In April 2014, Amalia Ulman, a recent art school graduate living in Los Angeles, started to upload images of herself to Instagram. Her first image, accompanied by the caption “Excellences & Perfections,” received twenty-eight likes. Over the coming months, Ulman continued to upload selfies documenting her semifictionalized makeover. Some of the images, like the one of her recovery from breast augmentation surgery, were pure fiction.
Others, including those taken at her pole-dancing lessons, reflected things she was actually doing as part of her self-transformation. Like millions of other young women who post selfies on Instagram, Ulman was using the platform to construct a semifictional narrative about herself. Unlike most young women, her carefully curated postings about her life would ultimately be embraced as art.
In a 2015 Art Review article, Eric Morse observed that in Ulman’s Instagram work, eventually titled Excellences & Perfections, “promises of voyeuristic spectacle and salacious confession ignited her account’s real-time fan base and drew mainstream coverage from pop culture glossies like New York Magazine, i-D and Dazed and Confused.”
But according to Morse, Ulman didn’t just garner an online following during her durational performance on Instagram. “What continues to fascinate most about Ulman’s progressing oeuvre,” Morse observes, “is not only the vast conceptual net under which she interrogates theories of identity, domesticity and fantasy, but the challenging heterogeneity of disciplines and templates that she engages from exhibition to exhibition—from poetry to design to online performance.”
The critical reception of Ulman’s social media performance work hasn’t always been as positive as Morse’s laudatory review, but it has been copious, and in a content age, quantity is what matters. Ulman clearly understood this, which is why she felt compelled to start producing work about herself online in the first place. As she explained in a 2018 statement in Art Forum, “There is an expectation now that artists should be online and on social media promoting themselves, but that the promotion shouldn’t be the work per se. It felt like a requirement, especially as a woman, to expose oneself to sell the work in a way.”
Ulman’s decision to produce content about herself (not herself as an artist but simply as a young, sexualized woman) ultimately proved wildly successful—more successful than her previous artwork. What her online performance also revealed is that in an age of content, content isn’t just something needed to promote one’s art. Increasingly, content is art or, at least, what has come to stand in for art.
But what does this mean for artists and writers and the broader field of cultural production? If cultural producers are now under immense pressure to produce content—not necessarily about their art or writing but about themselves—is culture itself now nothing more or less than the sum of the content one can produce about their alleged lives as artists or writers? Rather than the “death of the author” heralded by French novelist and philosopher Roland Barthes in the 1960s, are we now witnessing its counterpoint—a cultural sphere where nothing remains but a cult of celebrity being played out on digital platforms?
The field of cultural production in which Ulman and other contemporary artists and writers now work is still partially structured by traditional forms of reception and circulation. In Ulman’s case, reviews of her work in publications such as Art Review and the exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in London and New Museum in New York City certainly contributed to her success, but neither of these achievements secured her success in the first place. Her ability to gain a foothold in the modern art world was propelled by her willingness to produce content about her life and share it on a social media platform. And Ulman isn’t alone.
Most artists and writers now rely on a similar strategy—or more precisely, content strategy. In the 2020s, if you want to be a successful artist or writer, you don’t necessarily need cultural or social capital or even a preexisting body of art or writing to succeed. What matters most is your content capital.
Here’s another example of artificial intelligence creating original images:
This was created by using the following prompt to the AI: Gothic Victorian London with harmonic colors created by subtle brush strokes.
This was created using Hotpot.ai, which provides online creation of images via artificial intelligence. The site offers some rudimentary images at no charge, but if you want to get faster results and more detail, you’ll need to pay them some money.
Amazon has a website as part of its Amazon Web Services site that demonstrates various applications of artificial intelligence:
One of those sites is for the demonstration of Amazon Polly, a text-to-speech program. PG understands that Polly has multi-lingual capabilities, but it appears PG is not located in a region that has access to more than English.
Here is a speech file with Polly translating a written quote from Helen Keller in one of its many female voices:
Here is a speech file with Polly translating a partial quote from the Declaration of Independence in ont of its many male voices:
Here is Polly translating the Declaration of Independence quote using a younger male voice. You will notice that the recorded translation to the younger male voice is a few seconds longer than the adult male voice above.
