The Duplicating Library and Platform Capitalism

A previous post made 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 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.

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.

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Art as Traffic

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].

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.

Filtering the Slush

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.

In the book industry the agents and publishers and booksellers function as filters, 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.

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 books I sell, 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.

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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. 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. “Art should never try to be popular,” aphorized Oscar Wilde; “the public should try to make itself artistic.” “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?

Competing for Readers

The Experimental Agenda: Readers and writers collaborate in designing, building, and testing prototypes for an alternative postcapitalist fictional reality.

That’s been the guiding premise of this site, but so far the experimental agenda hasn’t been advanced. I’ve focused mostly on the writers; it’s time to shift to the readers.

There are good reasons why fiction writers would want to organize themselves into publishing collectives, assuming control over and responsibility for the means of production and the finished product. Self-publishers already do this, hundreds of thousands of them, but operating as solo practitioners they lack the creative synergy and support, the quality control, and the reach that a larger organization can offer. Control shifts from publishing companies and bookstores not to the writers but to the online platforms, which serve as centralized aggregators of products and distribution hubs. While each self-published book brings in next to nothing in sales revenue for its author, the platform makes it up in volume. Even if self-published writers were to cut out the middleman and build their own platform, there’s no reason to believe that sales of individual books would increase. A few would arise from the slush, but the vast majority would still be mired in obscurity.

As things stand, only the traditional publishing industry offers any hope, however meager, for a fiction writer to achieve fairly widespread readership and sustainable income. Sure, the middlemen take the lion’s share of the take, but a little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing. Writers could aggregate themselves together into a publishing syndicate, but where are the readers going to come from?

Where do the readers of traditionally published books come from? If other readers are like me, they find books by scanning the bookstore and library shelves. You’re drawn to the package — the title, the backcover blurbs, the author bio and the book summary. If it offers some promise you take it home with you. And how do the books wind up on the shelves where they can draw your attention? Sales reps, distributors and wholesalers shop their wares to the stores and libraries. It takes upfront money, money paid out to packagers and marketers even before the books hit the shelves.

Other books I find via recommendations: reviews, bestseller lists, online discussions, social media, word of mouth. This sort of interpersonal dissemination happens post-release. Only those books that have made it into the wholesale catalogs or positioned on the bookstores’ shelves are going to be featured in reviews; only those books likely to earn significant revenues for the publishers are going to merit prominently positioned reviews. Interpersonal recommendations probably tend likewise to converge on books already well received by critics and readers, where the tipster’s potential gain in social capital outweighs the early adopter’s risk of championing an unheralded and unknown book that may well turn out to be a loser.  Even the online platform algos — “people who bought this book also bought…;” “if you like this you might also like…” — converge on the big sellers. Imagine a host of newly launched mystical adventure novels, be they midlisters from trad publishers or self-published offerings. “If you liked Da Vinci Code, you’ll like…,” reads the backcover blurb. So you buy the book online. “People who bought this book also bought…” — what? One of the other new mystical adventures? No: they bought Da Vinci Code. The popularity-based algos drive sales toward the bestsellers; the rich get richer, the already-read get more readers.

A writer-owned publishing syndicate could attempt to replicate the packaging, marketing, and dissemination apparatus of traditional publishers, competing with them on their own turf, using the tools of the master against them and so on. But why? The publisher can earn back its upfront investment on a book with relatively modest sales of $100K or so. But that profit is earned on the back of the writer, who makes maybe $11K in royalties. If writers run the publishing house they’ll want to earn more money as authors, not as packagers and marketers and distributors. But if the writers’ syndicate wants to compete it still has to hire and pay those same sorts of packagers and marketers and distributors, requiring the writer-owners of the syndicate to ante up some investment money in order to get their portfolio of books out the door and in front of the readership Not only do the writer-owners want to recoup their investment; they want to be paid more as authors than the measly share offered them by the traditional publishers. The break-even point for a book published by the writers’ syndicate would therefore be substantially higher than that required by the traditional publisher. The syndicate would take fewer risks, launch fewer new books, generate less revenues than the traditional publisher. Pretty soon the writer-owners of the syndicate are going to start squeezing costs to generate more sales and profits so as to recoup their investment. Do they cut their own pay as authors, emulating the traditional industry? Do they shortchange the backroom staffers and contractors, hoping they don’t set sail for greener pastures?

