The Intellectual Situation
Smorgasbords Don’t Have Bottoms
Publishing in the 2010s
For the first time since 2011, when Borders shut down, or 2007, when Amazon launched the Kindle, or maybe 1455, when Johannes Gutenberg went bankrupt immediately upon printing his game-changing best seller The Bible, the news about book publishing has seemed less than dire. A June 2019 New York Times article captured the mood: “Independent bookstores are thriving again, and print sales are rising while e-book sales are declining. Even Amazon is investing in physical bookstores across the country.”
A decade ago, few in the industry anticipated the comeback of indie bookstores. But the numbers are unambiguous: between 2009 and 2018, the number of indies in the US grew by nearly 40 percent. Ninety-nine stores opened in 2018, up from seventy-five in 2017. The indie model depends on expertise and endless hustle — as well as the active participation of consumers who have been galvanized by buy-local campaigns. The new independents host constant readings and book groups, and many also offer subscription programs and curated perks, like signed first editions, for their regular customers. Increasingly, the owners of these stores see their purpose in more ambitious terms: as rising rents threaten third places everywhere, indies’ physical locations become as valuable as their inventory. The stores are sleek and splashy and well-lighted places, their vision of reading centered on enthusiasm and edification. Their employees may be no less adventurous or snobby in their tastes than bookstore employees used to be, but now they hand-sell on social media, not just IRL. On the stores’ Instagrams, copies of Ducks, Newburyport and the latest Krasznahorkai pose on park benches next to scattered autumn leaves, or on beautifully pockmarked desks, latte adjacent. The bookstores have cats, and the cats, too, have Instagrams.
Meanwhile, up in the cloud, things look even brighter. As digital audio attains complete domination over CDs, audiobook sales keep rising, reaching nearly $1 billion in 2018, the seventh year in a row of double-digit revenue growth. Helped along by our smartphone addiction, the podcast boom, and the unending American commute, audiobooks have become the industry’s most durably growing sector and, though they have been around for nearly a century, its zeitgeist, with publishers happily experimenting in formats and release strategies. Audiobooks have gone where no physical books could — namely, into readers’ ears. There is every indication that they will remain there.
There are even encouraging signs at Barnes & Noble, the largest and most important bookstore chain in America, the last remaining obstacle to Amazon’s complete control of the sector, and, until recently, an ongoing source of gloom and worry for the publishing industry. It feels like B&N has been perpetually in decline, making poor decisions, and on the verge of utter collapse. But hope that this might change arose last summer, when Elliott Management, the hedge fund of the Republican megadonor and “vulture capitalist” Paul Singer, bought B&N for $683 million and brought in James Daunt to run the chain.
Since at least the mid-2000s, B&N had been committed to making uniquely bad calls, only to ditch them halfway through implementation in favor of other, worse calls. The company spent $1 billion on the Nook, which never even became the RC Cola to the Kindle’s Coke, and approached its giant retail floor the way a toddler approaches a play mat — as a setting for endlessly regenerated chaos, greeted only with tears and dissatisfaction. Its deep inventory of books shrank while its board game selection grew more expansive and baroque. Its website never managed to be modern, but neither was it stuck in some cool and retro year, like 1998. No, browsing barnesandnoble.com was a flashback to online shopping around the time of the first battle of Fallujah. Many of the chain’s bizarre business decisions could be attributed to B&N’s mercurial, on-again-off-again ruler Leonard Riggio, who claimed in 2018, “I don’t micromanage anything” — exactly what a micromanager would say.
Daunt, the new boss, has proved himself an energetic, visionary figure in an industry not known for energy or vision. Having worked as a banker in the US, he moved back to London and opened an indie bookshop, Daunt Books, which became a surprisingly successful, if modest, chain of several stores. Twenty years later, in 2011, the UK bookstore chain Waterstones, which seemed on the verge of collapse, hired Daunt to try to revive it, and he did.
