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.'