A more radical reorg is required if the authors are going to own and control their own work.

The Metaphysics of Authorial Presence

Of Grammatology, one of Derrida’s earliest works, is in part an apologetics of writing in response to a long historical preference for the spoken word.

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words. – Aristotle

A persistent attribute of Western thinking is the “metaphysics of presence.” Truths are eternal, but in temporal human existence the eternal manifests itself as presence. Humans live in the present; therefore any eternally true idea has to make itself known in the present. The true idea appears before our conscious minds in the immediacy of our thinking of it. Truth is eternal logos; speech is verbal representation of logos. Once truth comes to mind it can immediately be spoken. Speech and thought are nearly inseparable in time; there is no delay between thinking an idea and speaking it. Speech is characterized by presence: it is produced in the ongoing stream of moments that characterize human existence. Consequently speech has been regarded as the most authentic way of representing truth. Writing is deferred speech: there is a delay between the thought and the hand’s inscription of the words representing the thought. Writing, being not present, is not as “true” as speech.

Derrida observes other aspects of speech that lend it authority and priority. Historically, spoken language emerged before writing. Children learn to speak before they learn to write. Writing is tangibly external: it requires inscribing marks on a material surface in the world, a world that is not eternal or ideal. Speech is internal, produced inside the mouth and throat; it comes out with the breath that is intrinsic to living. I hear myself at the same time that I speak. Speech takes place in the presence of a listener, whereas text might not be read until long after it was written, if ever. Speech is present, immaterial, transparent, alive.

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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.

*   *   *

Derrida doesn’t try to argue that writing is as close to the moment, as present, as speech is. Rather, he directs his critique against presence itself. He doesn’t try to step out of the moment into eternity; instead, he embeds presence in a broader temporal and spatial context, undermining it from within.

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not expect it

– Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 1967

*   *   *

While you’re reading you might sometimes feel as though the writer is speaking directly to you, even though you know it’s not so. The relation between reader and writer is heavily mediated – by text, by time, by distance. Suppose you go to a public reading. The author, speaking aloud the words she had previously written, happens to meet your glance as you listen. Is the author speaking directly to you now? After the reading you approach the writer at the dais, telling her how much you admire her work. The writer replies, flexing her larynx to generate sound waves, shaping them with buccal and laryngeal muscles before launching them through the air. After a short but measurable delay those sound waves hit your eardrum, causing vibrations of corresponding frequencies. Are you hearing the writer speak, or are you hearing the narrow radial segments of sound waves being propagated through the air that happen to strike your eardrums? The eardrum’s vibrations are transmitted at a rapid but measurable speed through the auditory nerves to the brain, activating the various language processing areas in your cortex which, after a brief but measurable delay, translate these vibrations into comprehensible language. Is the author speaking directly to you now? The writer’s voice is electronically amplified and transmitted via radio waves; the signal is received on someone’s computer 3 thousand miles away. The writer’s vocalizations are recorded and stored, then retransmitted 3 months later, 3 years later, 30 years later, after the writer has died…

*   *   *

In deconstructing the metaphysics of presence Derrida leans heavily on Heidegger, who contended that human existence isn’t a continuous presence, a perpetual living in the moment, but is rather a duration. Being in time means being embedded in an interval whose temporal horizons stretch into the past and the future. It means having been born in a particular place and time and inevitably dying in some unpredictable place and time. These horizons inevitably influence the way we live in the moment. Ideas aren’t always present either; they take shape from prior ideas and memories, work themselves out, come to fruition, become transformed into different ideas. Ideas have history and trajectory — just like human lives. The present moment is only a trace of temporal duration as it moves from the past into future.

Again from Heidegger, Derrida rejects interiority as a criterion for truth. For humans, to be is to be in the world. In earthly existence there can be no transcendence of materiality, of incarnation, of place. The Western metaphysics of presence isn’t just temporal; it’s also spacial: it presumes the direct presence of eternal truths before the mind. But if being means being-in, then human truths, like human beings, are in the world. To uncover truths in the world requires investigation, movement, interaction with the world in its extension.