The Believer was once at the top of the literary magazine game.
A leading journal of art and culture, The Believer published the work of icons like Leslie Jamison, Nick Hornby and Anne Carson. It won awards, it launched careers — it created a home for off-beat, quirky writing. When the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada bought the magazine, observers spoke of Las Vegas as a potential new hub for literary arts.
Then, in October of last year, the college announced it was shutting the magazine down in early 2022, citing the “financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.” In a statement explaining the decision, the dean of the school’s College of Liberal Arts called print publications like The Believer “a financially challenging endeavor.”
The news came months after an incident where the editor in chief exposed himself during a video call with staff and subsequently resigned. Staffers’ complaints about him were also detailed in a Los Angeles Times report.Still, the announcement caused ripples throughout the literary world — Jamison, known for her book of essays, “The Empathy Exams,” tweeted that she was “heartbroken” over the news when it was announced.The Believer’s shuttering isn’t isolated. Across the country, universities are slowly, quietly, cutting funding and shutting their literary publications down. Even magazines not connected to universities are closing their doors or changing publication strategies — a trend made worse by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Colleges everywhere are cutting lit mags
Literary magazines aren’t exactly flashy — they aren’t covered in photos of beautiful people draped in designer clothing; they don’t contain the latest celebrity tell-all.But in the world of literary arts, they’re essential. For early-career poets, essayists and fiction writers, these magazines are a way to get publi
shed, find an agent and get paid. They serve as a stepping stone — no one, after all, just jumps into a book deal. Credits through literary magazines present a pathway.
In Jamison’s tribute to The Believer, for example, she thanked the magazine for publishing her landmark essay “Empathy Exams” when nobody else would. (CNN reached out to staff at The Believer and Black Mountain Institute for comment, but did not receive a response.)
It’s not just about career building, though. The magazines are a runway, where new literary styles are tested and emerge. New voices break through. If only large, established magazines continue to exist — like The Paris Review or the New Yorker — the diversity of the literary world will suffer, as Alaska Quarterly Review co-founder and editor-in-chief Ronald Spatz told CNN.
PG gently suggests that the world passed by literary magazines some time ago.
He felt the slightest twitch of nostalgia when he read the OP, but it was strictly an old guy response to days long past. He doubts many ambitious young authors today would bother with a medium so antiquated.
If you’re a good writer and want to write literary magazine material, start a blog, tell all your friends about it and see who shows up.
Art has long been claimed as a final frontier for automation—a field seen as so ineluctably human that AI may never master it. But as robots paint self-portraits, machines overtake industries, and natural language processors write New York Times columns, this long-held belief could be on the way out.
Computational literature or electronic literature—that is, literature that makes integral use of or is generated by digital technology—is hardly new. Alison Knowles used the programming language FORTRAN to write poems in 1967 and a novel allegedly written by a computer was printed as early as 1983. Universities have had digital language arts departments since at least the 90s. One could even consider the mathematics-inflected experiments of Oulipo as a precursor to computational literature, and they’re experiments that computers have made more straightforward. Today, indie publishers offer remote residencies in automated writing and organizations like the Electronic Literature Organization and the Red de Literatura Electrónica Latinoamericana hold events across the world. NaNoGenMo—National Novel Generation Month—just concluded its sixth year this April.
As technology advances, headlines express wonder at books co-written by AI advancing in literary competitions and automated “mournful” poetry inspired by Romance novels—with such resonant lines as “okay, fine. yes, right here. no, not right now” and “i wanted to kill him. i started to cry.” We can read neo-Shakespeare (“And the sky is not bright to behold yet: / Thou hast not a thousand days to tell me thou art beautiful.”), and Elizabeth Bishop and Kafka revised by a machine. One can purchase sci-fi novels composed, designed, blurbed, and priced by AI. Google’s easy-to-use Verse by Verse promises users an “AI-powered muse that helps you compose poetry inspired by classic American poets.” If many of these examples feel gimmicky, it’s because they are. However, that doesn’t preclude AI literature that, in the words of poet, publisher, and MIT professor Nick Montfort, “challenges the way [one] reads[s] and offers new ways to think about language, literature, and computation.”
