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post so people will know how interesting and important this is," only to find another passage a few minutes later that superseded the former one.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.


  1. It is refreshing to see someone discuss the “availability heuristic” as it pertains to publishing. I used to call it the “survivor interview”: Someone survives a plane crash and says, “God was looking out for me.” Nobody considers that God wasn’t looking out for the others in the plane who didn’t survive — often the majority —  because no one is interviewing them.

    This is absolutely true for bestsellers vs. the majority of published fiction, and for published fiction vs. the vast sea of nonpublished fiction. We now live in a time in which “published fiction” is a category with extremely hazy borders.

    I also quite like his erudite dismissals of doomsayers decrying the death of fiction or publishing. That seems to have been going on as long as both have existed, while both have demonstrably done nothing but flourish.

    Thanks for posting this!

  2. Richard Nash had me at “bloody thumbprint”… but he raises an interesting point about how publishers are increasingly trying to find new avenues to monetize creative content.  A point made by Robert Levine (author of Free Ride) during a talk he gave at BookNetCanada’s Tech Forum in Toronto a few weeks ago:  The film industry has been better able to monetize a single piece of creative content (i.e. a movie) than book publishers have been able to their content (i.e. books).  Film studios release to (and monetize from) theaters, HBO, DVD, regular cable, late night cable, Netflix, etc… whereas book publishers sell hardcovers, paperbacks, and now eBooks.  Nash’s bloody fingerprint illustrates the market of consumers interested in premium physical editions, a phenomenon also found in music (spot a hipsters with vinyl lately?).  

    However, I think there is also a market (and opportunity) for publishers to provide value to readers through format shifting options.  If you own a physical edition of a book (especially an edition with aforementioned thumbprint), but prefer to read on the subway or in airport, you might prefer to own an eBook version of the same title. Although some publishers (and authors Cory Doctorow) are happy to distribute the e-version of their works for free, others are still in the mindset of asking consumers to pay full pop.  Validation of ownership is part of the problem — publishers are often unwilling to give away free (or discounted) eBooks to people who might not own the physical fruits of their blood, sweat, and tears.  I’ve founded a company that’s hoping to change this… Not the blood, sweat or tears, but rather solving the “prove you own the print copy” problem.  We ( are currently pre-launch, but are hopeful that indeed the rumors of publishing’s death have been greatly exaggerated. 

  3. This, like any history of books and publishing, has me thinking of my concerns about e-books. And I realize it’s extremely likely that Nash addresses my concerns and that I just haven’t gotten there yet, since I’m not quite halfway through reading it yet. But I’ll bring them up here anyway.

    I realize e-books have tremendous advantages: the number of e-books you can hold in your hand is only limited by whatever reading device you use. They can be transmitted almost instantaneously over huge distances. E-books have also made self-publishing easy and cheap, and they make it possible for authors to publish short works–works that, printed on paper, wouldn’t take up enough space to justify the cost of producing them. And they can be reproduced much more easily. If a “copy” in one place is damaged or destroyed there are backups available. E-books also are a tremendous boon to research because they mean multiple texts can be searched at once. E-books are also a tremendous advantage to libraries which are always concerned about space and preservation issues–although e-books have those as well. And library patrons don’t have to worry about a copy of an e-book being checked out–unless there are publisher limitations, and there usually are.

    It’s the limitations of e-books that concern me. I think we ought to exploit their advantages as much as possible, but I’m concerned there’s too much pressure to put all of our books in one digital basket. E-books, unlike physical books, depend on a secondary device to be read. A problem with the device, or with the programming, can make an e-book unreadable. Drop a book in the bathtub and at worst you’ll have a badly damaged book. Drop an e-book reader in the bathtub, or even lose your power source, and you potentially lose your whole library. And the availability of e-books depends on publishers’ willingness to allow us, the consumers, to keep the e-books we’ve purchased. Connect your e-book reader to the publisher’s–or a seller’s–server and they can delete your library. More than a decade ago Elsevier was caught deleting articles from their Science Direct platform. The articles had problems–some, it turned out, had been plagiarized, for instance, but since the articles were also published in print the matter prompted at least one librarian to ask if Elsevier was also sending representatives with scissors into libraries. And Harper-Collins limits library e-books to twenty-six checkouts, then the library has to purchase the e-book again. The only thing a book requires to be read is knowledge of the language in which it’s written.

    I know I’m probably an idiot for thinking of myself as a modern day Cassandra. And I don’t really think e-books themselves are a threat to literature or even publishing. The real threat, I think, is economics. Major publishers see a potential fortune to be made with e-books, and they’re going to make sure the advantages of physical books aren’t going to be enough to keep the production of them financially viable.

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