Last week Professor Mark Crispin Miller invited me to speak to his culture in media class at NYU about my experiences as an author dealing with the problems of the shrinking book publishing industry and the loss of quality and increased (ensorshlp that followed as a result. I mostly talked about the problems. During my train ride home, I started thinking more about possible solutions.
Publishing involves a product, information, that is unlike any other product; information can be copied and shared. Partly because of this, and partly because information can be a public good, a human right, writers are often expected to work for free or for low pay. The problems of this industry are unique. So must be the solutions. I put together Wish List, that, if implemented, would make my life easier and the reading public smarter. Some things on my list involve nothing less than reorganizing the entire economy or getting society as a whole to change its expectations. But, hey, the first step on the way to a revolution is to imagine how things might be, however impossible such changes may seem from where we stand now.
1. The best environment for publishing would be one with more diversity (not just the Big Three publishers), a variety of independent and/or small publishers and booksellers with varying tastes and opinions about books. The small publisher’s problem is, in part, the problem of every small business today. Bigger is not always better. Economies of scale tend toward homogeneity. If we were to phase out fractional reserve banking, we, as a government, could shrink the megabusinesses that currently get free/low cost new fiat money from the Fed to expand and wipe out small independent businesses. This may seem like a digression away from publishing into politics, but I note that one of the Biggest Businesses to benefit from being propped up with Fed monopoly money started as a bookstore.
2. I’m not a big fan of, despite the fact that I’ve received, government funding for the arts, because this can and does lead to a centralized influence on ideas. Honestly, what we really need is an economically strong middle class that has plenty of leisure time for culture and self-education. At least half the country works far too hard, for far too long, for too little pay and can’t afford to pay taxes at all.
3. To protect Free Speech, we could try to pass legislation that disables media monopolies by eliminating corporate taxes and employee regulations for worker-owned and -run publishers and bookstores. (Employee regulations would be unnecessary for worker-owned companies.) Thinking big, I am.
4. It should be illegal to collect data on Internet users and information consumption. Oh wait, actually, this is illegal. We should uphold the Fourth Amendment and also adopt the Library Bill of Rights that affirms the “ethical imperative to provide unrestricted access to information and to guard against impediments to open inquiry. When users recognize or fear that their privacy or confidentiality is compromised, true freedom of inquiry no longer exists.” Book, music and video purchases could be made with blockchain technology to protect privacy. This is coming.
5. We need open-source search engines whose algorithms are transparent and allow the searcher to determine the constraints. Google just leads us into blind alleys.
6. We need bookstores that provide a community for readers, making reading recommendations and hosting events. To bring more diversity to publishing, booksellers should be leaders, deciding for themselves what books to sell, instead of following the market and the PR. Above all, booksellers should themselves be readers and book lovers. And serve espresso.
7. As my small publisher (Permanent) has said many, many times, the industry needs to eliminate the practice of book returns and pulping. This would force bookstores to commit to selling the books they order instead of returning them to the publisher if unsold. This would keep titles on the shelves longer, until they find an audience through reader recommendations, not through marketing blasts.
8. I’m all for reusing and recycling, but not when I get cut out of royalty payments. All bookstores and libraries could include an option (as an app) for costumers/patrons to tip to authors on resales and shares. Maybe I’ll write to Better World Books, the largest online used bookstore that isn’t Amazon, to see if they want to start the practice.
9. There are too many books out there. The system is glutted and the gears are gooped up. I prefer quality over quantity. I don’t have time to wade through the garbage. I don’t like being pressured to write a new book every two years to keep my name out there. I prefer to take at least five years on each book and make it a really good book. If you haven’t read all my old books yet, you don’t need a new book from me yet. I suspect that publishers produce so many books every year because publishing has become like playing the lottery: they never know what number is going to hit, so they put a lot in the game to increase the odds. I would much rather publishers released fewer titles per year in order to dedicate more time and energy to each title. Quantity=Waste.
10. And finally, good books need good reviewers. The best reviewers are other authors working in the same genre. Authors could do a lot more to take control of their literary niche by contributing more to it. This is something that I’ve said a lot about already on Dactyl Review.