So up to this last month of 2011 I managed to read quite a lot of books – more than usual I would say. To be quite frank, I upped up my reading because I noticed that my “Goodreads reading challenge 2011” in the latter half of this year was not progressing so well, and I was constantly being reminded I was behind (30 % behind, 5 books behind, come on, you can do it). And since I can’t really count in all the fan fiction I’ve been reading lately (no ISBN or official stamp, so it doesn’t exist), I can’t let it appear as if I’ve been dillydallying since september, can I? Grrrrrr, so being of the ancestry that I am I wasn’t going to lose to a html-code, no sir!!!
So it turns out I managed to squeeze in a couple of non-fan fiction literature in including Danish new releases and some golden oldies.
I went to a seminar called “Bogbranchens udfordringer” (Challenges in the publishing industry) in October. The seminar was arranged by BogMarkedet and held at Gyldendal. As well as representatives of book sellers and publishers, BogMarkedet had invited scholars John B. Thompson and Lisbeth Worsøe-Schmidt to speak at the seminar. The title of this post refers to a statement by John B. Thompson, author of recently published “Merchants of Culture – The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century”. Thompson has done extensive research in order to map out the general interest publishing industry as it stands in the US and UK from agents to publishers including the different challenges the whole industry faces in the digital age. The following is a recount of the presentations by Thompson, Worsøe-Schmidt and a quick run-over of the panel debate.
The logic of the field – Thompson’s presentation
Using Bourdieu’s notion of capital and interviewing over 280 people in the business Thompson has looked at the publishing field as a structured space of power with linguistic and spatial boundaries to find the certain “logic of the field”.
General interest publishing in the US/UK has undergone three major changes since the 1960’s up until today:
1) there has been a massive growth in retail chains from the 60’s to 80’s – mall stores to super bookstores. This has led to a decline in independent book sellers, and shifts in ways books are stocked and sold.
2) the rise of the specific literary agents – the super agent who comes from the outside and doesn’t follow the standard protocol or ethics held by previous arrangements.
3) the emergence of publishing corporations. In the US and UK there are 4-5 major ones, and the top 4 in the US stand for 40 % of all sales while in the UK they stand for 50 % of all sales.
SHAPE OF FIELD TRADE PUBLISHING
The development has led to a polarization of the field, making it very hard to be in the middle. Indie press is a world in its own, as they help each other out, and freelance rates differ when it comes to large and indie presses. Medium presses are worse off because it is harder to get financial gain and keep successful writers. They don’t get favors, such as discounted rates by freelancers, and don’t have much to fall back on if they strike out with an investment. At the same time the market is more and more preoccupied with handling big books – which according to Thompson leads to stagnation in the market. Fewer books are published and big books replace mid-list books. Now, big books are not the same as bestsellers, they are the hoped-for bestsellers publishers are looking for – Thompson says these books exist in the ‘space of the possible’ which is a buzz-creator. Furthermore half of them lose money, and only one in 10 make a difference in revenue.
There is a difference in how the logic of the field plays out in the US and the UK. In the US publishers have to offer same discount to the alike fields of retailers, a deal set out by the Robinson Patman Act, while UK retailers can sell books at any rate they like, and give discounts as they deem necessary. This means that publishers are in the middle between agents and retailers.
Thompson closed his presentation by pointing out three challenges affecting the field of publishing:
1) short-termism. Great effort and time goes into finding the closing-gap book. Older authors are marooned by a business that previously embraced them. They move to small presses or more radically, change their names. The industry is not good at cultivating long-term relationships.
2) Diversity. Thompson doesn’t think it is a simple question of yes or no. Growth and multiple titles could indicate diversity. But the distinction is important: there are two types of diversity; diversity in outputs vs. diversity in marketplace. It is a winner-takes-more-market.
3) Digital revolution. E-book sales are 10 % of trade book revenues in 2010. While many had envisaged that academic books would reign in the field of digital publishing it turned out to be romance and crime fiction that are the popular genres in the e-book market. Amazon and Barnes & Noble are key players, and publishers are worried about the power of Amazon. The e-book market is a struggle over price deflation and Amazon is losing money because they want to drive sales their way and monopolize the market with their own devices. When John Sargent at MacMillan pushed the agency model and opposed the discount model Amazon replied by turning of the buy-buttons on all MacMillan books, and MacMillan and Amazon went into a standoff. Amazon later backed down and reversed the “embargo” on MacMillan books at Amazon.
After the presentation by Thompson scholar Lisbeth Worsøe-Schmidt from the IVA (Royal School of Library and Information Science) presented her take on the Danish market.