Truths, rather than being always already present in the mind, move through space and time. Truths are dynamic, taking shape not only in the unchangeable and the atemporal, but also in the play of differences across space and time. There are irreducible differences between idea and word, word and speech, speaking and hearing. Human thought depends on memory, which is the trace of past moments inscribed on the mind — so in a way even memory is exterior to thought. Likewise the signifiers of language are inscribed in memory — so speech depends on the temporal delay between learning the language and using it.

*   *   *

I’m not sure whether I’ve experienced it personally but I’ve heard others claim that, as readers, their engagement in fictional narratives is made more vibrant by their empathic identification with the characters. For me it’s more like I come to know the characters, my curiosity and concern being activated by a virtual relationship with them, or perhaps by my immersion in the fictional life space they occupy. Whether it’s identification or relation, the link between reader and fictional character is itself a fiction, because those fictional characters aren’t real. And what about when the reader forms a virtual relationship with or – heaven forfend – identifies with the author? Is this connection more real or less real than the reader’s fictional alliance with the characters?

I pick up Proust where I left off a couple of months ago:

My mother was asleep when, after engaging a room for Albertine on a different floor, I entered my own.

Though uncharacteristically short and direct, this sentence is embedded in the fictional ambiguity of the work as a whole. Whose sentence is it: Marcel the narrator’s, or Marcel the author’s? And now I’m thinking about an episode in one of my own fictions: a dinner at a Mexican restaurant in which a conversation unfolds between two characters, an unpublished writer and his cinematographer friend who recently expatriated to Italy along with his wife and children. Is this an imaginary event involving imaginary characters, or is it a thinly disguised recounting of an actual conversation I once had with a real friend of mine at a real Mexican restaurant – a friend who happened to call just last night, the night before he moves back to Italy for good (again)? If in my text I was chronicling an actual conversation, then would that text seem more authentic, a more direct communication with the reader, if I assigned to the two conversing characters their real nonfictional names?

*   *   *

In a Heideggerian framework presence no longer has priority over deferral and spacing. Material that is immediately available to consciousness doesn’t take precedence over material retrieved from memory or self-reflection or investigation. Speaking/listening isn’t a more authentic means of communication than writing/reading. Derrida doesn’t propose that writing take precedence over speech, that reflection dominate spontaneity. Rather, he calls for an end to the represssion of pluri-dimensional symbolic thought. All conceivable ways of thinking and communicating should be explored and encouraged to the fullest.

Implications? In psychotherapy, it might be less important to close the gap between client and therapist. Therapy need not concentrate solely on the present moment of client-therapist conversation; memories, dreams, reflections, even writings, can find a place in the therapeutic relationship. In Biblical study, the spatio-temporal gap between writer and reader can become a source of meaning rather than just an obstacle. And an event in which God’s presence was experienced in real time doesn’t necessarily take priority over the event’s subsequent commemoration in text.

*   *   *

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?

*   *   *

The segments in this post addressing Derrida’s ideas on presence were cut and pasted from a post on my old Ktismatics blog: Derrida and the Metaphysics of Presence, posted 18 April 2007. That single 11-year-old post, on a blog that’s been inactive for nearly 4 years, has been viewed more often over the past 30 days than all 27 Ficticities posts combined. Now there’s 28.

 

Decommodfying E-Books

A readers shouldn’t have to pay anything to download an e-book. Here’s the gist of the economic argument from Postcapitalist Books — Pamphlet 2:

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.

Libraries already give readers free access to books. But it’s just a loan: the reader borrows the book for a short duration, then returns it. Libraries also lend e-books. There is no physical book being lent, its possession being transferred from the library to the reader; rather, the reader is granted access to an electronic copy of the book. The reader doesn’t return the borrowed e-book either; rather, when the predetermined lending interval expires, the library blocks the reader’s online access to the book. Why doesn’t the library simply let the reader keep the downloaded copy of the e-book? It would be cheaper and less of a hassle. Every member of the library could download a copy of the book without paying for or returning it, and without exhausting the library’s “supply” of that book. No waiting lists to be maintained by the library; no waiting by the reader: just click and go.

Well, it wouldn’t be fair, would it? Just because there are no costs to be covered in making copies of an e-book, that doesn’t mean that the book cost nothing to make. Writing, selecting for publication, editing, formatting: all of the fixed costs incurred in transforming  a manuscript into a real book remain. Selling e-books one at a time, even when there are no one-at-a-time costs to be covered, is a way of recouping incrementally the fixed costs.

