Culture

Gatekeepers, Devil Theories, And The 'Creators Of Real Books'

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Amanda Green’s incredulous piece at Mad Genius Club, together with Sarah Hoyt’s fully compatible fulmination here at PJ Lifestyle, have cast an unsavory light on what remains of the “conventional” publishing industry…or, as they prefer to call themselves, the “creators of real books.”

Apparently, the “creators of real books” are somewhat put out at Amazon, now the largest outlet for reading material in the world…indeed, the largest such outlet the world has ever known. You’d think those “creators” would be leaning over backwards to please so important a conduit for their wares. You’d think they’d be straining to learn from Amazon’s success, and to copy whichever of its tactics they could. And you’d think they’d be examining their own practices critically, especially in light of the eBook explosion that’s been so important a component in reducing their market share.

Well, maybe some of them are doing one or more of those things. But some prefer to attack those who are doing it better than they.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

A smart military man always reinforces his successes and cuts his losses. Apparently, there aren’t many smart military men employed by the “creators of real books.”

Just now, the “creators” are suffering the worst of their losses in one area: the sale of what they’ve ludicrously called “real books.” Full disclosure: All other things being equal. I prefer a physical book to an eBook. I’d better; I have nearly 13,000 of them, and I’m loath to part with any of them. But all other things are not equal. In particular, in recent years we who read for entertainment (among other things) have made some shocking discoveries:

  • Our homes are finite.
  • Physical items occupy space and have mass.
  • In the usual case, we read a for-pleasure book only once.

(I know, I know: Enough with the rocket science, Fran! You’re making our heads hurt! Apologies, Gentle Reader. But some things that strike you and me as obvious come as a revelation to the less reflective.)

That combination of factors creates a powerful headwind for the physical book and a tailwind for the eBook. The steady improvement of all sorts of eReaders, particularly Amazon’s excellent Kindle series, has refined the eBook reading experience ever nearer to that of the physical book, while simultaneously capitalizing on the greater portability and storability of the eBook. And as my favorite late-night pitchman likes to say: Wait, there’s more:

  • The eBook can be delivered far more swiftly than the physical book.
  • The eBook can be sampled; the physical book cannot, without putting its publisher to extra effort.
  • An unsatisfactory eBook can be deleted from one’s eReader without cost or regret.
  • An eBook can be searched for passages of particular interest.
  • An eBook vendor has no inventory control problems.
  • Perhaps best of all, an eBook vendor has virtually no marginal costs. If he chooses, he can hold “promotions” during which certain eBooks are heavily discounted, even down to zero.

The combination of all the above factors is slowly relegating physical books to a niche market that emphasizes reference publications and legacy works. By implication, the “creators of real books” should be minimizing their losses in the for-pleasure sector and getting in step with the eBook trend. As already noted, some of them are doing so…but even they are reluctant to see the source of so much historical profit fade into the mists of memory.

There are reasons other than money.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon, science fiction luminary

“I’m not just the president, I’m also a client.” – Sy Sperling, CEO of Hair Club for Men

Let’s be candid, shall we? Most fiction is less than immortal: disposable at best, execrable at worst. The eBook has evoked a great number of “novels” from “writers” whose sole qualification for the label is the possession of a word-processing program. I’ve spent a few piasters on such books, only to wonder later what had possessed their authors to think they can write.

It’s possible – likely, really – that the eBook has substantially increased the crud factor in fiction publishing. The absence of a “gatekeeper” from the eBook market is part of the reason. The “creators of real books” are assiduous in emphasizing the importance of that role of theirs…never mind that they’ve printed and promoted quite a lot of crud in their time.

But the “creators” value that gatekeeper role for more reasons than one. Have a gander at the political and cultural themes expressed and promoted in contemporary fiction and you’ll see it at once. (For a particularly striking case study, consider what’s been happening among the Science Fiction Writers of America in recent years.)

Profit plus pride plus political priorities combine to animate the “creators’” rearguard action to an extraordinary degree, albeit in an inherently lost cause.

Amazon isn’t at the heart of the “creators’” problem; it’s merely the most serviceable available “devil.” Large targets are easier to hit than small ones, and anyway, Amazon’s well-known aggressiveness in negotiation has undoubtedly flicked the “creators” on their most sensitive parts: their self-importance. They know they have the option of eschewing the Amazon retail outlet, but they also know that it would be to their own detriment. So they’ve chosen an Alinskyish avenue of attack – “Pick the target, freeze it, polarize it, personalize it” – in the hope that Amazon’s legendary success will engender the requisite degree of envy to win popular opinion to their side.

It hasn’t worked and it won’t, for the same reason the unions’ comparable attack on Wal-Mart has failed: Amazon provides its customers with goods they value greatly, at agreeable prices and with a maximum of convenience. Beyond that, Amazon is helping writers whose works would never pass muster with the “creators” to find an audience. Writers the “creators” have shunned for being “too conservative,” “too masculine,” or “too patriotic” are reaching readers through Amazon’s wide-open gates. If much of what emerges from those gates is perhaps less worthy than Gone With The Wind, nevertheless it’s now the reader, rather than some Panjandrum of Political Correctness, who gets to decide…and I note in passing that Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus is now available as an eBook, too.

Join me in thumbing your nose at the “creators of real books,” Gentle Reader. Every one of us has a front-row seat at an entertainment revolution. Enjoy the upheaval…and the fusillades.

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image illustration via shutterstock / Netfalls – Remy Musser