Every article about Daunt mentions the fact that Waterstones looks a lot cooler since he brought it back from the brink. B&N stores do not, at present, look cool; the caption of one photo in the New York Times’s glowing profile of Daunt, published the same day as a glowing Wall Street Journal profile, read: “The homogeneous table legs at the Barnes & Noble in New York. At Waterstones, the look is varied.” Those of us whose primal bookstore memories include browsing Adbusters at the Borders next door to Circuit City, the smell of burnt milk wafting from Starbucks over B&N’s art history shelf, and the seemingly random stacks of hardcover frontlist fiction at the always empty Media Play never noticed homogeneous table legs. Homogeneity was the water we swam in. We are the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, but we bought both at big-box stores.
Sadly, publishing will never be as interesting as the complete and total restructuring of society.Tweet
Though he did recently describe the vibe at B&N as “crucifyingly boring,” Daunt has more than aesthetics on his mind. When he arrived at Waterstones, Daunt decreed that store managers would take back control of their own stock: in the Guardian’s words, “What sold in Hampstead might not go down well in the Highlands.” He also abandoned co-op, the somewhat crooked practice of publishers paying for display space and the reason why every B&N feels the same. British publishers grumbled, but they also realized they finally had a serious retail partner. Customers, meanwhile, were pleased to discover that there was more to British book production than memoirs by footballers or the Gallagher brothers. A similar change in direction at B&N, accompanied by even a modest uptick in market share, would mean a more diverse bookselling landscape. For a reading and buying public accustomed to bespoke retail, exhausted by the strip mall experience, and far from the closest independent bookstore, more attractive and autonomous Barnes & Nobles would be an improvement over the homogeneous table legs of the status quo.
A Barnes & Noble comeback, though, is far from guaranteed. Unlike Waterstones, Barnes & Noble stores are enormous, their decadent square footage an artifact of the supersize 1980s and ’90s, the apex of the exurban dream. Too many of these giant stores are located in places frequented by dead-mall enthusiasts with drones and GoPros. In the short term, Daunt’s revival efforts are likely to lead to an even more accelerated schedule of store closures than B&N has experienced in the past decade. The parent company, too, seems cause for concern. Hedge funds have a gruesome, destructive record in retail. Along with private equity, they have fueled the retail apocalypse to a far greater extent than Amazon. How long will Daunt’s leash be? And how much time can he spend letting it out?
As consequential as it is, the indie resurgence is modest when weighed against the shelf space lost to the closure of Borders, or to the B&Ns that have reliably shuttered every year. Indies have benefited from the patterns of gentrification that have proved so punishing to other kinds of small businesses, and future growth may be inhibited by those same forces. (Bookstore owners’ public opposition to minimum-wage increases and unionization in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere suggests other tensions in the ecosystem.) Daunt has called the US “extraordinarily underbookshopped,” but it isn’t clear that either he or independent bookstore owners can do much more than stanch the bleeding.
On closer inspection, the news of decreased ebook sales, like that of B&N’s revival, is more complicated than the publishing press’s cheerful headlines suggest. When ebooks first emerged on the scene, the response from publishers (and, by extension, authors) veered from anguish to jubilation. Ebooks were going to destroy traditional publishing, as Amazon tightened its stranglehold — but they also, in the short run, expanded total revenues, as popular products tend to do. In the early 2010s, publishers enjoyed strong years of sales growth, driven in large part by ebook sales. Ebooks weren’t bad for writers, either — amid the byzantine royalty structure, in which it has been written in stone that authors should earn different and seemingly random amounts depending on the format their book is being conveyed in, it’s far better, for no discernible reason, to sell an ebook than a paperback.
