From The Wall Street Journal:
In 2000 the RAND Corporation invited a group of historians—including me—to address a newly pressing question: Would digital media revolutionize society as profoundly as Gutenberg and movable type? Two decades later, John Thompson’s answer is yes, but not entirely as predicted. And our forecasts were often wrong because we overlooked key variables: We cannot understand the impact of technologies “without taking account of the complex social processes in which these technologies were embedded and of which they were part.”
Mr. Thompson provides that context in “Book Wars” (Polity, 511 pages, $35), an expert diagnosis of publishers and publishing, robustly illustrated with charts, graphs, tables, statistics and case studies. An emeritus professor at Cambridge University, Mr. Thompson published an earlier dissection of that industry, “Merchants of Culture,” in 2010, but now he finds that capitalist landscape radically transformed.
Not long ago everyone thought (or feared) that ebooks would sweep the ink-and-paper book into the recycle bin of history. But they peaked in 2014 at just under 25% of U.S. book sales, then settled back to about 15% in the U.S. and roughly 5% in Western Europe. It turned out that the printed book had unique advantages (easy to navigate, no power source needed, works even if you drop it on the floor). Another consideration is that bookshelves stocked with physical books serve the essential purpose of advertising our literary tastes to visitors. And far from devastating the publishing industry, ebooks boosted their profits even as their revenues remained more or less flat. (Compared to printed books, they are cheaper to produce and distribute, and they don’t burden publishers with warehousing and returns.)
For anyone bewildered by the transformation of the book world, Mr. Thompson offers a pointed, thorough and business-literate survey. He tracks the arcane legal battles surrounding the creation of Google Books, and explains why the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Apple and the Big Five publishers, but not (so far) against Amazon. He rightly regrets the shrinkage of newspaper book reviewing: the first decade of the 21st century saw newspapers from Boston to San Diego pull back on book reviews. That said, Mr. Thompson could have devoted more attention to the rise of reader-written online literary criticism, a populist substitute for the Lionel Trillings and F.R. Leavises of the past.
In spite of worries that small independent booksellers would disappear, they are still with us. But they were challenged in the 1960s by the shopping-mall chains of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, which were superseded by Barnes & Noble and Borders superstores. These in turn were eclipsed by Amazon (founded 1994), triumphing largely because it sold all books to everyone, everywhere. Though we romanticize corner bookstores, they were numerous only in the largest metropolitan centers. In 1928, a city like Cincinnati had seven bookshops. Small-town America bought books at department stores, at pharmacies, or nowhere.
Mr. Thompson insists that “the turbulence generated by the unfolding of the digital revolution in publishing was unprecedented. . . . Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry that had existed for more than 500 years were being called into question as never before.” I would be careful with the word “unprecedented.” Print-on-demand has been with us for some time: the Chinese did it for centuries with woodblocks. The modish practice of crowdsourcing to finance books has a precursor in 18th-century subscription publishing, as readers pledged in advance to buy a forthcoming book. Amazon today dominates bookselling, but Mudie’s Lending Library enjoyed an equally commanding position in Victorian Britain, and raised in its day serious concerns about corporate censorship. (Mudie’s puritanical acquisitions policies meant that novelists like George Meredith were penalized for honest treatment of sex.)
In fact, the 19th century witnessed a transformation of the book business as dizzying as our own: New reproduction technologies dramatically drove down the price of books and increased print runs by orders of magnitude, creating for the first time a global literary mass market, bringing Walter Scott to Japan and Harriet Beecher Stowe to Russia. Today, the absorption of family-owned publishers by conglomerates has raised questions about whether there is still a home for literary and controversial authors with limited popular appeal, but that change was complete before the full impact of digital media. If you’re worried about media concentration (and you should be), the fact remains that all the great Victorian novelists were published by a half-dozen London firms. The desktop computer has vastly expanded opportunities for self-publishers, but there were plenty of them in the past: think of Martin Luther, Walt Whitman, Leonard and Virginia Woolf or countless job-printed village poets and memoirists.
. . . .
While Mr. Thompson is entirely right to conclude that the transformation of publishing in the past 20 years has been bewildering, that’s nothing new. In a dynamic capitalist economy, the dust never settles.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (This should be a free link to the WSJ original. However, PG isn’t sure if there’s a limit on the number of times various visitors to TPV can use the free link and whether the link is geofenced for the US, North America, etc. If the link doesn’t work for you, PG apologizes for the WSJ paywall.)
And thanks for the tip from G and several others.
PG agrees that there have been several disruptive technology changes that have impacted the book business in the past.
However, he doesn’t think that the WSJ reviewer gives adequate attention to the difference between the development of ebooks vs. the various disruptions of the printed book world that preceded it.
No prior technology change immediately opened up the potential audience for a particular book or a particular category of books like ebooks has.
Absent Amazon’s establishment of different book “markets” – US, Canada, Britain, etc., etc., anybody in the world can buy and download an ebook from from anyplace else in the world.
There’s a legal reason (among others) for Amazon’s multiple home pages for books in different countries – the right to publish and sell under an author’s copyright can be sliced and diced by national market. I can write a book and use a UK publisher to publish to the UK market and an American publisher to publish to the US market with each publishing agreement setting bounds on where the publisher can publish and sell the book.
Side note: A long time ago, PG went through the process of signing up for an account on Amazon UK and did so with no problem. He never used the account, but wandered around among the British-English product descriptions and Pound-based prices enough to believe that, particularly for electronic goods, he could purchase and receive anything he liked there. From prior trips to Britain, PG knows his credit cards work just as well for spending pounds as they do for spending dollars.
All that said, any indie author knows how easy it is to simultaneously publish an ebook every place where Amazon sells ebooks.
Other ebook distributors also offer an even broader publish-everywhere feature. PG just checked and Draft2Digital allows an indie author to publish all over the world, through D2D because D2D has agreements with Rakutenkobo, Scribed and Tolino for them to sell an indie author’s book to the zillions of places they’re available.
Rakutenkobo lists its markets as Turkey, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Philippines, Taiwan and Mexico and PG bets readers in other countries can also access the company’s websites, so an indie author has a very easy path to publishing ebooks in each of those places.
So that’s why PG thinks the ebook revolution can’t be easily compared to any prior technology disruption that involved printed books.
Continuing on, after PG read the WSJ review of Book Wars, he immediately went to Amazon to buy the ebook.
Idiotic corporate publishing screwed everything up.
The hardcover edition of the book lists for $29.30 on Amazon and the ebook edition sells for $28.00!
$28 for an ebook!
The publisher is Polity Publishing.
Per Wikipedia, Polity is an academic publisher in the social sciences and humanities that was established in 1984 and has “editorial offices” in “Cambridge (UK), Oxford (UK), and Boston (US)” plus it also has something going in New York City. In four offices, Polity has 39 employees (no mention how many are student employees or part-time contractors).
PG took a quick look via Google Maps Streetview at Polity’s Boston office, located at 101 Station Landing, Medford, Massachusetts. Streetview showed a photo of a multi-story anonymous-looking modern building that could be an office building or an apartment building. PG had never heard of Medford and doesn’t know anything about the community, but on the map, it doesn’t look terribly close to the parts of Boston with which PG has a tiny bit of familiarity.
So, PG doesn’t know how Mr. Thompson, the author of Book Wars chose his publisher, but, in PG’s extraordinarily humble opinion, he made a giant mistake.
A Wall Street Journal review of a book like this should send sales through the roof. Per Amazon, Book Wars is currently ranked #24,220 in the Kindle Store.
Imagine how much better it would sell if it was offered at a reasonable price.