. . . .
Ross Goodwin’s 1 the Road (2018) is often described as one of the first novels written completely by AI. To read it like a standard novel wouldn’t get one far, though whether that says more about this text or the traditional novel could be debated. Much of the book comprises timestamps, location data, mentions of businesses and billboards and barns—all information collected from Four Square data, a camera, GPS, and other inputs. But the computer also generated characters: the painter, the children. There is dialogue; there are tears. There are some evocative, if confused, descriptions: “The sky is blue, the bathroom door and the beam of the car ride high up in the sun. Even the water shows the sun” or “A light on the road was the size of a door, and the wind was still so strong that the sun struck the bank. Trees in the background came from the streets, and the sound of the door was falling in the distance.” There is a non-sequitur reference to a Nazi and dark lines like “35.416002034 N, -77.999832991 W, at 164.85892916 feet above sea level, at 0.0 miles per hour, in the distance, the prostitutes stand as an artist seen in the parking lot with its submissive characters and servants.”
K Allado-McDowell, who in their role with the Artist + Machine Intelligence program at Google supported 1 the Road, argued in their introduction to the text that 1 the Road represented a kind of late capitalist literary road trip, where instead of writing under the influence of amphetamines or LSD, the machine tripped on an “automated graphomania,” evincing what they more recently described to me as a “dark, normcore-cyberpunk experience.”
To say 1 the Road was entirely written by AI is a bit disingenuous. Not because it wasn’t machine-generated, but rather because Goodwin made curatorial choices throughout the project, including the corpus the system was fed (texts like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Hell’s Angels, and, of course, On the Road), the surveillance camera mounted on the Cadillac that fed the computer images, and the route taken. Goodwin, who is billed as the book’s “writer of writer,” leans into the questions of authorship that this process raised, asking: is the car the writer? The road? The AI? Himself? “That uncertainty [of the manuscript’s author] may speak more to the anthropocentric nature of our language than the question of authorship itself,” he writes.
AI reconfigures how we consider the role and responsibilities of the author or artist. Prominent researchers of AI and digital narrative identity D. Fox Harrell and Jichen Zhu wrote in 2012 that the discursive aspect of AI (such as applying intentionality through words like “knows,” “resists,” “frustration,” and “personality”) is an often neglected but equally pertinent aspect as the technical underpinnings. “As part of a feedback loop, users’ collective experiences with intentional systems will shape our society’s dominant view of intentionality and intelligence, which in turn may be incorporated by AI researchers into their evolving formal definition of the key intentional terms.”
That is, interactions with and discussions about machine intelligence shape our views of human thought and action and, circularly, humanity’s own changing ideologies around intelligence again shape AI; what it means to think and act is up for debate. More recently, Elvia Wilk, writing in The Atlantic on Allado-McDowell’s work, asks, “Why do we obsessively measure AI’s ability to write like a person? Might it be nonhuman and creative?” What, she wonders, could we learn about our own consciousness if we were to answer this second question with maybe, or even yes?
This past year, Allado-McDowell released Pharmako-AI(2020), billed as “the first book to be written with emergent AI.” Divided into 17 chapters on themes such as AI ethics, ayahuasca rituals, cyberpunk, and climate change, it is perhaps one of the most coherent literary prose experiments completed with machine learning, working with OpenAI’s large language model GPT-3. Though the human inputs and GPT-3 outputs are distinguished by typeface, the reading experience slips into a linguistic uncanny valley: the certainty GPT-3 writes with and the way its prose is at once convincingly “human” but yet just off unsettles assumptions around language, literature, and thought, an unsettling furthered by the continuity of the “I” between Allado-McDowell and GPT-3.
. . . .
But as AI “thinking” reflects new capacities for human potential, it also reflects humanity’s limits; after all, machine learning is defined by the sources that train it. When Allado-McDowell points out the dearth of women and non-binary people mentioned by both themselves and by GPT-3, the machine responds with a poem that primarily refers to its “grandfather.” Allado-McDowell intervenes: “When I read this poem, I experience the absence of women and non-binary people.” “Why is it so hard to generate the names of women?” GPT asks, a few lines later.