The fear, though, was for the future. Would readers abandon print books for ebooks? If they did, would that leave publishers at the mercy of Amazon — which had cornered a market it helped create, via the Kindle — and its aggressive loss-leading discounts? When Apple began to indicate that it would enter the ebook market, five of the then Big Six corporate publishers (Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan) saw an opportunity to implement a new pricing model that could neutralize Amazon. Wholesale pricing would give way to agency pricing: instead of retailers setting discounts of any size and shape at their discretion, publishers would dictate the prices of ebooks and retailers would get a commission. In 2012, the Obama Justice Department sued both Apple and the publishers on antitrust grounds over conspiring to fix ebook prices. Though the US district court judge Denise Cote ruled in the government’s favor, the agency model eventually became standard anyway. Print did not go extinct, but ebook sales slowed down. This is the context for the Times’ triumphant assertion that “print sales are rising while e-book sales are declining.” Both facts are true, but the former doesn’t necessarily follow from the latter.
The real omission from the good-news stories is any honest acknowledgment of Amazon. The company sits comfortably at the peak of its influence, its supply chain built on the back of tax evasion, labor exploitation, corporate lobbying, massive profits from its web-server business, and federal antitrust enforcement that has hovered between lax and corrupt. Amazon’s power has been vast and growing for so long that it’s no longer new or noteworthy in the publishing press, except for the occasional article about its depressing brick-and-mortar bookstores, where endcap displays say things like “Books Most Frequently Highlighted by Kindle Customers.” Amazon’s bookseller origins seem almost quaint now that its blueprint is so vast — its delivery vans roaming the streets, piloted by tired and underpaid third-party drivers;1 its lockers lining the walls of every 7-Eleven; its Echo speakers and touchscreens listening in from your kitchen, your living room, your bedroom, playing songs from Amazon Music and prestige TV from Amazon Prime, placing grocery orders with its recent acquisition Whole Foods. Sadly, publishing will never be as interesting as the complete and total restructuring of society. But with a market share of 45 percent of print books and 83 percent of ebooks, Amazon remains capable of crippling the industry and upending its practices with little more than an algorithmic tweak.
In the late ’90s, many in publishing greeted Amazon as a liberator, hoping that it would counterbalance Barnes & Noble — then a megaretailer known for ruthless destruction — and create a more balanced landscape. Amazon accepted the invitation, bringing publishers to its side as it mastered and improved on Barnes & Noble’s tactics. With the launch of the Kindle in 2007, Amazon helped reach the most “underbookshopped” readers of all — those without easy access to a bookstore or a library. The device remains a utopian innovation, a smartphone without most of the smartphone’s oppressive qualities. For all its disruptive impact on the industry and the environment, the Kindle has given readers a profound degree of choice and flexibility in their reading habits. Its accessibility features represent a true advance on the print book for the visually impaired and physically disabled. Amazon and its hardworking subsidiary, Audible, are making similar progress in audio.
In the past decade, Bezos’s early, antagonistic mentality has been diffused across a massive platform with limited oversight and the default ability to make life hell for publishers. In January 2010, Amazon removed buy buttons from all Macmillan titles in retaliation for their disagreement over ebook terms and prices. You could still peruse Macmillan books on Amazon — but you couldn’t purchase them. Not unless you wanted a used copy from a third-party seller, in which case the writer and the publisher would get nothing, while Amazon still got its cut. In 2014 Amazon did something similar during a dispute with Hachette, eliminating pre-order buttons and imposing shipping delays on Hachette’s titles. In retrospect, the latter conflict was most notable for how public it was; as an industry, book publishing prefers to fight — and mostly lose — its fights behind the scenes.
These days the buttons don’t have to vanish for publishers and authors to get screwed. Since 2017, third-party sellers are no longer relegated to links in small type: now they can compete for orders directly through the buttons. When you click buy now or add to cart, you might be purchasing a book — even a new book — from a reseller, even when you intend to do no such thing. You might end up with a foreign-market edition, or a secondhand edition at such a steep discount that the brand-new paperback seems like a bad deal. Or you might forget about the book altogether, because throughout the shopping process Amazon has been encouraging you to choose one of its own titles instead. Imagine an independent bookstore whose employees are always interrupting your browsing to offer a cheaper, bootlegged copy of the book you’re holding, and to point you to an array of even cheaper books they wrote themselves. Now imagine that process weaponized with vast amounts of information about your browsing and purchase history — and that of millions of other consumers.
