What Is the Business of Literature

The economics of the analog reproduction of culture lead inexorably to the exhibitionist. It is far better, economically, to have the fewest number of authors, the fewest titles. Ideally, there would be one publisher with one title—let’s call it the Bible. Regardless of the fact that there would be no competition for reading material, the Bible would be maximally profitable simply because in analog manufacturing, marginal cost always declines (that is, the cost to print each additional book falls). So if the price stays the same, the more you print and sell, the more profitable you are. The most profitable print-publishing business of all would be in a society where everyone reads the same book.

The PostScript output of PageMaker (later to become the more familiar “PDF”) undermined the Industrial Revolution model, initiating the digital, post-Industrial phase of abundance, even though, at the time, it appeared to be reinforcing the Industrial model by reforming it. Independent presses could make digital files and send them to offset printers. They still had to deal with the classic economies of scale of analog printing, but they didn’t have to deal with the complex, inaccessible, and arcane world of traditional typesetting. The number of publishers began to increase, as did the number of titles, as the creation of a title (by publisher, of course, not by author) became significantly cheaper and began to undo ever so slightly Vonnegut’s otherwise accurate analysis of the business of culture. The genius opera singer needed systems to distribute her genius as broadly as possible, and the copyright system combined with analog reproduction made that easy. And it was getting easier for the non-mainstream, too, be that the lover of the avant-garde or the early music or the campy or the local, or the familial (the recording of your grandmother singing opera). The non-mainstream was abetted by the growth of the superstore model of bookstores. The traditional independent bookstore stocked 5,000–10,000 titles, and so could only handle the new and backlist output of a limited number of publishers. But a Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore could have 50,000 or 60,000 or even 70,000 titles! Indeed, it needed those non-mainstream offerings to fill its shelves. Ironically, while indie, alternative, and literary presses frequently decried the predations of the superstores, the superstores were critical to their existence.

Such is the digital transformation of the business of literature. And it predates the equivalent transformation of the music industry by a good fifteen years. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that one could create a digital master that was as high quality as a record label could, that is, until the music industry had the equivalent of true desktop publishing. However, the MP3, the means for digital music consumption, significantly predates the Kindle, the first viable mode for digital consumption of long-form text.

Under a digital publishing model, while the costs of creating the text don’t vary, the model for reproducing the text for mass consumption is entirely different. The marginal cost is zero: It costs as little to produce the billionth copy as it costs to produce the second copy.  As abundant as analog reproduction made books and other cultural artifacts, digital reproduction makes them all the more so—not because it changes the resources required to create, but because it changes what is required to reproduce. Copyright, though nominally instituted to encourage the creation of a work, has as its only logical purpose the encouragement of the reproduction of the work. What we see again and again in our society is that people do not need to be encouraged to create, only that businesses want methods by which they can minimize the risk of investing in the creation.

Richard Stallman has argued that the central bargain in copyright is that the public gives up a right they couldn’t actually use. Until recently, it was more expensive to make a copy of a book than it was to simply buy the book. So when society agreed to grant authors and publishers the monopoly, it was a good bargain. Now that the public can make copies of something, they are giving up a right they could in fact enjoy—or, rather, the public has proceeded to make copies anyway, regardless of the previous bargain, a kind of jury nullification. As with any law that loses the consent of the governed because it no longer reflects the logic of society, the law is not overturned, just ignored. It recedes into the past, like laws forbidding pigs to enter saloons or alcohol sold on Sundays or adultery or interracial marriage.

What, therefore, is the business of literature to be if the reading public is willy-nilly making copies of everything?

The primary method of twentieth-century copying—of making, distributing, and allocating any given object—is barely a couple hundred years old. There is good reason to believe it may prove to be an anomalous period in human history not just for books and music but for a wide range of human output. Consider 3D printing, currently at the hobbyist phase of development, much like the computer in the early 1970s. It is a device for printing three-dimensional things, which once meant extruded plastic prototypes of things (toothbrushes, hammers, mechanical parts) but now increasingly means the actual thing. In one respect, it’s pure science fiction. In another, it’s merely a return to pre-Industrial Revolution society, where chairs, horseshoes, and clothes were all made within the village.

In both respects, this phenomenon, a shift from mass (re)production to custom production has been prefigured by the book, by print-on-demand technology. The first 3D printer was the laser printer. Again, we see the book not as the antithesis of technology, but as apotheosis—in the avant-garde of how to apply advances in technology to produce new business models. Want another prefiguring from books? Try crowdfunding, its best-known practitioner being the company Kickstarter, which is effectively identical to the eighteenth-century subscription model whereby a book was advertised but only printed once a minimum number of purchasers had paid.

Is there a compelling reason to doubt that once again the book and the business of literature will be at the heart of disruption, as much perpetrator as victim? To be sure, the book won’t be the only reproducible cultural artifact, not the only mode for storytelling, just as the chair long ago ceased to be the only device for sitting  (the couch, the barstool, the swing, the exercise ball). But can we see how it continues to have cultural salience and how it might point to its own future as well as broader changes in culture and society?

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