Tangible Values

Posted by @ 4:47 pm on November 13th, 2012


Is there anything journalists love writing about more than the death of the publishing industry? Every few weeks there is a new surge of articles and essays pointing at the sky, suggesting said sky is falling, even though nothing ever seems to reach the ground. Magazines are going all digital, they say! Print is dying! Print must be dying so we cannot look for fallibility anywhere else. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the merger between Penguin and Random House. Two massive publishers will become even more massive.

Today, The New York Times, published yet another article, predicated on the assumption that publishing is declining. As I’ve asked here before, has any industry functioned in decline as long as publishing? Medical doctors should be studying publishing because, clearly, the key to immortality therein lies.

Perhaps it isn’t that publishing is dying but, instead, publishing is being killed. At the popular Brain Pickings, Maria Popova wrote a footnote to a post about Jane Mount, an artist who creates portraits of writers based on their ideal bookshelves. The Ideal Bookshelf featuring Mount’s art and essays by each featured writer, was released today from Little Brown. It’s an interesting idea, beautiful art, and offers us the insight we seem to crave into how the minds of great writers work.

In her footnote, Popova seems appalled Little Brown wouldn’t allow her to reproduce more than three images from the book without involving their subsidiary rights department to negotiate a fee. She writes, ” If I wanted more (“wanted,” of course, meaning “wanted to speak highly of their book in front of a few million of my readers for free“), their publicist kindly offered to ‘get [their] subsidiary rights department involved, and have them create a contract and some kind of fee.'”  A few million readers, in this scenario, should be just compensation for the right to reproduce Mount’s art.

I am no apologist for publishing. They are ass backwards in innumerable ways but I love books and I love that people love books enough to publish them and I need to believe that someday, they’ll sort themselves out on the issues that frustrate me the most—diversity, e-book pricing, a slowness in evolving.

This is the challenge we’re dealing with these days–talking about books and art we love, and making sure publishers and writers are compensated for it. This is the math problem we seemingly cannot solve save for a lucky few. There’s a lot to be said for the power of a few million readers and surely, that will translate into some sales, but the correlation is nebulous. There’s no real guarantee of compensation. With subsidiary rights, the publisher and writer will be paid in actual currency and they will know how much.

Popova’s frustration is understandable but her suggestion that Little Brown asserting their subsidiary rights is antithetical to the joy of books isn’t quite right. Of all the things publishing can get wrong, this isn’t one of them. The whole point of The Ideal Bookshelf is the artwork. People do love to hold physical artifacts but I’m guessing Little Brown is assuming that more people will simply see the images online and feel like that’s good enough for them, than will both see the images online and purchase the book. Again, it’s too nebulous, too uncertain, and publishing is a business. Businesses don’t like nebulous financial prospects.

There seems to be a line people are not willing to cross when it comes to paying for art. On Twitter, Robert Swartwood mused about how we spend our money and how we value writing.

It was, as Swartwood notes on his blog, “just a tweet,” but it’s a tweet that gets at something fundamental about the value we put on art. We value art theoretically and seem, at times, to be less willing to value art monetarily.

We also talk a great deal about Amazon and how they are evil and swallowing up all that is good in publishing. Amazon is evil because we allowed them to become that way, because the free shipping is irresistible, because you can buy a brand new hardcover for 40% off, because we are willing to compromise the value of art to protect the value of our net worth, such as it may be. There’s no shame in this but we can talk about. We can admit this weakness in ourselves.

Some people look at the state of publishing and say it’s about supply and demand–too much supply, not enough demand. There is truth in that. We are drowning in books but I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing because more cream rises to the top than doesn’t. They say more of us would buy books and magazines if publishers worked harder to put better work into the world but I read excellent writing every day. Though terrible books and magazines are published, so are excellent books and magazines. This is not about quality control.

I’d suggest that no matter how well-intentioned we are, a lot of us still feel like art is frivolous, that books matter less, that certain things should be free or cheap for the “greater good,” that art is a luxury. And yes, if it comes down to putting food on the table or buying a book, food it shall be. I’m talking here about people who are financially comfortable (ie. willing to spend $6 a day on coffee), and still are not really comfortable spending their money on things that are less tangibly consumed than a mocha latté.

Maria Popova clearly values books. Anyone who reads Brain Pickings can see that. Throughout her footnote, Popova discusses her love of Mount’s art but clearly, there’s a limit to that love, a financial one. She wants to talk about Mount’s art and feature art from The Ideal Bookshelf, but blames a dysfunctional publishing industry for not letting her do that for free. There’s…. a disconnect there.

Publishing isn’t dying but it is trying to keep its head above water in the ocean while rain falls down and people keep throwing buckets of water into that ocean, making it rise, rise, rise.