The Times’s indefatigable David Streitfeld wrote two huge stories in 2019 about the explosion of counterfeit books on Amazon. Technical manuals, Pulitzer Prize winners, headline-grabbing nonfiction: all of it exists on the site in both authentic and forged editions. Readers encouraged to choose between bootleg editions, secondhand editions, and foreign editions — any edition, as long as it’s cheapest — don’t tend to notice who they’re buying from, and most wouldn’t care if they did. If the product is somehow defective (Streitfeld tracked down a customer who’d purchased a copy of 1984 in which instances of the word faces were replaced with feces), they’ll get a replacement with free two-day delivery.
Publishers would be structurally incapable of keeping track of every instance of malfeasance even if keeping track were a top institutional priority, which it isn’t. Amazon could distribute typo-free books if it cared to, but it doesn’t. As Streitfeld wrote, “This is not really negligence on Amazon’s part. It is the company’s business model.” Like Facebook, Amazon doesn’t put a high value on moderation, or any kind of human/editorial intervention, casting the very core of the bookselling business as one more efficiency to be optimized. Thus the everything store is not a store at all, but rather the retail economy in miniature, its seedier and illicit aspects brought to the surface, operating on an equal plane with more straightforward transactions — all of which Amazon profits from.
In 2013, two of the biggest publishers in the world — Penguin and Random House — merged into one behemoth. At the time one might have read the merger as a defensive consolidation against Amazon’s monopsony, a scenario in which one buyer controls the majority of the market. But instead the Penguin Random House merger delivered efficiencies of exactly the kind cynics expected. Layoffs have hit PRH in discrete waves, each of them damaging to the diversity and range of the publisher’s books and the people who publish them. Editors, publicists, sales reps, and warehouse workers have been let go. Imprints — many of them already on their last legs, half-hearted relics of mergers past — have shuttered. Amazon, meanwhile, didn’t notice a thing, except that books probably arrived at its warehouses in more efficient batches. Any leverage PRH might have had — and still has — is unlikely to be deployed by current management, who are masters of the permanent defensive crouch.
In a 1980 Senate hearing dedicated to conglomeration in the publishing industry, E. L. Doctorow warned that “when the publishing and distributing of books is finally in the hands of five or seven giant corporations, we will have a condition equivalent to that of the broadcast industry — network publishing and network bookselling.” The point wasn’t that he objected to commerce or making money, he said elsewhere in his testimony:
Publishers have always wanted to make money. . . . The point is that [the] delicate balance of pressures within a publishing firm is upset by the conglomerate values. The need for greater and greater profits and the expectation of them overloads the scale in favor of commerce — depending on the particular house and its editorial resources, faster or more slowly: the crossword-puzzle books and cookbooks and sexual-position books and how-to books and movie-tie-in books and television-celebrity books gradually occupy more of the publishers’ time and investment .
With the Penguin Random House merger, book publishing is down to the lower end of Doctorow’s estimate. The Big Five are increasingly at the mercy of a monopsonist that also serves as the digital storefront for self-published writers hoping to disrupt the big publishers. The publishers now earn over 10 percent of their annual revenue from ebooks they sell through the monopsonist, which, in return, withholds all the sales data from them, with the paltry exception of units moved. Publishing-friendly media — book reviews, and also newspapers more generally — has meanwhile been hollowed out.
Conglomerate publishing has responded with anxiety masquerading as newsy brashness. Given the choice between seeking out the new, the strange, and the shocking or hanging onto personalities and news hooks and follower counts, the Big Five opt for the latter. In an age of hyperconglomeration, there are profit goals to aim for and slots to fill. There are templates for success, never mind that they may be out-of-date, or that success in publishing, as in life, tends to be a freak occurrence.
