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 na├»ve 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.





Sunday, July 6, 2014

summer 2014 appointments: 15 snapshots



“Philosophers are still buying books,” I was happy to learn at Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario.

“The world needs a solid biography of Marcel Duchamp- people have been asking for this,” reports Tracey at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton, Ontario.

In addition to a very fine collection of old and new books, one can purchase at D&E Lake  in downtown Toronto: carved wooden canes, kilt pins, nested Russian Bill Clinton dolls, Soviet Army belt buckles, and some lovely framed art.

To rev up interest in Mark Winston’s Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive (Harvard October), I’ve been mentioning Myra Goldberg’s Bee Season among the many titles showing that, as one buyer said, “there’s a bee thing happening.”  Alas, the same buyer pointed out that the Goldberg book is actually about spelling bees.   Oops.

I pitch Henri Lefebvre’s The Missing Pieces, one of my favorite titles on the fall MIT/semiotext(e) list, with extra, rep fave enthusiasm.  Turns out to be one of the most polarizing books on the list.  It’s a compendium of what has been lost or never existed, a kind of “list literature.”  Example:  “Murder, the Hope of Women, a twenty-five minute opera composed in 1919 by Paul Hindemuth; The novel Theodor by Robert Walser; The letters of Milena Jesenska to Franz Kafka; The contents of a telephone conversation between Stalin and Pasternak after the arrest of Osip Mandelstam; The final seven meters of Kerouac’s On the Road (eaten by a dog.)”  And so on and so on.  Buyers who love this idea really love it, and imagine all sorts of display and even performance potential.  Other buyers, not so much.  In one of the Twin Cities, excitement.  In the other, “Are you kidding?  B.O.R.I.N.G.”

Speaking of Pasternak, I was meeting with Iowa City book ace Matt Lage at Iowa Book when a customer overheard him refer to Pasternak.  (He’s full of smart literary references, delivered in the nicest way.)  She approached us, and in a thick but charming Slavic accent, told us that she adores Pasternak, that her grandfather went to jail in the Soviet Union for reading him and later committed suicide, and that “you can’t understand life if you don’t understand Pasternak!”  This was a refreshing vindication of Iowa students, who until then had mainly shuffled up to the desk to grudgingly inquire about textbooks only to leave without buying them (from the bookseller who helped them anyway.)

Reactions to Michael MacDonald’s Overreach: Delusions of Regime Change in Iraq (Harvard October) have quickly gone from an “old news” shrug to “very timely” thanks to Cheney and company’s recent helpful reminders.

“Why is MIT not doing books on 3-D printing?!?”

“Greil Marcus, say no more!”

After perusing digital images and page layouts from the book, Kris Kleindienst at Left Bank Books in St Louis says of Paul Strand: Photography & Film for theTwentieth Century (Yale November) “This is the way art books are supposed to look!”  This makes my day.

How social media is supposed to work: the buyer at Common Good Books in St Paul is excited to see the long-awaited English translation of Alexander Kluge’s History & Obstinacy on the MIT/Zone list (October) and notes that he’d just seen a tweet from a San Francisco bookseller who is also anxiously waiting to read it, which adds to the appeal.

In describing Jeremy Bernstein’s Nuclear Iran (Harvard October), I refer to the “small, cute trim size” in my mark-up notes.  A buyer raises an eyebrow and finds this an amusing phrase about such a grim subject.  Maybe I should take it out.

The logo of the new Murty Classical Library of India series from Harvard brings a smile to the face of every bookseller who sees it.

I’m used to meeting booksellers in cramped offices or behind public information desks where I sometimes get to answer customer inquiries during appointments.  (I helped a woman find a book on the birds of Iowa and felt ludicrously giddy over this.)  But Kim Stephenson, McGill University Bookstore buyer, saw me in the Hospitality Suite of the Montreal Book Fair, which happened to coincide with my visit.  We were surrounded by fancy snacks, a well-stocked bar, comfy chairs and a stunning penthouse view.  I could get used to this. 

In reference to book prices, Prairie Lights’ Paul Ingram notes that “$40 will get you a very nice dinner in Iowa City!”