Tuesday, September 21, 2010
For books, the first decade of the 21st century has seen one of the great cultural earthquakes. Go back 10 years, or perhaps 20, and the landscape is barely recognisable. No Amazon; no Google and no ebook. Wherever you look: writers, agents, publishers and booksellers transacting literary business like their great-grandparents.
Since the millennium, the relationship between words and money has undergone almost total inversion. On the demand side, publishers recklessly drove up profit margins from a comfortable 3% to a suicidal 15%. As for supply, a privileged minority of "content providers" (AKA authors) reached audiences and made fortunes that started at six or seven figures.
This takeover sometimes had the air of a gold rush, but it has not been a bonanza for everyone. At the end of the second world war there were more than 300 bookshops in New York City. Today there are fewer than 30. The astonishing scale of this transformation has left many observers as disoriented as the survivors of a natural disaster.
A new genre of books, cultural survival kits, has emerged to supply emergency road maps through new terrain: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and No Logo by Naomi Klein. Each one of these bestsellers is animated by a need to make sense of the new and troubling questions provoked by global capitalism and the viral power of the internet.
Less flashy, and more humane, André Schiffrin, a distinguished former New York publisher, has been throughout this decade an indispensable, if rather pessimistic, guide to life after a cultural apocalypse, first in the much-admired The Business of Books (2000) and now in Words and Money (Verso).
He has spent the last decade puzzling over the annihilation of the business he loves by conglomerate visigoths such as Vivendi (a French water and sewage company turned media giant). Actually, while the old contract between words and money was being torn up a new one (entitled "free") was being written, mainly by geeks in California. It is a measure of the profound disorientation experienced by seasoned professionals in this new environment that nowhere in Words and Money does Schiffrin really get to grips with the so-called Google Print Initiative, the biggest copyright heist in history. Nor does he tackle Amazon's burgeoning role as an internet publisher. Sometimes the cultural analyst who puts himself in the middle of the information superhighway ends up looking like Bugs Bunny in the path of a runaway Mack truck.
McCrum's full, thoughtful piece at The Observer.