The book trade at the postmodern wall
LWS led off by stating that the Danish business sector is very closed, making it very hard for researchers to analyze and help the publishing field. And according to Lisbeth Worsøe-Schmidt the field needs help, and it requires a community. The Danish publishing industry is a small one with great challenges and is first and foremost limited by language (as world languages go, Danish is in the minorities). Internal rules of publishing have gone untouched until the start of 2001 and in the small period of 10 years the business is converting into a new type of marked. Neither the industry or society in general were prepared for it. Development has shown that the Danish market can’t handle the process on its own, so in order for it to be successful change needs to be a culture-political project.
According to LWS the confluence of three considerations indicates that the Danish publishing industry is in a crisis:
1) The business is in the process of going modern with the deregulation of prices.
2) There is a financial crisis and the audience is turning from public to private.
3) The book trade has hit a postmodern wall bigger than mere technological changes.
LWS explains that the market has undergone a changed from pre-modern into modern and is now facing the postmodern wall:
Interest in the pre-modern was in content, and material comes second. The market was simple, lucid. The modern market is characterized by being a goods market. Quantity takes precedence over quality. This does not mean quality is out, but true emphasis is on quantity.
When we get to the postmodern marked there is a shift in values. Parts of the pre-modern undergoes a renaissance and audiences become more interested in quality. On the other hand the complex marked goes into a hypercomplex marked and the marked structures are impossible to grasp, both from the inside and outside making the perspective fragmented. This leads to a questioning of the industry’s function. The problem is not getting the items, but sorting through the immense amounts of them and in the process creating value. In the strictest sense buyers don’t need editors or bookshops – so in order to reclaim a place in the chain the industry needs to find out what its top-qualification validating its existence is. In stead of holding on to the values of a commercial market, the value of qualification in publishing goes to quality. In the modern market authority and power lay with the expert, but in the postmodern the power has shifted to the audience. Focusing on profit has neglected the struggle between the audience and the business and miscommunication. The Danish publishing industry needs to make clear to its consumers that the seemingly high price is connected not so much to production costs as the amount of editing hours and various steps in profiling books.
LWS goes on to say that independent bookstores are cultural intermediaries, not market connoisseurs. The logic is that emphasis is on quality and not quantity. Her advice to the industry is to focus more on strategic communication, getting to know an audience and most important the industry itself. Expanding and developing competences and not shying away from using knowledge to stand out in the crowd.
After the two presentations a panel of four representatives (two from bookshops and two publishers) talked about their take on Danish publishing today. All were pretty much unanimous that the industry needed to go all out on quality and that the industry needed a proper trade organization in order to create a framework and avoiding confusions and mixed signaling from one end to the other. The two bookshop representatives criticized the development that had included supermarkets into the fold, making it very hard if not unfair to compete with, and changing the direction of the book market into volume and bestsellerism. Supermarkets are easy, but they demand high discounts. The conclusion is that the whole of the market needs to start talking with another if publishing is to survive.
I love the whole and vast literary field and spend a great deal of time reading – and NO, it is not the same as saying I love to read from every particle of the field and YES, I do think that some of it is real BS and could be chucked in the bin without hesitation. It has come to my attention that thinking and debating literature, its implications and techniques (if not with company, then with myself), is a hazard of studying the darned matter daily. It can cause what I understand from some people damages to the so-called ‘lystlæsning’ strategy (passionate or zestful reading) – as many often like to differentiate between reading for fun and reading for learning. Although I don’t adhere to this segregation of reading, because on the one hand I find reading theoretical works just as exhilarating and mind-forgetting as reading fictional works, and on the other hand, I need to deepen my knowledge of a work that goes beyond the singular work to feel like I gain something worth having, I sometimes tend to emphasize the value of technical reading more (if I absolutely must segregate), so that I forget to or don’t allow my brain not to work as hard at pressing some theory or school of thought down on a work.
It must stem from being brought up within institutionalized reading and “learning” to decode symbols, signs and meanings – I think we have all at one point in our life, knowingly or unknowingly been set to use Propp’s structured formula on fairy tales or Greimas’ actantial model, you know, the ones with the role casting: the adversary, the helper, the hero and so forth and so on, with the sole intent to prove that fairy tales are codes to social mannerism to be interpreted in a specific manner and thus recasting ourselves in specific roles in society either as proponents or opponents of known rules – meaning, however, that the interpretation is not necessarily a fixed structure with one goal to all stories. I guess it can be very comforting to claim that there is a formula to literature – so everyone can participate at every juncture. But studies show that the choices readers make (also the critical ones) are not always in favor of the intention of the formula.
Reading using taught strategies can be a great way of reading a fairy tale, no doubt about it, because it can expose inner workings of fairy tales and give your brain a mental workout – and it is often emphasized that the tools you use when learning to read say for instance fairy tales in school can be implemented on other structures in life.
