Friday, July 25, 2014

A note on bookselling, publishing, and the libertarian mindset

Once we’ve finished poring over the new lists and talking shop, my meetings with booksellers often veer onto other conversational tangents.  This season, Amazon is an unavoidable elephant.

The usually unflappable Lisa Baudoin at Books & Company pointed me to the latest salvo in the Amazon-Hachette PR war: an online petition, purportedly concocted by Amazon-friendly writers and authors, defending in great detail every aspect of Amazon’s recent behavior.  The initiator is anonymous, so there’s no way to know whether the company itself or its public relations arm had a hand in it. 

Headlined “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” it’s a laundry list of legalistic talking points, and is so filled with howlers Lisa didn’t know where to start.

She’s right, there are so many slippery, questionable, and downright false assertions that the head spins.   I’ve commented about this subject at length, and am frankly too bored with it to do a line by line rebuttal.  But one paragraph especially caught my eye:

“New York publishing once controlled the book industry.  They decided which stories you were allowed to read.    They decided which authors were allowed to publish.”  And then along came Amazon to liberate writers from this tyranny.

Where have I heard this sort of thing before?  Oh that’s right, in Tea Party and Libertarian rhetoric.  It has the flavor of the anti-government crusade which has crippled our capacity to act for the common good, and functions here in a similar way to substitute the rights and feelings of the individual author for the communal book ecosystem as a whole.

Can it possibly be true that the evil publishers are…. deciding what to publish?  That they are exercising critical judgment, making informed editorial decisions about literary merit and potential market appeal?  Shocking.

Since a good part of the petition is an attack on the Hachette Book Group, I invite you to peruse the lengthy author list on the Hachette website.   I will happily take the editorial judgment of this single gatekeeper any day over the ragtag collection of self-published, self-printed, self-marketed works that Amazon will post for anyone who pays.  

I'm sure it’s a frustrating thing to write a book and have “New York publishers” tell you it’s not good enough.  I suppose it’s a good thing these rejected writers have an outlet now.  But their platform is not a sustainable model for a quality book culture.  We need a diversity of taste-makers and gatekeepers: the publishers and booksellers who have honed their craft over decades. 

Can the signers of this petition really believe that it’s better to have one corporation control the book market, rather than an archipelago of book institutions?  Can they really be so naïve as to think that their interests won’t be tossed overboard as soon as this wonderland of choice decides they’re expendable?  Every positive they cite about their Amazon relationship- prices, availability, royalties- can and may well be yanked at a moment’s notice when investors eventually run out of patience.

Prioritizing the common good is not a popular argument these days.  The new technologies are so easy and seductive, and they feed the idea that anyone can do anything, that merit is just a matter of opinion and one opinion is as good as another.  What's next- amateur online brain surgery?  Why go to a doctor when the free market is so handy?

Later in the day, I called on Sandi Torkildson, another smart, veteran bookseller at Room of One’s Own in Madison, and I found myself in another conversation about rampant libertarianism.    

Uber and Lyft have become wildly popular alternatives to Taxi companies, in Madison and elsewhere.  Like Airbnb's challenge to those costly behemoths-the hotels- legacy companies are under siege from amateurs. 

But taxis and hotels are heavily regulated to protect the public, allow for handicapped accessibility, to prevent fraud, to ban discrimination, and for a host of other good reasons.   Will the free market nirvana- where everyone can get into the act, where expertise counts for nothing, where “government regulation” means socialism- really be in the interests of the many,  or ultimately only advance the interests of the few who wind up on top?

Governments- like publishers- evaluate and regulate.  Madison is loaded with bars.  Every landlord can make a quick buck by renting to new ones, and the mark-up on liquor can be 400%.  The city has decided that a mix of neighborhood retail is better for the greater good, so there’s a cap on how many bars can open on a given street.  This helps keep rents down for businesses with one tenth the mark-up (e.g. bookstores), and helps keep a diverse retail environment that serves everyone.   Predictably, some see this as the heavy hand of government interfering with the free market, and frame their argument in terms that echo the pro-Amazon rhetoric. 

In this lazy libertarian thinking, everything is about me, very little about us.  It's an incredibly naive misunderstanding of the way our economic system actually operates.  But it's simple and seductive.  It’s not encouraging to hear that the selfish siren call of Ayn Rand continues to resonate with another generation of young readers.  We badly need a comparable imaginitive literary manifesto that does for the common good what Rand did for individual greed.

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