However, as I belabored previously, the writer, who does most of the work, gets paid only a small fraction of the per-book revenue. Most of the revenue stream gets funneled to the middlemen. That’s true even with e-books: the writer might get 20 percent instead of 12, but the other 80 cents on the dollar goes to the agent, the publisher, and the e-bookstore. The per-book price for an e-book is lower than that for a physical book, but the price gap is surprisingly small and getting smaller. Even much of the responsibility for editing and publicizing new books — fixed costs traditionally covered by the publisher — have largely been shifted to the author. Lower costs of production translate into higher profit margins for the commercial publisher and its investors.

If the writers organized their own publishing companies and could find readers for their books, they could continue to sell the books one at a time, recouping their own costs of writing and editing more directly. That’s the dream of the self-publisher. it’s also the dream of writers who envision organizing themselves into publishing Houses, then networking the Houses into a large-scale Syndicate.

But for a writers’ Syndicate to perpetuate the e-book’s economic position as a commodity, sold or lent one at a time to readers as if it were a scarce resource, ignores the virtual reality of the e-book. It’s not scarce; it can be replicated again and again and again for no cost and without ever exhausting itself. The e-book is a post-commodity.

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.

Who then pays the writers and editors if copies of books 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.

Why don’t libraries do this already? Because the publishing companies won’t let them. Publishers don’t embrace the role of the library as a public utility; instead, they regard the library as a loss leader, a means of stimulating reader demand that translates into more sales at the bookstore. Not only that, but publishers of e-books have figured out an angle for finagling even more money from libraries:

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.

The libraries might welcome a return to the traditional arrangement of actually owning their e-book holdings rather than renting them. Still, the primary incentive for decommodifying e-books lies elsewhere:

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.

The replicating library replaces both the lending library and the bookstore, letting readers obtain, for free and instantaneously, their own copies of any and all e-books in the library’s holdings. Readers might well go for this scheme. What about authors, who typically are paid $6,000 or less from sales of their published books, $600 or less from self-publishing?

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.

 

Are Best Sellers the Best, Full Stop?

Let’s be optimistic and say that one out of a hundred manuscript novels submitted to agents and publishers is accepted for publication. Are these published few the cream of the crop, the top one percent in quality? What about best-sellers, the top 1% of the top 1%: are they the crème de la crème?

This morning I did a quick analysis by proxy, using movies instead of books — a different medium for publishing fictions. Here’s a list of the top-grossing films released in the US during 2017 so far, along with each film’s metascore, a zero-to-ten metric computed by Metacritic as “a single number that captures the essence of critical opinion.” The top box-office hit so far this year is Beauty and the Beast, which earned a metascore of 7.3. That’s a pretty good score — 6.1 to 8.0 indicates “generally favorable reviews” — though not high enough to merit “universal acclaim” (8.1 and above). The number two grossing film is Wonder Woman, at 7.6 — again, pretty good.

Here are the 100 top-grossing movies of the year to date, presented in tiers of ten:

Box Office Ranking     Average Metascore

1-10                                            7.5
11-20                                          7.3
21-30                                          5.9
31-40                                          5.8
41-50                                          6.3
51-60                                          5.6
61-70                                          6.5
71-80                                          6.5
81-90                                          6.6
91-100                                        5.5

There’s a drop-off from the top twenty, but after that the average metascores hover between 5.5 and 6.5 — slightly above average reviews.

According to the source table nearly 14 thousand movies have been released this year. That means that the top 100 grossing movies are all in the top 1 percent — all best-sellers. Do they get better reviews than movies further down the hit parade? Here are the 2017 movies ranked 1001 to 1100 in box office receipts:

Box Office Ranking     Average Metascore

1001-1010                                 5.5
1011-1020                                 6.8
1021-1030                                 6.7
1031-1040                                 5.9
1041-1050                                 6.1
1051-1060                                 6.1
1061-1070                                 5.5
1071-1080                                 6.8
1081-1090                                 6.7
1091-1100                                 6.6

Results look pretty comparable between the two lists. The average metascore for movies ranked 1-100 in box office receipts is 6.35; for movies 1001-1100, it’s 6.27. I’d call that a tossup.