But just as any other process, it can be too adamant and rigid, and cause you to lose sight of other just as important aspects of literature. Sometimes fairy tales are just good because they are fairy tales, because they come with an excess of cultural and personal baggage, connotations treading back to childhood and diffuse hints of recognition that sometimes are just as well savored affectively. And if literature is just a code to be cracked with schemes, counting alliterations and making mental notes of how many times the author uses the word asphyxiate then literature and reader have lost and the first might just as well be classified under the care instructions section. When we are taught to treat literature as code the general reader gives up if it gets to hard (often because he or she don’t know the background, setting, reason/style of writing etc.), we don’t trust our own way of reading (which can be at odds with, if not completely opposite, what we are taught), we strike out and disappoint (each other and ourselves).
We don’t always notice it but we implement an array of different reading strategies in daily life, and do so without thinking that we’ve learned it somewhere. But when the specific term “literature” is mentioned, say someone tries to explain or discuss a reading, rather than opening ourselves up to different perspectives and contesting each other we become obsessed with sticking to the right formula or saying the magic words. Furthermore, when we say we read literature, we often think of, and glorify, the type of reading that happens as a solitary event when we sit in a chair with a cup of hot beverage by our side, minimal body movement, and eyeballs loosely skimming page after page in a paper book filled with specifically fonted lettering, while our brain zooms in and out of the page and links it to the mind, which in return projects mental images that almost always seem to create immense disappointment when illusions are burst at the screen version.
I have come across many (non)theorists that can’t help but throw in arabesque explanations entailing the wonders of this type of reading and thus hierarchize the relationship between author, work and reader. And in these cases the reader often becomes a passive vessel to the words of the writer of a given work: a sort of attitude where the reader is being infused with the spirit of the previous. But in other cases I have also noticed that the institutionalized reader is being challenged, both from within academia, and outside it: some theories bank on the modern human being so fragmented and isolated that it does not trust anyone but itself – and therefore reading cannot or must not be done as others do it. The downside of that is that the human race is also characterized as a social being and so withholding the need to share experiences and being validated or contested by others can seem counter-intuitive if not downright damaging to our mental health – “no man is an island”, if you catch my drift. But the upside, when we count involving others in the process, is that an array of readings, previously found to be insufficient or wrong have gained some status in a previously closed (dare I say, uptight) arena.
I’m not sure just what I was aiming at with this, if I was aiming at anything, I just like reading and discussing literature and other people’s’ readings.
Last week me and my mother (in town after attending Frankfurter Buchmesse, I’m so jealous) went to the exhibition at Bakkehusmuseet on reading by poet Morten Søndergaard called “Bakkehusalfabetet”.
The exhibit is set in and around the permanent exhibition in the house of Kamma and Knud Lyne Rahbek – two leading figures in 18th century society life in Denmark – now transformed into a museum and writer’s domicile. 28 installations, one for every letter in the Danish alphabet, are scattered around the house, in between cases containing items such as Oehlenschläger’s robe and paintings of Ludvig Holberg. The exhibition tries to convey different takes on how and why one reads, and importantly also what the process of reading does to someone. Accompanying every letter is a text that you can read in the booklet you loan at the entry. Like ‘R’ for “Ro; ro, rod, ord, bord” (in English, and unfortunately, but inevitably, not so similar, “quiet or row, mess, word, table”). The physical setting of the installation is an old wooden and lacquered desk like the one you might picture a clerk sitting at, upon which an iPad lays showing an array of pictures of Søndergaard’s many “desks”/writing places over the last 20 or so years. Combined with this is the mental process of, as explained in the text, the array of words he has chosen to describe his feelings of the settings of writing a text that will be read.
By the letter ‘I’, Søndergaard has taken a famous poem by Lewis Carroll in “Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there”, namely the “Jabberwocky” and stuck it up on the bathroom wall. Jabberwocky is what some might call nonsense-poetry, however I would prefer to avoid the connotations of that word, simply because it does not do justice to the type of entry allowed the reader, just because it isn’t normative. The installation does however play on the same murkiness and seemingly impenetrable nature of the poem with which it presents itself on paper by being set backwards up on the wall, so that the easiest way you can read it is if you look at it through the mirror, or, ta-dah, looking-glass. The question soon arises; does reading the “Jabberwocky” become clearer if I read it through the looking-glass, or does reading like this feel displaced or diverted? Is reading this already-hard-to-comprehend poem impeded twice over, or am I all of a sudden aware of the poem’s crazy route?
