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The thickness of books


Kenan Malik republishes a blog by Toby Mundy, until recently CEO of Atlantic Books, which reflects on the particular value of books and the struggle between publishers and Amazon.

First Mundy quotes Russell Grandinetti, Amazon’s senior vice president for Kindle, speaking to The New York Times earlier this month: “If you charge high e-book prices, ultimately what you’re doing is making a slow, painful slide to irrelevancy. You have to draw the box big. Books don’t just compete against books. Books compete against Candy Crush, Twitter, Facebook, streaming movies, newspapers you can read for free. It’s a new world. It’s so important not to simply build a moat around the industry the way it is now.”

True, Mundy says, yet books still occupy an important position in our culture. Why?

Warren Buffett once said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Deflationists like … Grandinetti don’t recognise that books have a unique place in our civilisation. After fourteen years running the British independent publisher Atlantic Books (I left in June 2014), I have come to think that they occupy this valuable position because they are the only medium for thick descriptions of the world that human beings possess.
By “thick” description, I mean an extended, detailed, evidence-based, written interpretation of a subject. If you want to write a feature or blog or wikipedia entry, be it about the origins of the first world war; the authoritarian turn in Russia; or the causes and effects of the 2008 financial crisis, in the end you will have to refer to a book. Or at least refer to other people who have referred to books. Even the best magazine pieces and TV documentaries  – and the best of these are very good indeed  –  are only puddle-deep compared with the thick descriptions laid out in books. They are “thin” descriptions and the creators and authors of them will have referred extensively to books to produce their work. In this sense, authors and publisher-curators are in the “civilisation business”, trafficking in the knowledge that provides the building blocks for culture and society. They probably shouldn’t go around talking about “civilisation” too often, but it’s true nonetheless. Books are a different class of object, profoundly unlike magazines, newspapers, blogs, games or social media sites. The world they evoke is richer, more dense and, literally, more meaningful.

Social media reminds us every second of every day, writes Mundy, that opinion costs nothing. Talk is cheap, but facts are expensive. They cost money to establish and the eco-system that enables author-experts to research and interpret these facts and write them up in book form is being transformed. To a significant extent, this is because Amazon has taken the lead in subjecting books to the economics of information.

The current disputes between Amazon and its suppliers concern the retailer’s demand for better margins. Despite trail-blazing innovation and vast revenue (nearly $75bn in 2013) Amazon needs to arrest its losses and calm its stockholders. This explains why the company is reportedly making requests for substantial additional terms from publishers, big and small, which will result in a significant reduction in profits for the firms concerned. Many smaller publishing houses are not that profitable to start with, but the retailer seems indifferent, at best, about whether it drives its suppliers out of business. And because Amazon is capable of demanding new terms every year, it is difficult for publishing executives to plan ahead, or adjust their business models quickly enough.
Amazon’s disruption of the publishing industry is likely in the end to be bad for most authors too. Although the company, at least for the moment, is offering a bigger share of revenue to authors who work with it directly, by driving prices downwards across the board (rather than simply for price-promoted items), it will also reduce the overall size of the cake. Authors also have little or no leverage with Amazon over terms of trade, and certainly less than a big conglomerate like Penguin Random House (which in turn is something like 1/15th the size of Amazon). Consumers may like lower prices, but the decline of a well-curated and diverse publishing industry may not be to their liking.
The result of these changes will be a much dimished eco-system for stories and ideas, with many fewer publishers and authors earning anything. Ultimately this may benefit a small number of people who hold stock in Amazon, but it will do precious little for our wider culture.

Read the whole blog post here: http://bit.ly/1wqd6Iu