23 April 2012

Don't Forget to Tip

... for this miscellaneous platter of leftover link sausages of especially dubious origin. And handling. And freshness.

  • Over at Forbes, where I just finished reading about the Asian Dawn Movement (or was that in Time? so many popular magazines, so little verifiable content), there's a fascinatingly sophisticated yet ignorant piece on vertical integration in electronic publishing. On the one hand, the article provides a fairly good introduction to the way Chicago-school economics analyzes vertical integration. The ignorance... ah, the ignorance. It's both obvious and subtle, and all in the same passage:

    Taking the same lessons we can apply them to both being a publisher and a retailer. There’s no obviously common skills in there, to do one well you’ve got to be able to spot good literature (or at least literature that people will buy), edit it, encourage writers, shepherd them through the manuscript process and so on. For the other you need to know logistics essentially. So it’s not obvious that being good at one will lead to being good at the other.

    The first ignorant bit here is the tail-wagging-the-dog problem of concentrating on trade fiction as the paradigm for "publishing." It isn't, by any economically respectable measure of any kind; it is, instead, the magician's assistant (and, frankly, not a very attractive or competent one, but that's for another time). The second ignorant bit here is in one qualifier: "good at x." Well, what does that mean? In Chicago school economics, it means "profitable now, as measured against internal and external ROI." It does not consider sustainability; it does not consider asset accumulation as an equally important measure of business success; and, most importantly, it does not consider synergy.

    The third ignorant bit is the amusing one, and thoroughly undermines Mr Worstall's analysis: The assumption that publishers are in fact "good at" "spot[ting] good literature (or at least literature that people will buy), edit[ing] it, encourag[ing] writers, shepherd[ing] them through the manuscript process and so on." That, when one takes a look at what has happened in publishing in the last half-century, one must question the competence of publishing companies at any of these tasks — and most especially the first two. And I'm not necessarily pointing at dreck like John Grisham's or Danielle Steele's, because they at least have the dubious virtue of being what some people will buy in the absence of an alternative; I'm talking about celebrity bios (and children's books and even novels), among other categories, that end up going to remainder less than six months after publication.

  • A piece in Der Spiegel implicitly points out another failure point in Mr Worstall's analysis. In describing one possible future for electronic music downloading, both sides persist in attacking the distributors and ignoring their effect on what actually gets produced in the first place. It's not about which part of the system to attack — there's a subconscious agreement between the purportedly representative musician and the purportedly representative Pirate Party advocate that there are significant problems with the distribution system. It is, instead, the assumption that disintermediation is truly possible... and the corollary that we can "just get rid" of the Industry as we know it and nothing will arise to take its place without radically transforming what is left. That's sort of like assuming that one can just use a chainsaw to separate conjoined twins — and that's a bit much to contemplate even on Monday morning.
  • My friend Larry Solum ponders what it takes to be a "person", an issue with lots of implications for literature in general and writers specifically. Consider, for example, whether one of Saruman's Uruk-hai qualifies as a "person"... and in which kingdom/realm. Consider, too, what "personhood" means to the Bennett family, or indeed to the Borgia family, or — returning to contemporary political discourse — the Sherriff of Nottingham Maricopa County. Then there's the question of whether lawyers ever qualify...