Readersforum's Blog

April 12, 2013

What Is the Business of Literature?

Nash-Business-LiteratureBy Richard Nash

As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.

One of the remarkable deficits in contemporary accounts of both book publishing and Internet business is sociohistorical awareness. That it should be so with the Internet is unsurprising, prone as so many popular tech commentators are to triumphalist or progressive teleologies—one technology replacing another, one company killing another, IBM’s dominance unquestioned, then Microsoft’s unquestionable, followed in turn by AOL, MySpace, Facebook, etc. The implacability of Moore’s law is extrapolated from processing power to the social order. Similarly, most current discussions of the book economy rarely reach back earlier than the Golden Era of American publishing in the 1950s, the British one dating back perhaps a little farther, to the 1930s.

While many histories of the book incorporate serious empirical research—Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is an epic example—three have arguably done the best job in applying that rigor to contemporary publishing: J. B. Thompson’s The Merchants of Culture; Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, a series of case studies with particular focus on retail; and Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists, which was almost purely about the retail side. Most other accounts of the contemporary business of literature are autobiographical, hagiographic, or histories of literature, avoiding the business and economics of it all. So why study a business that is sui generis, that isn’t even really a business—that, like America, is exceptional?

It is the Exceptionalists, the ones who claim the mantle of defender of the book, who undermine the book by claiming that it is a world unto itself, in need of special protection, that its fragility in the face of the behemoth or barbarian du jour (Amazon, the Internet, comic books, the novel, the printing press, illiteracy, literacy, to name but a handful of purported sources of cultural decline) requires insulation, like the skinny kid kept away from the schoolyard and its bullies. Who are these Exceptionalists?

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