Why indeed. Timnit Gebru, a prominent AI scientist and ethicist, was forced out of Google for a paper that criticized the company’s approach to AI large language models. She highlighted the ways these obscure systems could perpetuate racist and sexist biases, be environmentally harmful, and further homogenize language by privileging the text of those who already have the most power and access.
One of the comments in the items PG looked at in connection with this post claimed that Pharmako-AI was not the first book written by GPT-3. The commenter claimed that GPT-3 Techgnosis; A Chaos Magick Butoh Grimoire was the first GPT-3-authored book.
IN 1995, I WENT to work as a writer and editor for Book World, the then-standalone book-review section of TheWashington Post. I left a decade later, two years before Amazon released the Kindle ebook reader. By then, mainstream news outlets like the Post were on the ropes, battered by what sociologist John B. Thompson, in Book Wars, calls “the digital revolution” and its erosion of print subscriptions and advertising revenue. The idea that a serious newspaper had to have a separate book-review section seems quaint now. Aside from TheNew York Times Book Review, most of Book World’s competitors have faded into legend, like the elves departing from Middle-earth at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Their age has ended, though the age of the book has not.
Nobody arrives better equipped than Thompson to map how the publishing ecosystem has persisted and morphed in the digital environment. An emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge and emeritus fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, Thompson conducts his latest field survey of publishing through a rigorous combination of data analysis and in-depth interviews. Book Wars comes stuffed with graphs and tables as well as detailed anecdotes. The data component can get wearisome for a reader not hip-deep in the business, but it’s invaluable to have such thorough documentation of the digital publishing multiverse.
. . . .
One big question animates Thompson’s investigation: “So what happens when the oldest of our media industries collides with the great technological revolution of our time?” That sounds like hyperbole — book publishing hasn’t exactly stood still since Gutenberg. A lot happens in 500 years, even without computers. But for an industry built on the time-tested format of print books, the internet understandably looked and felt like an existential threat as well as an opportunity.
Early on in his study, Thompson neatly evokes the fear that accompanied the advent of ebooks. The shift to digital formats had already eviscerated the music industry; no wonder publishers felt queasy. As Thompson writes, “Were books heading in the same direction as CDs and vinyl LPs — on a precipitous downward slope and likely to be eclipsed by digital downloads? Was this the beginning of the end of the physical book?” That question has been asked over and over again for decades now, and the answer remains an emphatic No. (Note to pundits: Please resist the urge to write more “Print isn’t dead!” hot takes.) But publishers didn’t know that in the early digital days.
The words “revolution” and “disruption” get thrown around so often that they’ve lost their punch, but Thompson justifies his use of them here. He recalls the “dizzying growth” of digital books beginning in 2008, “the first full year of the Kindle.” That year alone, ebook sales for US trade titles added up to $69 million; by 2012, they had ballooned to $1.5 billion, “a 22-fold increase in just four years.”
Print, as usual, refused to be superseded. Despite their early boom, ebooks didn’t cannibalize the print market. Thompson uses data from the Association of American Publishers to show that ebooks plateaued at 23 to 24 percent of total book sales in the 2012–’14 period, then slipped to about 15 percent in 2017–’18. Print books, on the other hand, continue to account for the lion’s share of sales, with a low point of about 75 percent in 2012–’14, bouncing back to 80 to 85 percent of total sales in 2015–’16. (Thompson’s study stops before the 2020–’21 pandemic, but print sales have for the most part been strong in the COVID-19 era.)
For some high-consumption genres, like romance, the ebook format turned out to be a match made in heaven; Thompson notes that romance “outperforms every other category by a significant margin.” But readers in most genres have grown used to choosing among formats, and traditional publishers have for the most part proved able and willing to incorporate those formats into their catalogs. That’s a net gain both for consumer choice and for broader access to books.
. . . .
Thompson quotes an anonymous trade-publishing CEO: “The power of Amazon is the single biggest issue in publishing.”