Although it could be said that some of the installations took its subjects a bit to literally (like the two examples here) it doesn’t fail in examining reading at different point of views, perhaps in different life stages or reading as seen by different people. There is one of the installations where Søndergaard has taken a row of photos of book pages (a statement in itself that could lead to a long analysis), framed them with an archive card underneath explaining the books’ origin, page count, publishing date and remarks on the annotation or scribbled marks that fall out of the books default setting on that particular page. The images of the book-in-frame, with all of its implied and explicit meanings, becomes a fragment of a whole, and in the framed picture it is merely a corner of a books’ page, letting it stand as a documented piece, not of itself, but how it is received and implicates the reader. On one amusing photo someone has taken it upon him- or herself to correct a the grammar, crossing out the black, printed word “med” (with) and replacing it in blue ink with “af” (of). If you look at the photo and read the fragmented, but nonetheless adequate, sentence you will understand the duplicity in the action and the meaning.
The installations are on display until January 8th, and in case I did not make it clear: yes, I think they are worth a visit.
P.S. Did I mention I got a cool poster too?
From the 1st of November 2011 and for one year initially a new e-book deal will make it possible for readers and lenders to borrow e-books from the Danish libraries, effectively eclipsing the previous one. The project is funded by the Office of Library and Media and partnering with them are among others the six central libraries in the country, Denmark’s largest publishing houses – Gyldendal and Lindhardt & Ringhof (and also Rosinante, an independent corporation within the Gyldendal-conglomerate) – and the distributors DBC and Publizon (the latter is owned by, drumroll please: Gyldendal and Lindhardt & Ringhof). (1)
As with paper books the lender gets the e-book on a 30-day loan and the e-book will be protected by DRM. The deal has been a long time coming, partly because the different participants had a hard time negotiating the pesky details, such as how much money the author’s and publishers would get per e-book download. And while it has received the seal of approval by the Danish Writer’s Association (DK: Dansk Forfatterforening, DFF), the deal has already conjured up quite a lot of criticism.
Who get’s to play?
One big aspect is the publishers: it is probably no surprise that the publishers involved in this deal are the hard-hitters of the business. Now, full disclosure, a great deal of publishers were asked to join in on the negotiations, many turned it down. These two publishers are effectively the only ones with enough power at the moment to sync money behind the project and simultaneously offer a vide array of titles which combined gives them pretty much the run of the place, publishing-wise. In a letter to an author, Gyldendal explains their reason for going into this partnership as such:
»E-books should be available where the reader is. But free reading via the libraries must at the same time not cannibalize the digital market we are in the process of establishing, where the author and publisher are dependent on the price of a book.« (2)
The fact that they are the only ones and so are representing the publishing area of the deal means they set the ground rules that other publishers will play by in later stages, not to the liking of said publishers. A deal of this magnitude, I feel, is something that should have been orchestrated at a level where governmental institutions were the initiators and deal-creators, to ensure that it doesn’t become about favoring one publishers demands over another, and also so that these publishers who are in on the deal can’t be held accountable for the points of the plan. Instead the management of the deal is done at a more local level – the previously mentioned six main libraries. And while it is true that Gyldendal and Lindhardt & Ringhof hold a majority of the titles that are being published in Denmark, they are not representative in nature of the Danish publishing industry. It therefore seems a bit off that they would call the shots in regards to what the lenders can or cannot lend at their local libraries. (3)
The money issue
Next up is the criticism that the loans will be to expensive for libraries – see article in Politiken about prices – although at DFF’s webpage it states that payment will be no more than that of a paper book with a calculation of approximately 40 loans per book. The Librarian Association does however think the model is too expensive.
The chairman of the Librarian Association, Pernille Drost, says to Bogmarkedet:
»The price is too high. The publishers justify the high price by saying that they don’t want to risk a drop in the purchase of paper books. But I think the high price means that many libraries will not have enough money to subscribe to the service, because the economy is just not there.« (4)
The setting of the price is done by a so-called staircase model, meaning the more the book is lent the lower the price of the book will be. Any and all books under 12 months start out with 18,50 DKK pr. lend pr. book. (5) It is then up to the libraries if they want to set limitations of number of loans pr. book, giving them the authority of decision locally. I would not feel comfortable proposing any other model at this point, but I do tend to see a great deal of critical points that will work rather excluding in regards to smaller and alternative publishers, and with the more and more diminishing chunk of money that goes to libraries I could see that local libraries would have no chance to offer their lenders the same service as other libraries. This last fact alone is very troubling to me, since the great tradition of public libraries is too important a service organ to be sucked into the power play of market wave-riding.
Looking with anticipation to future developments in this case.
(1): Toke Riis Ebbesen has written a very good entry about the news here (note: it is in Danish)
(2): The letter is in Danish and is available at DFF here.
(3): More on the deal by Søndag Aften here.
(4): Bogmarkedet interviews the chairman of the Librarian Association here.
(5): Angermann writes an entry calling for local deals in e-book lending – read it here.