08 March 2011

A Book By Any Other Name...

... is not merely a "book." One should remember that a book is a package for content. Here are a few examples that lead, rather inexorably, to my Prescription for Publishing™:

Where am I going with this? Antitrust — and the lack of enforcement thereof — as a primary cause of current distortions and dislocations for a critical aspect of the First Amendment. The problem is not the concept of commercial publishing; it is the implementation of commercial publishing, and in particular the highlight-reel-goals-only orientation of conglomerates. The problem isn't that the industry is "too big" (if anything, publishing as an industry segment is too small, but I won't bore you with the math... this time, anyway); it is that the individual actors are "too big to fail," and therefore desperately engage in inefficient overoptimistic delay externalities that push their failures into the future while making them more probable and more damaging when they do occur. Here are a few examples:

  • Borders. Overexpansion on the Kmart model, followed by store management on the Kmart model, led to the Kmart result a decade later: A bankruptcy filing. Further, the within-store diversity at Borders has been getting steadily narrower since the mid-1990s, and faster than at B&N... meaning that when one in-store line's sales failed to meet expectations, Borders wasn't in a position to exploit alternatives by already stocking them.

    This is high-school-level ecology, guys.

  • PGW. The focus on fast turnaround, dependent upon high-velocity cashflow to service relatively high debt payments supporting expansion, ran into the brick wall of 9/11 paralysis. Once again, there was no diversity in funding or cash flows, so the short-term interruption of cash flows resulted in refinancing of debt, several times, at ever-less-favorable terms. It then took only a small push in a neglected sector to topple the entire house of cards. The executives who developed the failed plan, however, did just fine.

    This is also high-school-level ecology, guys: The overspecialized predator and Malthus's Theorem.

  • AOL's acquisition of Time-Warner. AOL had lots of "cash" in the form of inflated market valuation; Time-Warner was cashflow-deficient, thanks to a couple of decades of internal corporate raiding and increasing reliance on multimedia/print media forced synergies (as opposed to the health/management of either sector). How'd that work out, anyway? Well, the book publishing arm was sold to a French defense conglomerate's publishing subsidiary...

    This is basic college chemistry. Try looking up chemical kinetics.

  • HarperCollins is an example waiting to happen, due largely to incompatible corporate structures and internal expectations. In the long run, the book-publishing segments of MordorNewscorp are going to suffer by comparison with the multimedia and periodical-publishing segments, because the comparisons are from incompatible systems. Thus far, it has been held together by SauronRupert Murdoch's personal force — but he's not going to live forever, even in a bad science-fiction novel that might get turned into a short-lived series on Fox (in a non-arms-length transaction that really, really screws all of the creative people involved).

    Basic cellular biology here, guys. That high-energy reaction that looks so attractive in the test tube doesn't seem so great when it has either an activation energy or side reactions that damage the rest of the cell... or inhibits another, necessary reaction by changing ion concentrations.

The burden is not on science to demonstrate how it applies to other system; the burden is on the other systems to demonstrate, in an internally consistent manner, how they can continue to violate scientific principles in the long run. And as velocity increases, the "long run" has a nearer and nearer horizon; just look at the mix of securities-market actors now versus 1948 for an example...

The best argument against "too big to fail" being imported to First Amendment activities, though, is in a relatively obscure lecture-turned-into-an-article on thermodynamics and the "cost" of Maxwell's Daemon by Leo Szilard. See Leo Szilard, On the Decrease of Entropy in a Thermodynamic System by the Intervention of Intelligent Beings, 53 Zeitschrift für Physik 840 (1929), translated and reprinted in 9 Behavioral Sci. 301 (1964). Szilard demonstrates that, assuming that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is valid (and we have yet to encounter, describe, or replicate an internally consistent system in the physical or biological world that violates the current understanding of it), Maxwell's Daemon has a nonzero energy/entropy cost for his intervention and cherry-picking of the high-energy particles. That implication, the very act of concentrating on those bestsellers has a negative long-term effect on the system... and implies that the Daemon will later have fewer high-energy particles (bestsellers) to cherry-pick, requiring a greater investment of energy by the Daemon; thus, we're into something that should look a lot more familiar — Carnot-cycle engines, like the internal combustion engine under the hood of your car (or, for that matter, the external-combustion Diesel engine in a bus). The key point is that to keep these engines running, they require constant inputs of fuel; constant extraction of considerable waste products and heat; and lots and lots of maintenance and lubrication. Further, they really aren't all that efficient, as plugging a few numbers in on that web page will demonstrate. But they work, and they're the foundation for so much of the rest of civilization that we have to forgive a little bit of inefficiency in one place to have efficiency elsewhere.

Thus, my Prescription for Publishing™ is increased diversity in all respects: Increased diversity of forms (if not necessarily formats!), of distribution systems, of selection systems, of actual works being published — for the very simple reason that we can't know in advance what will be a bestseller; just compare the ultimate profitability of John Kennedy O'Toole's most-prominent book to roughly contemporaneous (in publishing terms, anyway) overhyped bombs like Thomas Wolfe's 1998 stinkeroo. To use another sport analogy, every highlight-reel goal by [insert name of striker here] is supported by both ten other players on his own team and at least one mistake-in-20-20-hindsight by the opposition... and building an entire team out of strikers with proven highlight-reel quality doesn't work. Neither does it work for publishing, but that's what the conglomerates expect with idiocy like HarperCollins' attempts to overcapture library use of e-books.