At nearly every talk or signing, I'm asked the same question: if I truly understand how we disempower ourselves by "outsourcing" our value creation to corporations, then why did I go ahead and use a behemoth corporate publisher like Random House to release my book?
Honestly, there are some drawbacks: the book costs more than 20 bucks, its profits support an industry that's already vastly over-conglomerated, and the value you and I wish to exchange as writer and reader is largely extracted by third parties who have little to do with any of it. The banks make more off our transaction than either of us.
But the advantages in this case are better. First off, I got an advance, which gave me time to research and write the book in ways I couldn't have done otherwise. Self-publishing requires the author to come up with some funds to survive — or to work a second (or, in my case, fourth) job while writing. Second, corporations are actually good at some things; mass production and distribution are two of them. Printing and shipping a few thousand books at once uses less energy and resources than printing and shipping each one "on demand."
Finally, though, I wanted this book to enter "the conversation." Yeah, that one — the New Yorker, New York Times, NPR conversation between elites that most of us who care about real writers and writing actually detest. But a conversation hosted almost exclusively by corporate-employed writers and reviewers who don't recognize the existence of a book unless it carries the imprimatur of another major publishing corporation. It's they, and their well-insulated readers, who need to be shown how and why bottom-up culture and economics will replace them.
And that's happening faster than I expected.
Yes, this is the first book tour I've been on since 1992 where I have not stopped at Cody's in Berkeley. Because they're gone. And I haven't made it into Powell's because nobody is paying me to get there but me — and I spent my wad on San Francisco, D.C., and Boston. Publishing just ain't what it used to be, and this is largely the fault of the conglomerates who thought there was more money in this business than there ever was.
But the corporations that exercised this scorched-earth policy are now crumbling under their own weight. It's not just Bank of America and AIG who are in trouble, but the big retail book chains. Barnes & Nobles and Borders stores are going out of business as fast or faster than the independents they undermined. Why? Because books are ultimately not a corporate-friendly, high-growth industry.
See, big conglomerates have almost nothing to do with the industries they're supposedly involved in. They are holding companies — names on debt. And they must grow at the rate that their debt structures demand. Shareholders want to see returns, and banks have interest rates to be paid back. Media conglomerates (often just subsidiaries of other industrial conglomerates) need to demonstrate growth to the banks and shareholders, and they do this by buying or "acquiring" new companies.
For a moment, it looked to the media conglomerates like publishing houses and bookstores would be good assets for acquisition. It turns out they weren't.
Publishing isn't a growth industry — it's a sustainable industry. There's a big difference. Sustainable industries simply create enough value for their consumers and producers to keep going. Authors don't need readers to increase their literary consumption every year. Only corporations needing to demonstrate "growth" require that. So they open more stores, shove out more inane "bestsellers," follow Wal-Mart's publishing rules, and fire the best editors for not producing more books in less time.
But now that this whole model has caused the publishing industry to nearly collapse (no, it has nothing to do with the Kindle), those stores and those publishers are diminishing in size and power. Astor Place is again dominated by St. Mark's Bookshop and Shakespeare & Co. instead of the big B&N, and online consumers are turning to web sites like this one instead of Amazon.
And while there is definitely new opportunity for self-publishing, electronic distribution, and other bottom-up, counter-corporate book creation, I don't think it's time to give up on traditional publishers entirely. There are still the remnants of a publishing ecosystem in the office towers of Pearson, Newscorp, and Bertelsmann — people who were born to edit and publish books, and who deserve real jobs doing so.
Once their imprints are spit out by the conglomerates, and they're looking for ways to survive out here on their own, they're going to need a few good authors to provide them with material.
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Douglas Rushkoff is a widely known media critic and documentarian. He has written ten books, and his documentaries include Frontline's award-winning "The Merchants of Cool" and "The Persuaders." He teaches media studies at the New School, hosts The Media Squat on radio station WFMU, and serves on the board of directors of the Media Ecology Association, the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics, and the National Association for Media Literacy Education. He has won the Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology and was the first winner of the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity.
Books mentioned in this post
Douglas Rushkoff is the author of Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back