Literature's business model explained, with special reference to the age of the Internet


Richard Nash's essay "On the business of literature" is one of the best, most thought-provoking, most beautifully argued articles about the business of publishing through history and in the Internet age that I've ever read. It's one of those pieces from which it is nearly impossible to choose an illustrative quotation -- as I read, I kept happening on passages and thinking, "Aha, that's what I'll put in the post so people will know how interesting and important this is," only to find another passage a few minutes later that superseded the former one. So here's one quote to whet your appetite, and I'll stick another after the jump, but for heaven's sake, just go read the whole thing. Really.

What is particularly crucial to understand is that books were not dragged kicking and screaming into each new area of capitalism. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. The growth of the chain model in books offered everyone the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality, as Striphas outlines in his excellent The Late Age of Print, that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket:

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.

There are other examples of significant innovation being driven by the publishers—Penguin founder Allen Lane's 1937 paperback vending machine for better commuter distribution being among the most charming—but the point is that books aren't sitting grumpily in economy class on the airplane to the future. They're in the cockpit.

Nash founded the amazing Soft Skull Press, which had many triumphs, not least publishing the amazing Get Your War On books.

VQR » On the business of literature

The PostScript output of PageMaker (later to become the more familiar "PDF") undermined the Industrial Revolution model, initiating the digital, post-Industrial phase of abundance, even though, at the time, it appeared to be reinforcing the Industrial model by reforming it. Independent presses could make digital files and send them to offset printers. They still had to deal with the classic economies of scale of analog printing, but they didn't have to deal with the complex, inaccessible, and arcane world of traditional typesetting. The number of publishers began to increase, as did the number of titles, as the creation of a title (by publisher, of course, not by author) became significantly cheaper and began to undo ever so slightly Vonnegut's otherwise accurate analysis of the business of culture. The genius opera singer needed systems to distribute her genius as broadly as possible, and the copyright system combined with analog reproduction made that easy. And it was getting easier for the non-mainstream, too, be that the lover of the avant-garde, or the early music, or the campy, or the local, or the familial (the recording of your grandmother singing opera). The non-mainstream was abetted by the growth of the superstore model of bookstores. The traditional independent bookstore stocked 5,000–10,000 titles, and so could only handle the new and backlist output of a limited number of publishers. But a Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore could have fifty, sixty, or seventy thousand titles! Indeed, it needed those non-mainstream offerings to fill its shelves. Ironically, while indie, alternative, and literary presses frequently decried the predations of the superstores, the superstores were critical to their existence.