Today’s resulting epidemic of ambulance chasing helps explain the rash of memoirs by YouTubers, for example — books that succeed at being somehow worse than unreadable. Or, for that matter, the case of number-one New York Times best-selling author Donald Trump Jr.: copies of his memoir/manifesto/cry for help Triggered were bought in bulk by Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA and other conservative groups this fall. For Hachette, the book was a winner, even if no one, including its author, will ever read it.2
As in politics, Trumpism has been helpful in making publishing-industry subtext text. Publishers have pursued Donald Trump’s administration, and his administration’s hangers-on, and his son with mixed emotions but unmixed enthusiasm. That he is Donald Trump, or the President, matters less than that he is ostensibly a sure thing. A journey through the Trump-publishing-industrial complex might begin with Kirk’s The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future, due out from HarperCollins, which in July published the Politico reporter Tim Alberta’s rigorously researched American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump, a more substantive book than Bob Woodward’s thin and half-assed Fear: Trump in the White House, which shares a publisher (Simon & Schuster) with its own subject as well as Omarosa Manigault Newman, and the Twitter threader Seth Abramson’s Proof of Collusion: How Trump Betrayed America, though not his 592-page follow-up, Proof of Conspiracy: How Trump’s International Collusion Is Threatening American Democracy, which came out this fall from Macmillan, the publisher of Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore’s Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy, Bill O’Reilly’s The United States of Trump: How the President Really Sees America, and also James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.
The prose in many of these books suggests that publishers no longer edit. Paradoxically, if our degraded era does have a Gordon Lish, or maybe even a Max Perkins, the front-runner is another star of conservative publishing: Mitchell Ivers, until recently the vice president of Simon & Schuster’s right-wing imprint Threshold Editions. Ivers was Milo Yiannopoulos’s editor until S&S dropped the book, responding to rare public pressure that — luckily for S&S — wasn’t also directed at the imprint’s many other deserving authors. Ivers’s Track Changes edits were made public after Yiannopoulos sued S&S for breach of contract. They are a gift to any editor or writer: “This sentence is completely unclear,” Ivers writes in one comment. “DELETE UGH,” reads another. Our favorite: “Smorgasbords don’t have bottoms — you’re not making this point very well.” It is symptomatic that one of the more thorough editorial interventions in recent memory might well have been pretextual: retroactive justification for rejecting the book in response to the backlash, even though what Yiannopoulos turned in had been entirely consistent with his output.
There are still numerous book editors who edit, and edit well, but they are operating at cross-purposes with their employers, for whom editors are most valuable as seekers of sure things, known quantities, and built-in platforms. It is an old tendency rapidly accelerated in an aggressively corporate era. The growing dependence on freelance editors — many of them once employed by publishers, now making more money (or not), but in conditions of greater insecurity — adheres to a template established by other consolidating industries.
Naturally publishers don’t fact-check. The reasons cited are financial, but there are ancillary benefits to consider. For one thing, if subjected to a robust fact-checking regimen, right-wing publishing would see its titles reduced to pamphlet size, little more than lists of proper nouns and dog whistles. Though long known inside the industry, the policy not to fact-check has recently reemerged as a topic of controversy among the public, thanks especially to Naomi Wolf’s Outrages, whose central claim — indeed the book’s entire premise — was gently demolished by a British historian during an on-air interview. Wolf’s publishers pulled Outrages even as she kept inflaming the issue. Here the problem is twofold. Yes, facts should be checked — but so should the premise of an entire book. One does not have to feel much sympathy for Wolf to see her as unsupported by her publishers. Authors are left to fend for themselves, confronted with their own shortcuts and inexpert thinking by a justifiably frustrated press, sometimes live on-air.
This, too, is the underlying structural explanation for so many of the publishing-related miniscandals and outrages of the day, which typically play out on Twitter and Goodreads. Some authors really are the kinds of deeply disturbed individuals who enjoy promoting themselves on social media, but most of them are not. They put in the time because they have been told — or it has been strongly indicated to them — that in times of scarcity publishers will not be there to do the work of promotion, or that such work cannot happen without their active buy-in, or that, in the most extreme cases, there aren’t enough promotional channels left, and it is up to the authors to seek out new ones.
