The Publishing Business Is About Signaling, Not Publishing

I have good news: If you like to read books, or you want to write books, then rejoice, because things have never been better for readers or authors.

More people are reading than ever before. And not only that, but more books are being sold than ever before. For readers specifically, books have never been easier to get, cheaper to buy, or more plentiful in quality or selection. For authors, it has never been easier to get published, nor has there ever been a time where more people were making money from writing books.

And this success is not just limited to readers and authors. It’s a great time for those in the independent publishing services business. The small publishing services start-up I am a partner in doesn’t even advertise (yet), but we often have to turn customers away because we can’t grow fast enough to service all of them. I do a lot of investing and consulting with publishing reltaed companies as well, and all I see is tons of venture capital money being put into these companies (places like BookVibe, Wattpad and Oyster) because of the massive growth in this space.

I’ve only been part of the book and publishing industry for 10 years, but I’ve seen this transformation personally. I started as an author (I wrote a few #1 best sellers that sold millions of copies). Then I started my own publishing company, that made millions, and then sold that company (note: I also started a different one that failed). And I now am partners in a company that provides many different publishing services (like editing, book marketing, etc), so I have not only witnessed this change firsthand, I’ve been a small part of it.

Granted, retail book stores and mainstream publishers are doing very poorly. But everyone else involved in books, from creator to end user, is doing great.

So why the incessant media pieces about how awful everything is for books? You may have seen this piece about publishing in the New Yorker, with the breathless subtitle, “Amazon is good for customers. But is it good for books?” This is just the most recent in a seemingly endless barrage of mainstream media pieces over the past decade that are designed to convince us that everything in the book business is awful, and that a crisis is just around the corner, if not already upon us.

Of course, this never reconciled with what I saw. It took me a long time to understand why what I read about in the mainstream media never really lined up with what I saw in the book business. I used to approach the endless stream of “chicken little” articles about the demise of books assuming that the author was just misinformed. So I would write them emails explaining where they were wrong, show them the data, tell them what me and my author friends were seeing, etc. But they refused to accept, or even address, any of these facts. It reminded me of arguing about religion with a fanatic; facts are totally irrelevant to the discussion, because it’s about faith.

Then one day it dawned on me: that’s exactly what was going on. These were not objective journalists, piecing together facts and data and then writing the story that emerged. They were propaganda writers. They had a vision of the book world that did not include anything that wasn’t bookstores, big publishing companies, and their place in it. It wasn’t actually about books to them. It was about their vision of how books and authors and the publishing business was supposed to work that colored everything they wrote. Ultimately, it was about their vision of themselves, and their identity.

Don’t think so”? Let’s examine some quotes from that New Yorker article:

“I just met the world’s biggest snake-oil salesman. It’s going to be really bad for books.”

Few notice if Amazon prices an electronics store out of business (except its staff); but, in the influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading, Amazon’s unparalleled power generates endless discussion, along with paranoia, resentment, confusion, and yearning.

Even in the iPhone age, books remain central to American intellectual life, and perhaps to democracy. And so the big question is not just whether Amazon is bad for the book industry; it’s whether Amazon is bad for books.

“Melville House puts out quality fiction and nonfiction”

Bookstores that depended on hardcover sales—from Barnes & Noble and Borders (which liquidated its business in 2011) to Rainy Day Books in Kansas City—glimpsed their possible doom. If reading went entirely digital, what purpose would they serve?

Sales meetings in Seattle were now all about payments, not new books, and the size of orders was predicated on algorithms, rather than on the enthusiasm of the publishers’ sales staff . 

To some people in the book world, Obama’s embrace of their nemesis felt like a betrayal. One literary agent said, “It’s strange that a President who’s an author, and whose primary income has come from being an author, was siding with a monopoly that wants to undercut publishers.”

In the book industry, many of those formerly employed people staffed independent stores. Two decades ago, there were some four thousand in America, and many of them functioned as cultural centers where people browsed and exchanged ideas.

Serious publishing is in such a dire state that thoughtful people are defecting to Amazon. There’s a line in Robert Stone’s novel “A Flag for Sunrise” about “a mouse so frightened it went to the cat for love.” The cat can inspire inordinate gratitude when it lets the mouse live. “I feel like, I get to do this!” an editor who has joined Amazon said. “I can’t believe it—I’m still standing! I can’t monitor other people’s feelings, but I can’t see what harm I’m doing.

Several editors, agents, and authors told me that the money for serious fiction and nonfiction has eroded dramatically in recent years; advances on mid-list titles—books that are expected to sell modestly but whose quality gives them a strong chance of enduring—have declined by a quarter.

“Writing is being outsourced, because the only people who can afford to write books make money elsewhere—academics, rich people, celebrities,” Colin Robinson, a veteran publisher, said. “The real talent, the people who are writers because they happen to be really good at writing—they aren’t going to be able to afford to do it.”

This conversation, though important, takes place in the shallows and misses the deeper currents that, in the digital age, are pushing American culture under the control of ever fewer and more powerful corporations. Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?

Look at the words that get repeated over and over: “serious fiction”, “real talent”, “quality.” Do you know why they use these words? This is the way the New Yorker pushes you into their mindset; by subtly implying that there is a right and wrong way to think about an issue, yet never addressing the actual questions at the core of the issue. And that is the key to this whole New Yorker article. I mean look at the last sentence, “will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

I was blown away when I read that. It never even OCCURS to the writer to ask what “good” means. He just assumes that everyone agrees what it means–that a “good” book is one that was selected by the approved publishing elite. By people like him. By people who read “serious fiction.” He literally never even addresses the issue about how a good book is defined, nor asks the series of questions that should be screaming out from this article:

Since the entire point of a book is to be read by people, isn’t good defined by how appealing and useful it is to people?

Is there a better way to measure appeal than by what people are willing to pay for?

And if so, isn’t Amazon–who’s only purpose is to find and promote the books that it thinks it’s customers will want, as defined by what they are willing to pay for–doing more for books than any company to ever exist?

That sentence he wrote would be FAR more accurate had he said this, “”will Amazon care whether a book is the right one?” Because that is EXACTLY what is going on here. The publishing industry is not about books. It never has been. It is about signaling status to other high status people, and that is what these articles are fretting about–the loss of their personal status, identity, and power. It has nothing to do with books.

The people who write these articles about the publishing business being in bad shape, or how Amazon is bad for books, are all people who associate their personal status with “book culture.” They consider themselves part of the “influential, self-conscious world of people who care about reading.” They are the people who read “serious fiction.” Or better yet–they like to see themselves as part of that world. They find their identity in this; by doing the type of things they think that people who “read serious fiction” do, and one of those is fret about books.

These are the people who see themselves as the arbiters of culture, in this case, through books. What is good is what they decide is serious. It is their opinions that make hits, not the opinions of the people actually buying and reading the books. They want to retain their power over books, they LIKE being the gatekeepers, because that gives them meaning and power. They care nothing about reading. This is about them, not about books.

And if you doubt that, if you need anymore proof that this is about identity and power and not books, read the ENTIRE last sentence:

“When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”

You see that? They are pissed because they think Amazon will be the last gatekeeper. Except that’s the whole reason Amazon is successful–they ARE NOT a gatekeeper at all. Amazon is a platform that gets rid of gatekeepers.