – being listed as a contributor on the library’s website, for example.
Including central and branch facilities, there are around 16 thousand public lending libraries in the US, or around one library per 20 thousand residents. Suppose each traditional public lending library had a shadow anarchist library that duplicated and distributed free e-copies of its holdings. A new novel passes through a central vetting process, being recommended for acquisition to all of the local anarchist libraries. In one of the libraries one person steps up as a contributor by buying one e-copy of the recommended book. Let’s say the purchase price is $10. For that $10 investment, 20 thousand local library members can download their own copies of the purchased book for free: that’s an average of 5 hundredths of a cent per copy. Why wouldn’t readers want to do this?
Would writers go for this collective anarchistic scheme? Authors of excellent but noncommercial books certainly would. They might not make much money, but if their books pass muster and make it onto the library’s curated master list they would stand a good chance of finding their intended readership, even if that readership isn’t widely represented among the general populace. The rest of the writers, the ones who write potentially popular books, would have to overcome their expectations of significantly outperforming the industry average financially – of making a living, maybe even a windfall, by climbing to the top of the charts. At the same time the readers are considering their opportunities. If just one reader anywhere in the US pays $10 for a single copy of an e-book vetted by the anarchist library, that opens the possibility of that reader turning pirate, offering free downloads of the book to everyone everywhere, regardless of whether their local libraries have bought their own copies of the book.
It’s hard to break habits formed by living inside of a commodity-driven capitalistic economy. Maybe, if readers and writers alike immerse themselves in an anarchistic alternative, the old habits will slough off, opening up some space and time for new habits to start taking shape.
On the other hand, maybe platform capitalism has built up too much momentum to be diverted onto an alternative economic track. Read any book I want for free, and all I have to do is put up with an ad every few pages? And the platform gets to use my click data for whatever purposes they have in mind? Sure, sign me up. You say the writers aren’t getting adequately compensated? Not my circus, not my monkey.