Last fall, in a perfectly representative incident, the young-adult novelist Sarah Dessen took umbrage at a graduate student who wanted Dessen’s books excluded from consideration for her alma mater’s first-year reading program. “She’s fine for teen girls. But definitely not up to the level of Common Read,” the student told the Aberdeen News. Dessen screenshotted the quote and tweeted it to her 268,000 followers: “I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.” Other writers took up Dessen’s cause, most notably Jennifer Weiner, who tweeted, “When we tell teenage girls that their stories matter less — or not at all — there are real-world consequences . . . #MeToo.” In her lucid reading of the incident, Ruth Graham wrote in Slate that “the implication seemed to be that there was a connection between sexual assault and the literary taste of one committee member of a small college’s common reading program.” Like many modern literary scandals, all this was both inane and embarrassing. But Dessen and her colleagues’ sense of their own precariousness points to the position of the writer alone against the market.
One senses in jacket-copy rhetoric the hermetic, recursive antipoetry of consolidation.Tweet
Goodreads — a hub for readers, writers, and reviewers that proudly stood apart from Amazon until the company acquired it in 2013 for an undisclosed sum — has become infamous for even more intense conflicts. In more than one instance, YA publishers pulled books ahead of publication because of pushback from Goodreads reviewers who hadn’t actually read the books. Thanks to its status as an Amazon property, the Goodreads review is now as important as the Amazon purchaser rating — which, given Amazon’s secondary function as a search engine for many users who never leave the site’s grasp, is disproportionately dominant, consumed far more often than a rave in a magazine. These reviews — often arbitrary, unreliable, ill-informed, vindictive, clueless, and occasionally paid — are sort of relevant to the casual shopper, but devastating to the authors who read and reread them, who pray for more reviews to balance them out and at the same time worry that the new ones might be negative, too. Champions of these spaces praise their democracy, but no one would confuse “7 people found this helpful” with the marketplace of ideas, let alone peer review. The purpose of reviews is to keep customers on the site, while anxious authors frantically refresh their pages, powerless against the onslaught and undefended by their publishers.
Perhaps this is why two of the most successful novels of the past couple of years — Dan Mallory’s The Woman in the Window and Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing — were quickly overshadowed by their authors’ strange or worse personal histories, echoed in the novels themselves.3 Is it the case that to write a major best seller in today’s frenetic marketplace, one first has to attain true sociopathy? One longs for a modern Union of Soviet Writers, with its recreation facilities and sanitoria, where today’s Twitter-addicted novelists could seek refuge and solace before they make the mistake of canceling themselves. Access to Goodreads reviews is banned at the sanitorium.
One can glean the industry’s sense of direction not only from the books it publishes, but from what it chooses to emphasize about them, from its zealousness about some of its products and not others, even from the copy on book jackets. Every year brings with it shockingly original, slyly ambitious, deeply felt, epically monumental, monumentally epic, heart-wrenchingly heart-wrenching cascades of adverbs and adjectives. The drift into vacuity signifies something more than the difficulty of describing boring books, a problem publishers have contended with as long as there have been publishers. One senses in jacket-copy rhetoric the hermetic, recursive antipoetry of consolidation.
This emptiness achieves its most unadulterated form in the language of book proposals, which are submitted by agents and authors and which were once fortunately only encountered by those who work in the industry. But today many so-called serious nonfiction books — or maybe they are the “big idea” books — are little more than padded-out proposals. They are stultifying, plodding, overlong, as if the purpose of serious nonfiction was to serve as a soapbox for para-literary or -academic celebrities to elaborate on their pet issues. In editorial meetings, they exist as proposals just on the verge of bloat, full of contrarian takes on “hot-button issues” that appeal precisely for their cheapness and ostensible catchiness. These proposals — and the books that emerge — presuppose their own conclusions. See the increasingly vacuous work of Jared Diamond, or almost anything on Bloomberg’s recent list of business leaders’ favorite books (“This book was written by an entrepreneur who hires a Navy SEAL to live with him and get him out of his comfort zone. It really captures what being an entrepreneur is”), or, for that matter, Naomi Wolf. You know what’s in all these books without having to read them, which may explain their occasional appeal to consumers. But the publishers still have to read them — or at least the copy editors do. Why suffer?
