Monday, 24 August 2015

The Price of Culture

Is the world's biggest bookshop - killing the book?

The journalist, Sonny Yap, once described the library as ‘perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall… a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services*’, but even if it was once, these days the antidote is no longer effective. Far from it! Amazon, which is today where the world goes for books, has carefully applied the ruthless Walmart model to every stage of publishing. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is proud of revolutionising the means of book production and distribution, yet the old mechanisms by which academics did have at least the ’potential’ to spread ideas are also disappearing, replaced by a much more ruthless market in intellectual property. 

It happened so fast, we hardly noticed. In 1995, the year Jeff Bezos, then 31, started Amazon, just 16 million people used the Internet. Today, almost one out of every four humans on the planet, are online.

The year before Amazon, that is in 1994, Americans bought 500 million books, worth $19 billion, and seventeen bestsellers each sold more than 1 million copies. Today, Jeff Bezos is himself worth some ludicrous sum in excess of $25 billion. It’s an extraordinary shift of resources – from publishers and authors to hedge funds – and Bezos. But then, unlike Google, which got its start on an academic campus and pays lip service to certain values* as a result, Amazon began its story on Wall Street, where Mr. Bezos worked as an analyst at D. E. Shaw, a quantitative hedge fund that ‘pioneered the use of computers and sophisticated mathematical formulas to exploit anomalous patterns in global financial markets’. It is this background that explains the reasoning behind his idea of an online ‘everything store’ and Amazon’s ruthless attitude towards competitors. According to one of Bezos’ biographers, during negotiations for access to their back catalogues, the small independent publishers were nicknamed the gazelles by Amazon – meaning the food for the lion.

But the bookstore wars are long over, and Amazon won. Rarely do students and academics buy their books from the curated collections that were university bookshops, they buy them on-line where margins are shaved and prices are cheaper. Where once university presses earnestly solicited academics for their research projects, promising readers' reports, copyediting and fastidious proof checking, now even the giant, transnational presses (like Taylor and Francis and Wiley-Blackwell) have had to drastically rethink their assumptions about profits from such books, in the absence of library sales, shrinking university bookshops and a public culture of book browsing for free on the Internet.

The Journal system in particular has run its course – publishers will have to do without its golden eggs. The high prices paid for access to the precious real estate of journals sitting in a thousand library racks cannot for long survive the practical advantages of online open access. Perhaps funding through grants or library consortia will ease the transition, but Journals are heading the same way as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

For the academic presses, the kind of books they can do has changed. The change is one way – from the bookshop ‘trade’ towards reading lists. So the place of the presses and academic authors alike in intellectual and cultural life is shrinking, taken by attractively packaged, gossipy books from trade presses, who ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’.

Actually, I’m not saying the changes are all black and white (that old ways are all good and new ways all bad). I’m just saying that they are profound and ‘out of control’. And that we should be sceptical of talk of new forms of writing, new forms of learning  - market forces normally result in the emergence of a few brands at the expense of choice and diversity. Harry Potter for children, Shades of Gray for adults...

*The full quote is: 'The library is perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall. As responsible citizens, we need to give the young a chance to choose between a video arcade and a reading place, a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services.'


  1. Profound mutation indeed. While everything seems to be lost (okay, not everything, you make that clear, but!), I felt a glimmer of hope in this:

    Perhaps funding through grants or library consortia will ease the transition, but Journals are heading the same way as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

    This made me think about the mandate of financing bodies, in particular governments -- the public --.

    Here in Quebec, the support for arts, literature and music in particular, is a national priority that is closely tied to the nation's very existence. The reason is, of course, that Quebec is defined by its language.

    But of course this context brings us to constantly think about the role of arts in society. I said "think", not "act" -- we live under the neo liberal era, just like most other nations. Funding is constantly declining.

    And nowadays it becomes clear, often by its absence, that funding for book writing should be less dependent on the laws of market and more on the laws of democracy -- and its associated bureaucracy... I know -- .

    In the past, one could only expect to write if he had the sponsorship of a member of the aristocracy; then came the era of rich bourgeois and idle fallen aristocrats writing about the decadence of civilization (XIXth); after a communicational boom in the second half of the XXth, monopolies and formatted tastes have taken over.

    But I'm convinced that the intervention of the state (remind me to check what the wonderful Danes are doing about arts funding!) is feasible and is much less cruel than the law of the jungle (that some call "freedom"). I say kudos to those who write best sellers. But those whose craft gathers tinier audiences should be able to afford a decent life.

  2. Thanks for this. Yes, I see things differently if I look at books through the perspective of France or England (formerly the UK!). In the UK, my books used to be properly distributed to bookstores but now ther stores are indeed disappearing and (as mentioned in the blog) what they stock is very much the 'high value brands' - the Harry Potters and the Shades of Gray. In academic terms, the Penguin classics and the Oxford Universtiy Professors.

    Here in France, a nationwide network of small bookshops has for generations provided a kind of core cultural identity (which I appreciated with my one book published in French) Yet this great national effort to protect cultural identity means very little - because, sure enough, the 'consumers' here too have gone online and sated their reading thirst with the tempting pickings offered there by rampant, uncontrolled - 'uncontrollable' ?- 'market forces'.

    In terms of Quebec, I hazard that the identity you speak of is challenged too - though you may be slightly underestimating the effect by surveying things from the intellectual but - must we you say- increasingly atypical standpoint? I hope that communities, certainly Quebec must represent a strong example - can carve out their own identities and books and the arts should be at the heart of this process... but...!

  3. Here's a Southern African slant:

    Some personal comments: I choose my books carefully, then buy the printed thing. One of the biggest reasons for this: I work with the pages, commending the text or arguing with it with pencil notes. I find that I remember (real) books and pages in my head -- I'm not sure I can say that about electronic books -- those which haven't been obliterated in the course of time. And books seem to be so much more than words. Feel them and smell them, for instance, and one can tell sometimes without opening one's eyes which era they belong to. I do ask myself, though: those quick Internet searches I make for quotes or information which I know is "out there", has that influenced my book buying?

  4. This is what the State could and should protect : Independent bookstores rising: They can’t compete with Amazon, and don’t have to.
    The independent bookstore fulfils its mandate of being a physical place where choices are made in a non-computable, non-demagogic way :

    "Independent bookstores never had to answer to the dictates of public markets. Many of their proprietors understood, intuitively and from conversations with customers, that a well-curated selection—an inventory of old and new books—was their primary and maybe only competitive advantage. In the words of Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “The indie bookselling amalgam of knowledge, innovation, passion, and business sophistication has created a unique shopping experience.”

    "The independents, meanwhile, offer something neither Amazon nor the chains can: attention to the quirky needs of their customer base. For the Upper West Side and thousands of other neighborhoods, those stores have turned out to be irreplaceable."