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A Smart Rant And a Butcher’s Bill

Two items caught my fancy today. They might otherwise seem only slightly related, but I would like to pair them together and see what we get.

First, via Christopher Shea’s Brainiac blog over at the Boston Globe, a smart rant from former Soft Skull Press Editorial Director Richard Nash:

People, the book will live on with the publishing business!!! That is not really what is changing, and to the extent that it might be, it will only be because the writers and the readers want it to.

The book isn’t in trouble, it’s that everyone who takes some of the money that a consumer pays for an author’s content need to re-justify their share and not assume that because they used to get that % they still in fact deserve that %. And I sense too many people hiding behind the notion that this has something to do with grandiose cultural notions about the life and death of the book rather than more quotidien concerns about the vision and competence of individuals populating this business.

Next, a forward-looking butcher’s bill of dying newspapers. Among the top ten are the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle, Detroit News, Chicago Sun-Times, and Cleveland Plain-Dealer. If you think this is far-fetched ??? that major-market papers simply won’t shutter ??? then you’ve missed the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and the probable (imminent?) demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Here’s why I’m putting these two together.

I think Nash is dead-on. The publishing business is jam-packed with middlemen who get a cut of advances and royalties. (I used to be one, laboring as a house publicist.) Because these middlemen are sensing the shifting sands of their business model, they espouse infinite ideas about why they still deserve their cut, and how books will somehow suffer if they don’t get it.

As the book publishing industry adapts to the digital age, I think it will find that publicists and agents and all the other positions that ferry a manucript from disc to consumer are malleable. The new models will flex and squeeze and fit these middlemen into the editing, vetting, and publishing process, like a plumber fits a washer into a faucet so that it can mold itself to the spout and stop leaks.

But newspapers won’t be so lucky. Journalism happens between a reporter, a source, and an editor, none of whom will ever disappear. The middlemen of the newspaper industry, I’m afraid, are the press operators and delivery drivers who produce and disseminate the print product. And in an age without middlemen, their days are probably numbered.

So as not to end on a maudlin note, here’s what I’d like to see:

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I’d like to see the publishing industry realize once and for all that the consignment model is horrendous in all sorts of ways — environmentally, efficiency-wise, and with regard to overall labor — and that it should invest, instead, in making dynamic, beautiful, finely wrought print editions that people actually want to keep and gift for years and decades, as opposed to all those mass-market editions that we should distribute entirely by e-reader, or trade paperbacks bought by students and which we should likewise distribute in academically annotated e-editions. With a bump in printing technology evolving in complexity and trade, the press operators and distributors of newspapers could find employment at high-end printers and the like, thereby continuing to perform and excel at their craft. Furthermore, with a generation of readers learning to distinguish between platfrom and content — e-readers for dispensible copies of Patterson & Steele & that-copy-of-Freud-that-I’ll-never-read-after-college, vs. indispensible texts that readers elect to purchase in hard copies that are actually worth the $30 to $45 they’ll pay for them — we would also be training consumers to drop a few dimes on electronic subscriptions to news outlets and periodicals that publish on mobile readers. The only entities who would lose would be the dead fish, who no longer have yesterday’s paper in which to wrap themselves.

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