No one wakes up in the morning hoping to be as vapid as possible. But eventually you internalize the squeeze. Everyone down the chain adjusts their individual decisions to the whim of the retailer, or to their best guess at the whim of the retailer. If it’s Barnes & Noble, you may hear that a cover doesn’t work, that the store won’t carry the title unless you change it. If it’s Amazon, you may not hear anything at all. You go back and adjust your list of wildly optimistic comparative titles — it’s The Big Short, but . . . for meteorology! But is anyone still talking about The Big Short? Maybe it’s Hillbilly Elegy, but for meteorology. You change the cover, of course. Every cover has handwriting on it, so yours should, too. Prior success is book publishing’s best asset. If it worked well once, why not try it again, and again? Covers have to be readable on Amazon, and also attractive on Instagram: hence the sea of large, legible text, very often centered, all caps and sans serifs — and all-caps sans serifs! — tracked out and bold.
For the mostly young people engaged in this often gestural work, the upside is elusive. A recent spreadsheet titled “$ Book Money $” features, as of this writing, 399 contributions from employees of publishers, literary agencies, and literary scouts. For the most part, the numbers are incompatible with the reality of life in New York, where most of the employers are located, to say nothing of the hours of unpaid overtime these jobs demand, or the weight of student debt, or the cost of medical expenses unlikely to be covered in full by (at best) mediocre insurance plans. At one time, chronically low wages were justified by the glamour of the work and by cheap rent, but neither factor has survived into the 21st century. An industry grappling with its embarrassing lack of diversity is unlikely to make much progress on that front without examining its exploitative practices.
What do readers want? The question hangs over book publishing, at once pored over, theorized, and often abandoned in frustration. One thing they want, reasonably, is cultural production that reminds them of their own experiences. “Where,” Doctorow asked in his testimony, “is the incentive in network publishing for books of taste or social challenge or political boldness or high intellect?” To Doctorow’s list one might add books that speak in new or previously inaudible voices, books that are far less white than the industry itself. In recent years publishing has committed to diversity and representation, particularly in fiction. Award shortlists speak to a serious effort to publish and promote more work by writers of color in particular. The publishing scene is also more meaningfully international than it has been in a long time; the revival of the National Book Award for Translated Literature is a powerful message of intent both to readers and the industry — and a tribute to years of work and advocacy by translators and publishers alike.
A New York Times review of, say, the excellent Our Women on the Ground: Essays by Arab Women Reporting from the Arab World, published by Penguin, might lead one to conclude that for all the consolidation and decay, things can’t be that bad. The biggest publisher in the world putting out an anthology of reporting by Arab women? And the Times is on it? The danger is that for conglomerate publishing — like conglomerate filmmaking and conglomerate TV production — diversity and inclusion may be another trend, an ephemeral gesture to be dropped once something else comes along. The extreme whiteness of the industry is a crucial part of the problem, but so is a coercive bookselling environment and an ever greater tendency toward profit seeking. Without structural changes, the industry will float from one idea to the next, incapable of differentiating good from bad, deep from shallow. “There will be no renaissance of third-world literature,” said an editor quoted in a remarkable article in the Times Book Review. “In the past, publishers could underwrite experimental fiction and special-market fiction with profits made from more successful books. But that happens less frequently now.” That article was published in 1981. The speaker was one of “six black senior editors . . . presently employed by major publishing houses in New York City”: Toni Morrison.
What is to be done? One dreams of grand gestures and small changes simultaneously, of tweaks to the model alongside mass, wholesale restructuring. Amazon’s greatest and most nimble critic, the antitrust scholar Lina Khan, has written persuasively in the Yale Law Journal and elsewhere that the Obama Justice Department got it badly wrong in its judgment against publishers and Apple in 2012. She suggests that the problem of Amazon could be resolved via public utility regulation, or by breaking it up into its core businesses, splitting off Amazon Web Services from Amazon Marketplace. Is this utopian or practical? Overdue for aggressive regulation, a weakened Amazon would not leave the publishing industry in the clear. But it’s long past time for a company with no limits to be bound by more than zero.
