We may be reluctant to accept it, but we all know that everything changes. Businesses are no exceptions. Nineteenth century hand-loom weavers reacted by smashing machinery. Farm workers moved to the city and worked in mills. I don’t know how the change in the buggy whip industry went, but it certainly went. Teamsters seem to have successfully negotiated the switch from brandishing those whips over the back ends of horses to driving big gas-guzzling rigs around the country. Their union has gone in for horizontal integration: even book publishing staff are being organized by the Teamsters nowadays: there’s nothing really to smash if we did want to adopt Luddite practices. Different businesses go through the change at different times, but through it they all go. Just ten years ago who’d have thought it possible that bricks-and-mortar retailing might be imperiled? Heck we didn’t even have a term for it. Book publishing changed sometime in the last quarter century. As I’ve said elsewhere, I started working in a Dickensian, hands-on publishing business. No one would recognize it today. Author Karen Karbo gives a comparison of the world of publishing in 1991 as against today on PowellsBooks Blog (via Shelf Awareness). No one will be shocked to discover that she finds the world a bit more complex today.

Here from the invaluable Irish Times (I once had a daily copy as part of my employment contract) is a report by Fiona O’Connor of a speech by Christopher Ricks. (Link via The Passive Voice.) Well it’s not so much a report as a rant deploring the changed world of publishing which takes off from that Poetry Society event. Do we really think “Like any of the giant conglomerates, the publishing megalith is maintained by low-wage drudgery; in this case it is writers who toil for poverty-line rates with no security and few rights.”? Certainly it’s a low-wage business; but it’s a low-margin business; and it’s a business that’s a pleasure to work in which is why we are all willing to accept the low wage. It’s surely nothing to do with the giant-conglomerat-ization of publishing. Maybe Google and Apple aren’t what leaps to mind when one says giant conglomerate, but why are they, who indubitably pay well, allowed to acquire other businesses while escaping that pejorative label? Whether publishing is large-scale or small scale, wages are, and will remain, low. This is because people still want to work there: competition for jobs will bid down salary levels. Are the authors being squeezed too hard? “The writer’s share of this benison is about 2.8 per cent – that’s 28 cents on a €10 book.” Sounds pretty derisory — but wait a minute: 2.8% (though I’ve no idea what the evidence for that figure might be) probably marks out that “writer” as the best paid person in the industry: of course averages hide the difference between say Harper Lee at about $4 million annually (with a huge extra bump this year) and the likes of me at $0. (OK, I’m hardly a real writer, but there are lots of them making less than $100 a year.) 2.8% of Penguin Random House’s revenue amounts to $11,329,000. No idea what the CEO makes, but do you think it’s $11 million?

“In publishing’s changing dynamic George Packer in the New Yorker acknowledges an overall decline in physical book sales in the US and the complete removal of ‘gatekeepers’, ‘who sifted the great ocean of literary content for works of value’.” If George Packer really said this he should be blushing because it’s nonsense. I know lots of people who are still pulling down salaries as “gatekeepers”. So does Mr Packer: indeed to some extent he himself does gatekeeping work by reviewing books and telling us which ones are any good. The bandwagon as usual proves irresistible — just ‘cos it’s passing by isn’t a good reason to jump on it.

Now I think what Ms O’Connor may have been aiming at saying is, that it’s possible that all these terrible things could come to pass. It is obviously possible that they might happen, just as it’s possible they won’t, and just as it’s possible we may be hit by a giant asteroid and stop caring one way or the other. Using Christopher Ricks’ talk about T. S. Eliot and “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” as a jumping off point surely makes a conceptual leap too wide ever to succeed. His struggle against poesy and ours against — what? market forces? digital commodification? disintermediation?— are clearly of a different order. The long and the short of it is that as long as people want books there’ll be someone to provide them at however narrow a margin, because reading the intellectual fashion trends and providing meat for them is just a very satisfying thing to do.

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