Are books worth saving?

17/02/2012 § 2 Comments

The acerbic Ted Rall presents his ideas for saving the print book industry. He maintains that digital publishing needs print publishing, pointing to the example of the music industry. To give you a flavour, here is his view of the world if Barnes & Noble collapse:

…the death of books.

Cultural apocalypse.

Neo-feudalism.

So, it’s fair to say he thinks this is important.

I’m kind of with him. I’ll admit to a slight book fetish. I keep them, store them up, line my living spaces with them. I tell myself I have to keep this book because I will read it again, one day.

But my inner economist tells me that maybe we haven’t thought this through.

Rall suggests that the US should support a Fixed Book Price Agreement:

In France and other nations studies have shown that FBPAs protect independent stores, increase the diversity and quality of titles sold, and support more authors.

Ah, France. I was there last month and studied literature there years ago. I have spent many glorious hours reading, dissecting, and debating French books. The first thing to understand is that French book stores exist in an entirely different social, cultural, physical, and economic space. Imposing an FBPA on the US won’t suddenly create small neighbourhood book shops. Secondly, the French read lots of police novels and Harlequin romances, too. These are exactly the kinds of books that Rall fears will swamp the worthwhile ones in the digital age. Finally, it would be interesting to know given all this whether the French actually read more than Americans — I couldn’t find statistics on it.

Rall also wants the government to ‘recogniz[e] the unique cultural contribution of books ‘. He tells of the great times he used to have browsing small record stores before the industry fell apart. What Rall misses is that he is consuming two different but linked things: one is the book or album, the other is the experience of browsing. These little shops provided him the opportunity to consume his shopping experience. It turns out that providing that shopping experience is expensive. It also turns out that other things have become more important.

Cheap, plentiful paper books and the whole economic and cultural context of them is recent in human history. Now, technological change threatens to rewrite the book-as-product. But, technological change is also providing new filtering capabilities, which is a key message of The Long Tail.

We can complain, but we may as well complain that each volume isn’t hand-bound in leather anymore. Yeah, it changes how authors make their crust. It’s not the first time. Books used to be dedicated to the authors’ benefactors (or prospective ones). The modern dedication to spouses, children, or parents is a function of the current economics of book writing. Well, those conditions are changing.

I actually think it’s exciting. More ideas, more writing. I just have to find a new fetish.

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§ 2 Responses to Are books worth saving?

  • Thorsten Heitzmann says:

    Interesting – I just voted “No” on reintroduction of Fixed Book Prices in Switzerland. Interesting mainly because I used to be a strong defender of fixed book prices in Germany (ansd still am, sort of).

    But unlike in Germany, where fixed prices seem to actually protect small bookstores to some extent, in Switzerland the fixed prices were used as a vehicle of the (German) publishers to ask horrendous prices.

    An example – Harry Potter, Vol I, Hardcover, German translation:
    In Germany EUR 15.90
    In Switzerland (recommended price) about EUR 20.60 (+30%)
    In Switzerland, free delivery from amazon.de, taxfree EUR 14.86

    So, while it is not about money alone, with an aching heart I voted against rip-off – and against fixed prices.

    Cool coincidence that you have the same topic in here…

    • Bill says:

      That’s really interesting that you got to vote specifically on that policy. I would have expected it to be part of regular government policy-making.
      Have there been plans to try any other policies to support bookstores?

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