It’s easy to see why. With its vast market reach and unprecedented access to customer data, Amazon has made itself indispensable to publishers, who rely on it both to drive sales (often at painfully deep discounts) and to connect with readers. For many of us, if a book’s not available on Amazon, it might as well not exist. “Given Amazon’s dominant position as a retailer of both print and ebooks and its large stock of information capital, publishers increasingly find themselves locked in a Faustian pact with their largest customer,” Thompson writes.
That pact has proven hard to break. “Today, Amazon accounts for around 45 percent of all print book sales in the US and more than 75 percent of all ebook unit sales, and for many publishers, around half — in some cases, more — of their sales are accounted for by a single customer, Amazon,” Thompson points out. That’s staggering.
Does Amazon care about books? Not in the way that publishers, authors, and readers do, but that doesn’t change the power dynamic. Amazon derives its power from market share, yes, but also from what Thompson calls “information capital” — namely the data it collects about its customers. That gives it an enormous advantage over publishers, whose traditional business approach prioritizes creative content and relationships with authors and booksellers.
Workarounds to Amazon exist, though not yet at scale. Just as authors have learned to connect with readers via email newsletters and social media, so have publishers been experimenting with direct outreach via digital channels. Email feels almost quaint, but done well it remains a simple and effective way to reach a target audience. Selling directly to readers means publishers can avoid the discounts and terms imposed on them by Amazon and other distributors.
. . . .
Authors can now sidestep literary gatekeepers, such as agents and acquiring editors, and build successful careers with the help of self-publishing platforms and outlets that didn’t exist 20 or even 10 years ago. Self-publishing has become respectable; we’ve traveled a long way from the days when book review editors wrote off self-published books as vanity press projects. Newspaper book sections have mostly vanished, but book commentary pops up all over the internet, in serious review outlets like this one and in the feeds of Instagram and TikTok influencers. It’s a #bookstagram as well as an NYTBR world now. To me, that feels like a win for books, authors, and readers.
. . . .
Some authors hit the big time in terms of sales and readers without relying on a traditional publisher. Thompson returns several times to the example of the software engineer-turned-writer Andy Weir, whose hit book The Martian (2011) got its start as serialized chapters published on his blog and delivered to readers via newsletter. (Newsletters represent another digital-publishing trend unlikely to disappear anytime soon.) “The astonishing success of The Martian — from blog to bestseller — epitomizes the paradox of the digital revolution in publishing: unprecedented new opportunities are opened up, both for individuals and for organizations, while beneath the surface the tectonic plates of the industry are shifting,” Thompson writes.
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.
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.
When I set out, around 10 years ago, to study the impact of the digital revolution on the world of books, there was a great deal of uncertainty—and, in some quarters, considerable apprehension—about what might happen when digitization took hold in the oldest of our media industries. Many people in publishing were looking over their shoulders anxiously at what had happened in the music industry and thinking: This could happen to us too. The print-on-paper book could suffer the same fate as the vinyl LP—why not? The textual content of books could be digitized just as easily as music could, and the physical book could be swept aside by cheaper and more efficient forms of content delivery. Like the vinyl LP, the old-fashioned print-on-paper book could become a collector’s item, still cherished by the aficionado but banished to the margins of the industry.
In the years immediately following the launch of the Kindle in 2007, it looked to many like the physical book could indeed suffer the same fate as the vinyl LP, as e-book sales surged. But it soon became clear that the e-book surge was going to be short-lived: By 2012, the rapid growth of e-books had come to an abrupt halt. For some kinds of books, especially genre fiction like romance, mystery, and sci-fi, e-books were by then accounting for a sizable proportion of sales—as much as 40–50 percent. But in other genres, like nonfiction and children’s books, e-books represented a much smaller percentage of sales, and that percentage was either leveling off or declining. If the digital revolution in publishing was about e-books, then it seemed that this was, at best, a stalled revolution. In any case, it certainly didn’t look like a re-run of what had happened in the music industry.
However, the digital revolution in publishing was never only, or even primarily, about e-books: E-books were just one aspect of a much more complex and varied series of transformations that were disrupting the publishing world. In Book Wars, I take the reader on a journey through the decades of disruption that began around 2000 and continues unabated today, a period that has witnessed an enormous proliferation of new ventures and initiatives which, taken together, have radically altered the landscape of contemporary publishing. The world of books today looks very different from the way it looked 30 or 40 years ago. Among the many changes, three stand out as particularly significant.
