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Changes in book publishing and newspapers

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I am truly concerned about the financial do or die that is facing the NY Times. It is the greatest news producer and disseminator in the English speaking world and I wonder what my intellectual life would be if it was forced for $$$ reasons to close its doors or cease operating as it always has printing “all the news fit to print”.

Yes I never buy a print copy of NY Times even when I am in Vancouver. But I spend lots of time with the Internet version, which is free and that is a big part of the problem that the institution, the NY Times, is having these days. So I have contributed by my reading and buying habits to the imminent demise of the great institution, which I say in full seriousness.

I was always a big book, magazine and newspaper person. Now I am a full time Internet reader of content usually purveyed in those forms. I notice the bad reviews being given to the latest “remake” of the Newsweek web version and realize that the ‘writing is on the wall’ for it and many of those magazines I used to depend on. I think that TNR and a few others have found their feet, so to speak, on the Web, but the future for news magazines isn’t bright. There are web forms that seem to be doing OK like HuffPo and the Daily Beast and TPM, but overall the picture for these news gathering and disseminating organizations seems bleak.

Then there are the prospects for book publishing. Books have always had a big place in my living, thinking and time spending spaces. But I know that bookstores, whatever the form, are all under threat. The following paragraphs copied from an article in The Nation, June 8 edition, lays out the sad facts about factors driving the change in book publishing and distribution:

Like everyone else, I couldn’t be more grateful for the stupendous riches that great search engines find for me on the web. Like everyone else, I’m now accustomed to the speed and ease with which I can locate “content.” No argument there. But my reading on the web is of a completely different order from my reading of or in a book, and it would be even more so if I hadn’t already put in decades of bookish exertion. If I’d done my schoolwork on a computer, if I’d grown up text-messaging and Twittering, I’d not only listen and read differently, but I’d think and express myself differently. It’s no surprise that teachers and writing instructors report big changes in their students’ habits of attention and modes of expression. No surprise. We’ve always known that technologies new and old affect our inner imaginative understanding of the world. This is why we must still ask, of the possibilities that “books” could be offered in other formats or sold in new ways (once we’ve developed reliable income streams from writing and selling them), what kind of imaginative energy, what kind of reading–or readers–will Scribd, Kindle, Sony Reader or other electronic devices attract in the years to come? And what kind of writing?

It’s a colossal irony to have the guys and gals of Amazon, Google and their ilk lusting for free book “content” as premium material on which to stake their enlarged claims to commercial riches. For these clever mathematicians and engineers who are shaping the electronic business of our time and the archives of the future, these baby-faced young entrepreneurs, have risen to their mercantile eminence without encountering books, and don’t think they need to. I enjoyed the fatuous surprise of Google’s Sergey Brin discovering that “There is fantastic information in books. Often when I do a search, what is in a book is miles ahead of what I find on a Web site.” Translating this backhanded recognition of value into his own debased lingo, he understands that books make for “viable information-retrieval systems,” information being the only cultural signifier he recognizes, evidently. His company’s amazing presumption that book people should simply hand over the keys to their priceless kingdom shows how completely he and his colleagues misunderstand what is at stake.

But these Internet people don’t care. For billionaires like Brin, accessing the giant river of infinite book “content” onto which they can glue paid advertising is simply a giant new way to make more money, and they are single-minded about that. The giveaway is not only in their ignorance but in their reluctance to share the wealth. For its Look Inside program, Amazon demands that publishers give it, gratis, electronic files of the books, along with blurbs and cover art, arguing that in return the publishers will have increased sales. How might you prove or disprove that? (Publishers might recognize Amazon’s argument, since it resembles the pathetically phony one about composition costs that they themselves used against writers years ago.) The (not yet settled) settlement between Google Book Search and the publishers who sued it for copyright infringement proposes to give a breathtakingly audacious near-monopoly to Google and mingy terms to writers. We publishers seem to have forgotten that Google’s and Amazon’s profit margins are triple or quintuple ours, and we haven’t always checked our contracts with the authors.

It is a confused, confusing and very fluid situation, and no one can predict how books and readers will survive. Changed reading habits have already transformed and diminished them both. I, for one, don’t trust the book trade to see us through this. Wariness is in order. Three centuries ago, John Locke agreed that we shouldn’t base our freedom to read books on the proclaimed good offices of the business itself. “Books seem to me to be pestilent things,” he wrote in 1704, “and infect all that trade in them…with something very perverse and brutal. Printers, binders, sellers, and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind, that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society, and that general fairness that cements mankind.”

The “I” in those sentences is me also and not just the writer of that report. I relate strongly to what he says about himself!

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/06/09 at 10:00

Posted in choices

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