Yet as we fantasize about strict antitrust enforcement, we stop to consider the reality of 2020. Though antitrust reform has gotten the attention of a number of congresspeople and presidential candidates — including Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Cory Booker — the Trump Justice Department has shown every sign of permissiveness toward vertical integration, with the exception of its opposition to the AT&T–Time Warner merger. A brave large publisher would test the limits of the current administration’s stance and find its way back into bookselling, which many publishers were once involved in. A Penguin Random House bookstore would doubtless present huge problems and provoke justified outrage from independent booksellers already fighting a multifront defense, and from smaller publishers anxious about getting iced out. But in the retail apocalypse, every possible sign of life is worth considering. There are a lot of storefronts out there sitting vacant, and Amazon can’t have them all.
Of course for PRH there is one simple fix. The publisher could remove all its books from Amazon! During Amazon’s contractual battle with Hachette, a large group of writers across genres and styles organized as Authors United, and published a series of open letters that explicated the dispute and its repercussions with welcome clarity and true moral stakes. At no moment in the recent history of conglomerate book publishing were the contradictions so heightened. What would happen if a publisher that controlled nearly half the market initiated the fight, urging its readers to shop at B&N, the independents, and the smaller chains — anywhere but Amazon? Would the books find their way to Amazon anyway, thanks to the aftermarket and the wholesalers? Would loyal Kindle users embrace piracy? Would authors stand united? What would even be the endgame? It is not, as of now, a likely scenario, which makes it important to entertain.
And then there’s the galaxy-brain scenario: a fixed book price system (FBP), along the lines of France’s Lang Law, which prevents physical and online book retailers from offering discounts larger than 5 percent, robbing big chains of their main competitive advantage. If emulating the Lang Law seems too big an ask given the perennial anxiety about doing anything that reeks too much of Frenchness, we can simply point to the many other sensible countries whose physical bookstores flourish while their digital bookstores remain in check: Argentina, Mexico, Italy, Spain, and so on. It is an unlikely prospect, with little chance of attracting the lobbying power its opponents would muster in opposition. Yet there is no greater leveling agent in bookselling than FBP.
Even in the absence of revolutionary change, the truth is that as Barnes & Noble floundered and Amazon rose, independent bookstores across the US fought back against every mitigating circumstance and overturned every dire prediction. They may not save the industry, but their example is a source of constructive inspiration. And even as conglomerate logic tries to crowd those bookstore shelves with Trump books and influencer memoirs, there is a giant constellation of books being produced by America’s independent publishers, carefully edited and intelligently marketed, that are worth reading. Though they face long odds and ghastly profit margins (n+1 barely breaks even on books we sell through Amazon), in a destabilized media environment, books published by independents often get the same degree of press as those with six-figure marketing budgets, their impact on the culture wildly disproportionate to their authors’ and publishers’ limited means.
But one should not get too misty-eyed about the good that can emerge from scarcity — especially when the problem demands massive intervention. For that reason, the most revealing aspect of Doctorow’s account of the publishing industry and its futures might well be its form. The prescience and accuracy of his Senate testimony is less surprising than the fact that it was Senate testimony. Forty years ago, conditions of conglomeration far less dire than our own were grounds for congressional discussion, if not action. Today Amazon is one of the biggest players in Washington, and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is Lindsey Graham. After a decade of mostly cold war between Amazon and the publishers, it is time for escalation.
Slate’s Ashley Feinberg did read it, and dug up this sub-sub-Caulfieldian gem: “By the way, throughout this book, I’m going to tell you about all the ‘regular Joe’ things I did, such as hunting, driving heavy construction equipment, and sleeping on my buddies’ couches. I know the trigger-happy people on the left will pop a cork and accuse me of trying to be somebody I’m not . To be honest, I don’t give a crap what they think.” ↩