The Bookmakers, All 7 Billion Of Them Dept. (On "The Business of Literature", Pt. 1)

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-03-29 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

VQR » On the business of literature

Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian.

Those few sentences are from the tail end of this very long but deeply stimlating article, which is worth reading over a cup of coffee. Many of the ideas in it are points I've stumbled across on my own: that books are actually not low-tech (and for that reason, not in need of special protection from technological advancement); that better publishing technology does not automatically yield better publishing; and that the sheer abundance of books out there is a problem all by itself.

The last couple of issues are the most familiar ones. Replacing brick-and-mortar bookstores with Amazon didn't make specific books necessarily easier to find — was it really that hard for the local bookstore to order a title for you if you knew the name? — and now make it more difficult to narrow down the field, in part because everyone in the world is now (theoretically) a publisher. You don't even need books or bookstores to see how this is an issue: quick, of all the blogs you've read in your life, how many of them were worth returning to more than once? How many were worth adding to your RSS reader (assuming you still use such a thing)? How many were worth commenting on or recommending to someone else?

Once upon a time, scarcity was itself a filter. You didn't have much to choose from, so the best things from such a small pool tended to announce themselves. Now there's too much of everything, but the way to deal with that is not by instituting a return to artificial scarcity. We can't brin gback the bad old days when there were a few haughty gatekeepers and where everything outside the citadel mostly disappeared into obscurity. Nobody wants that now anyway — certainly not when there are so many people at the gates clamoring to be let in. Curation-by-algorithm doesn't really work either: algorithms can mimic intelligence but not embody it, and so whole ways of thinking about, talking about, and recommending books vanish.

The solution, if one exists, is to bring the human being as firmly as possible back into the picture. It's people, not machines, that read books and care about them. Sites like Goodreads are the tip of the iceberg of what's possible here, but I get the impression the better way to do it is with a mechanism that's independent of any one site or network — something that's to books and reading the way, well, RSS was (and maybe still is) to the web as a whole. Not the best metaphor, I know, but my thoughts on this have always been a work in progress.

Tags: books bookstores ebooks publishing