. . . .
1. Amazon Online Retail
First was the rise of Amazon and the transformation of the retail side of the book business. Amazon was a child of the digital revolution—it wouldn’t have existed without digitization and the internet. In an astonishingly short time period, Amazon grew from its humble origins as a small tech startup in a Seattle garage to become the most powerful organization the world of books had ever known. Today, Amazon accounts for around 45 percent of all print book sales in the US and more than 75 percent of all e-book sales, and for many publishers, around half—in some cases, more—of their sales are accounted for by a single customer, Amazon. Never before in the 500-year history of book publishing has there been a retailer with this kind of market share, and with market share comes power, including the power to negotiate favorable terms with suppliers and to command the attention of readers. It’s hard to over-state the significance of this development: Its consequences are profound, not only for publishers and for other booksellers who struggle to compete with Amazon but also for the whole ecology of the publishing world, including the ways in which books are made visible to readers and discovered by them.
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2. Self-Publishing Boom
A second enormous change has been the explosion of self-publishing. Of course, self-publishing is not new: It can be traced back to the so-called vanity presses that emerged in the early and mid-twentieth century. But the new age of self-publishing that was ushered in by the digital revolution is very different from the old vanity presses. The key idea that underpins this new age is the idea that authors who want to self-publish their work should not have to pay for the privilege, and the organizations that facilitate self-publishing should not be making money by charging fees to authors. On the contrary, self-publishing organizations or platforms should be there to help authors publish their work, and these platforms would pay authors if and when their work sells, taking a commission on sales to cover their costs. It was this simple but fundamental idea, turning on its head the relationship between author and self-publishing organization, that underpinned the explosion in self-publishing that occurred from the early 2000s on, starting with pioneering organizations like Lulu and Smashwords and continuing through the establishment of Amazon’s self-publishing platforms, CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing, and including many other platforms and services. The world of self-publishing is now an enormously complicated world in its own right—a parallel universe that exists alongside the world of traditional publishing and that has grown enormously in recent years. Quite apart from the sheer volume of self-publishing output, the growth of this sector has altered the traditional power structures of the publishing world. The established publishers and agents who have long acted as gatekeepers in the publishing world, deciding which authors and projects should be published and on what terms, could now be bypassed by following entirely new pathways to publication that had been opened up by the digital revolution. Of course, publishing a book is one thing, getting people to notice and buy it is quite another, and traditional publishers continue to have much more marketing and sales clout than most self-published authors. But there are many indie authors who have managed to earn appreciable amounts of money from their writing, even if the commercially successful indie authors still represent a tiny fraction of the total. Apart from the financial rewards, the growth of self-publishing has massively increased the range of options available to writers, creating a more varied publishing environment in which authors can move back and forth between traditional publishing and self-publishing, depending on what they want to achieve and the options available to them at the time.
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3. Reader-Centric Business Model
The third change is in many ways the most fundamental: the digital revolution transformed the broader information and communication environment within which publishing existed, thereby creating both the necessity and the opportunity for publishers to adapt to a new and rapidly changing world of information and communication flows. For centuries, publishers had thought of themselves primarily as B2B businesses: They produced books and sold them to intermediaries in the book supply chain—to retailers and wholesalers. Publishers didn’t have a direct relationship with readers and they didn’t know much about them: The job of dealing with readers was left to the booksellers. But this traditional model of the publishing business was radically disrupted by the digital revolution. As competition from Amazon led to more and more bookstore closures, publishers realized that they could no longer count on physical bookstore to do what intermediaries in the traditional book supply chain had always done: make books visible and available to readers. They realized that they had to jettison the old model of the publisher as a bookseller-focused business and become more reader-centric: in other words, they had to re-orient their businesses in such a way that readers were not an afterthought but rather a central focus of their concern. And just as the digital revolution forced this shift upon publishers, it also made available to them a variety of new tools with which they could build direct channels of communication with readers and do so at scale. It is this fundamental shift in publishers’ self-understanding that is likely to be one of the most significant consequences of the digital revolution in publishing, one that will continue to play itself out in the years to come.