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Books

Why the battle between publishing and Amazon matters

bookstore
Chris Rorie reads at Booksmith bookstore in San Francisco on Jan. 12, 2007.
(Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Does publishing matter? Of course it does. That’s one reason the dispute between Amazon.com and Hachette is so significant, because it has broader implications for the ways books are released and sold.

Indeed, one of the finest aspects of the current publishing landscape is that, when it’s working, things feed back into the center, and there is (or should be) room for all. This is what I don’t understand about Amazon’s defenders, many of who are also detractors of traditional publishing; if you want to self-publish, or go the digital route, how exactly is the existence or autonomy of legacy publishers stopping you?

Over at his blog Dr. Syntax, Peter Ginna, former publisher and editorial director of Bloomsbury Press, offers a cogent take on this issue in the form of a response to Matt Yglesias, who last week posted a piece at Vox.com called “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers.”

The headline, as Ginna notes, “shouts clickbait but fairly reflects his piece.”

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Yglesias’ main arguments -- that in a digital landscape, publishers have become superfluous; that publishers are terrible at marketing; that e-books make books cheaper and more readily available -- aren’t necessarily irrelevant (although haven’t we heard all this already?), but they don’t tell the whole story. Or perhaps it’s most accurate to say they only represent a single angle of attack.

More to the point, I think, is Ginna’s rebuttal, which likens contemporary publishing to an “ecosystem, where you can instantly download a book you just heard about on NPR, or spend a Sunday afternoon browsing in a wonderful bookstore for a great biography, or pick up a baking book that catches your eye at Williams-Sonoma.”

In addition, he continues, “the vibrant market and high visibility of all their printed counterparts is a vital component of the marketing for e-books. In a world where you never saw a printed book in a store, or in a reader’s hands on the bus, it would be harder for any book to gain the kind of ‘mindshare’ that a hot title does today.”

Democratization, in other words, cuts all ways -- offering opportunities for those who don’t want to (or can’t) engage with traditional publishing as well as for those who do. And though it’s undeniable that e-books bring more people to reading (especially in countries and communities where bookstore access is scarce, or prices prohibitive), it is also the case that print books aren’t going away.

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From where I sit, that’s nothing to lament. As Yglesias observes, “Of course a world where more people can get more books more conveniently is a better world.”

So why all the vehement (if out-of-date -- it is no longer 2010, after all, when the industry looked as if it could be failing) projections of publishing’s demise?

“Yglesias, and many other pundits,” Ginna argues, “strike a pose of hardnosed realism by telling us the Amazon-Hachette dispute ‘is just about price.’ ... But more important, what these pundits overlook is that the dispute is also about what kind of marketplace we want to have.”

He continues: “If lower prices are good for readers, so is diversity in the marketplace of ideas. ... The publisher-less world Yglesias imagines will also be a bookstore-free world, totally dominated by one seller that will have even greater sway over what gets promoted than it does now.  It will also have the ability to change at whim the terms it offers to authors, in their disfavor, as it already has more than once. That’s my idea of a dystopia, not of readers being better off.”

Here is the key idea, which we overlook at our own risk. Yes, Amazon is a business, as is Hachette and Penguin and City Lights and any other publisher you can name. Writers, too, are in business -- at least those of us who seek to make a living from what we do.

But when it comes to books, to literature and information, there is more than business at stake. Books, in whatever form, serve as a collective soul, a memory bank, for the culture, bigger than mere commerce, something that shouldn’t just be bought and sold.

This is why the Amazon-Hachette dispute is fundamentally different than, say, a supermarket chain deciding not to stock a certain brand of milk. The brand of milk, in this case, brings a unique set of voices, of literary and intellectual ingredients, that disappear if they are not nurtured or preserved.

The irony is that this is precisely what Yglesias means to be defending: “A bounty of affordable reading,” in his phrase. But how does that bounty come to market without partners who see their relationship with publishers -- big and small, corporate and independent -- as complementary rather than adversarial?

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I know, I know, I’m an idealist, but that seems to me still to be the essence of the enterprise.

“[Q]uaint as this will sound,” Ginna asserts, “publishers sometimes invest in books that they know won’t earn out, simply because they believe in supporting talented writers. They also know that bringing a promising author to the list may pay off further down the line. This is true even of big conglomerate houses, and even more so of the many excellent independent publishers at work all over the country -- the Grove Atlantics, Graywolfs, and Tin Houses -- whom Yglesias would cheerfully consign to oblivion. If all these houses are ‘wiped off the face of the earth,’ do we imagine the algorithms that replace them will have the same concern for literary culture?”

Twitter: @davidulin


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