On the Future of Print Media

I love books. I like their portability, I like the feel of the paper under my fingertips, the smell of the ink. Even the dust on an old book in a secondhand bookshop appeals to me. I have a certain amount of affection for the old ways, the pacing of the past. But at the same time, I wonder if the old ways can be supported now.

In Edith Wharton's or Henry James' day, the writer was not just a content provider. The writer had a typist, and then an agent perhaps, and a publisher, both of whom had secretaries, and the book itself was a cultural artifact that existed almost outside the frame of the economic realities of the day. Printing involved a whole crew of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers: typesetters with enviable grammar and vocabulary, printers, binders, boxers, traveling salesmen, tiny dusty bookstores in forgotten corners of small towns and vast cities, and librarians--who were often the educated women left high and dry by the rest of the striving society, allowed this small fiefdom.

Can we ever return to the strange configurations that allowed the massive sales of cookbooks and Dale Carnegie self-help volumes to pay for the finest flowering of our literary culture? Whether the cookbook authors and self-help gurus like it or not? An educated elite used to run the publishing business and printed what they hoped would sell to support the printing of what they loved but knew would not make much money. This paradigm has shifted straight into the little trash can icon at the bottom of your screen.

Meanwhile, what's a writer to do? The old system had its traditions, its inefficiencies, but we knew what they were. The writer delivered this manuscript, the editor said no, or asked for changes, or said yes. Then the machinery kicked in. Now even publication by a major house--there is no machinery left. The writers must type it themselves on computer, edit themselves, draw their own maps and charts, do all the publicity tour arrangements themselves, blog, twitter, facebook, stand in the market square and leap up and down, shouting, "Look at me! Look at me!!!" No time to write any more because it keeps cutting into the real job of publicizing their persona so the books will sell so they can eat.

Edith Wharton and Henry James lived on family money.

The publishers and editors lived on family money. Educated elites used to have a taste advantage over the hoi polloi in that they were allowed to point to what was good and worth reading and most people either left them to it or deferred to their opinions. Now in the vast experiment of democratization that has actually become a reality since World War II, the masses will no longer sit still while elites tell them how to rate the new cultural products that come down the art pipeline. The only indicator that makes any sense across the board is "Will people pay money to get access to it?" So far, the answer is: No. Not music, not books, not newspapers, not movies. Not if they can get it free on the Internet. Not if they can steal it quicker by illegal download than by going to a record store (doesn't that sound like an obsolete term now--"record store"?) and buying the CD, or to a library or a theater.

Everybody half-believes that all info should be free now, like watching movies on TV, or TV shows for free over the democratically controlled airwaves, or music on free radio, or getting the facts we need to be informed citizens from free newspapers. And why then should books be any different? Writers want music for free, and musicians want TV for free, and TV stars want books for free, and they all want to be paid for their contribution while not paying for what they want from others. This might work in a socialist state like Sweden where artists can just go on the dole until they create something (finally) that someone else wants to buy. But in our present economy how can anyone make a living as an artist? All the people I know who are creating things are actually being supported informally by someone else's work in the cruel money economy. Actors married to bankers, painters married to engineers, writers married to teachers, musicians married to real estate agents.

It used to be, in the bad old days, that only the elite had the time and leisure to do the third level activities of thinking, writing, creating. Only those who had been lifted from the first two levels of human existence, that of mere physical survival and then insuring the survival of the next generation and teaching them the skills needed to help their children survive. Now in vast swaths of the world those first two levels are solved and do not require nearly as much time and brain space as they used to. Now a huge portion of the world's population can choose how to spend their excess time and money and--what do you know? They want to be artists and knitters and miniature train hobbyists and writers and--why not? Who's stopping them? But many also have this holdover belief that if any activity is worth doing, you should get paid for it. So they want grant money from the government to drape giant knitted "yarn bombs" over public statues, to fund their photography projects documenting the Winnebago culture of the Southwest, to publish the excruciating memoir of their undigested experience. But, but, but--James Frey got his "memoir" published! Why not mine? And the blogosphere is full of that undigested, unvetted raw material that goes into making art but is not art itself. Now that the choosing system we used to have--educated elites running publishing houses at a loss--is no longer functioning, we're between the old craftsmanship ideas of art and the new all-free/all available/completely unvetted semi-marketplace of ideas and hogwash of the Internet and no one knows if any content will be controlled or paid for ever again.

So what's a writer to do?