Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reading List: The Late Age of Print

Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (2012)

The basic message: the present state of books and how we got here is complicated, but it’s essentially about control (and somewhat less about resistance to that control) by capitalist structures seeking to move all surplus away from the consumer.  Striphas argues that book publishing was on the forefront of large-scale rationalization and standardization in mass production.  Among other things, printers were among the first to adopt standard hourly wages, and books were mass-marketed Christmas presents when commercialized Christmas was new; publishers were among the first to adopt universal product codes in the form of the ISBN.

Along the way, booksellers touted physical accumulation of books as a class marker, which meant a proliferation of copies that latterly has come to be seen as “hindering the task of expanding capitalist accumulation” as compared to licensing.  Even in the 1930s, publishers didn’t like that people could lend or give away books, and PR specialist Edward Bernays searched for a pejorative term for “the book borrower, the wretch who raised hell with book sales and deprived authors of earned royalties” (in the words of Bernays’ institute).  I particularly liked “greader,” though the winner was “book sneak.”  This was even less successful than the more recent defining down of “piracy,” but e-books now appear to offer publishers their dreamed-of state of complete control, at least if no one violates the DMCA.

Modern ideologies of writing and reading both require and conflict with mass-marketization: “Many publishers and booksellers have persisted in the belief that books ought to sell primarily on the basis of the qualities particular to individual titles, and that relying on exogenous factors to move them somehow diminishes the worth of these goods. Yet the rapid growth and extraordinary success of superstores reveal just how much built environments and other factors related yet extrinsic to specific titles can make or break the selling of books and bookselling.…”  Superstores then led to labor force downsizing behind the scenes, before Amazon even entered the field with its even greater speedups and pressure on labor. 

Striphas also considers the way in which at least one television program promoted book culture: Oprah’s book club.  Functioning as a brand, the book club designation acted as an assurance of fitness for purpose that convinced otherwise reluctant customers that Oprah’s books were likely to reward the investment in finding the book and carving out time to read—material barriers that many intellectuals, used to reading constantly, downplay.  In language that Landes and Posner would recognize, Striphas contends that “Branding permits publishing firms partially to sidestep the time-consuming, costly, and often haphazard work of identifying or creating a unique audience for each and every title in their catalogs.”   Oprah also explicitly gave suggestions to women about how to fit in reading time; here Striphas references Janice Radway’s work on how romance reading served as an assertion of the self in otherwise other-directed lives.  The content of Oprah’s books is therefore strongly linked to their functions within readers’ lives: a book is “valuable to the extent that it demonstrates a clear connection with life, or that it resonates with their everyday interests, personal experiences, and concerns.”  Thus Jonathan Franzen’s initial rejection of his selection, because he was a snob, didn’t pose an existential threat to the book club, whereas James Frey’s dissimulations did.

As to Franzen, Striphas argues that his dispute with Oprah was really about attribution and branding: His publisher put the book back in print when it was selected, with a new edition featuring Oprah’s insignia prominently on the cover.  Franzen felt that this was a violation of the tradition that hardcover fiction was free of advertising, and that the logo implied “corporate ownership” of his work.  As Striphas notes, though, the fact that Franzen’s publisher was a giant media company didn’t seem to bother him—one example of the way in which authorial preferences/incentives are a lot more complicated than the usual rhetoric surrounding moral rights allows.

Striphas then turns to Harry Potter as global phenomenon, focusing on the extensive, technologically enabled precautions the publishers took to release the later books simultaneously worldwide and their struggles against unauthorized versions in various countries.  While simultaneous release seems like an artifact of globalization, Striphas points out that the purpose of the release was precisely to avoid people in one country from getting their copies from another country; the endeavor was aimed at maintaining territorial distinctions so that each publisher could profit to the maximum within its contractually guaranteed footprint.  The massive scale of the simultaneous release, and its inevitable failures, brought IP and even security and logistics to the forefront of the Harry Potter phenomenon, such that newspapers were reporting on the embargo (since they didn’t have review copies to review). 

Fans were recruited to go along with the ideology of control:  “Those who obtained and subsequently returned early Potter book releases have tended to do so in good faith, believing that their principled acts uphold egalitarian conditions of access to stories that have enthralled millions of readers.”  He doesn’t think that’s wrong, even though they serve the publishers’ own purposes, “laboring to produce the very conditions of scarcity that, from an economic standpoint, might well be contrary to their own interests.”  Striphas only considers, however, commercial appropriations such as purported Chinese sequels and Tanya Grotter; he doesn’t discuss transformative fandom except to mention a German translation group that attempted to get the books translated into German faster than the commercial publishers could.  When it comes to commercial, cross-cultural reworkings, he argues,

Bricolage, indigenization, parody, and other forms of appropriation are frequently perceived by Western journalists, intellectual property rights holders, and others to be insufficiently or inappropriately transfigurative acts. This perception, in turn, places those who have assumed the task of development in an impossible position. On the one hand, they’re charged with repeating foreign values, styles, and culture, while, on the other, they are condemned for having done so under existing economic and infrastructural conditions. Despite their complaints, Western authorities tend not to admit their part—our part—in both creating and sustaining the conditions leading to book piracy and other forms of intellectual property piracy on the world scene.

All these examples lead Striphas to conclude that books are one site of struggle over a transition to “controlled consumption” in which large producers have the power to dictate what consumers can do and what they must pay, diminishing their control from the earlier “consumers’ republic” despite a continued rhetoric of choice.  This transition is contested, but in my view it sure looks pretty good for the producers right now.  Striphas sometimes overgeneralizes—does the experience of one Barnes & Noble in Durham really tell us a lot about the relationship between big box bookstores and larger urban/racial equity issues?—and sometimes just leaves things at “it’s complicated,” but on the microlevel there is much to appreciate about the way the book connects various threads that together bind up books.

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