21 October 2014

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

Life and other responsibilities intervened for the last couple of weeks, so I'm afraid you've had to go elsewhere for snark on publishing. But what follows here isn't snark: It's a serious attempt to deal with creeping idiocy, set off by — as is far from unusual — vast overgeneralizations appearing at Salon. To put things very bluntly, both "sides" in the debate are overgeneralizing by treating publishing as a single industry with a single set of characteristics.

The first hint that this is a problem should be the "debaters" in that article itself. Mr Spillman edits Tin House, a self-described literary magazine based in Portland (the real one... if "real" is the right word for anything in that city). Mr Konrath is is a longtime author who made his name in book-length commercial category fiction and left when (not solely because) he was squeezed by conglomerate-publishing practices during the first decade of this century. Those descriptions should do more than hint that they're not talking about the same industry: They are, instead, talking about different industries that happen to use similar distribution channels... and have been improperly conglomerated at a pre-purchaser stage in the distribution process.

Perhaps an example from another, unrelated industry will help illustrate this. Consider, for the moment, the structures of the American fresh fruit and winemaking industries. We tend to lump them together as "agriculture" or "food" or some such, but they are entirely non-comparable in their approaches, their markets, and even the perceived valuation of their products. One emphasizes the shortest possible time from hanging-on-the-plant to table as a good thing; the other, not so much. As a corollary, one of them emphasizes a constant turnover of fresh product and spoilage as competing aspects of managing product availability and price; the other, again, not so much. Conversely, one of them virtually never brands or reveals the distinct origin of its merchandise, submitting entirely to the branding (if any) applied at the consumer-distribution point, while the other revels in branding and origin designation that is far more intrusive than anything even imaginable to the lowly peach. I could go on, but I won't; the point is that these disparate industries are lumped together into "agriculture."

Very few even marginally educated commentators on agriculture, however, would dream of applying the same company- or product-valuation rubrics to these two parts of the agriculture industry, while doing so with publishing isn't just endemic — it's the default. All of those attacks on (and defenses of) Simon & Schuster (which appears to have reached an undisclosed resolution with Amazon that just might breach its author contracts, but because it's being treated as semiconfidential we can't determine that yet) and its "competitors" like Hachette ignore that the majority of S&S's output — and certainly its most profitable product lines — is virtually never sold through general brick-and-mortar stores in the first place... or even Amazon. That's not to say that the deal with Amazon won't influence those other product lines; it's to say that it won't determine them, or change the internal way those product lines are put together.

There are thirteen distinct publishing industries, and the principle error is in treating them together when they aren't. Admittedly, this is also an error that the publishing conglomerates themselves make... as evidenced by the way that Penguin USA was divided up, with Pearson retaining the lower-volume-lower-risk-higher-unit-profit segments that fit best with its dominance there outside the US and Bertelsmann acquiring the higher-volume-higher-risk-lower-unit-profit segments that fit best with its dominance there outside the US. Indeed, that's part of my point: That Amazon is a disruptive influence that has both good and bad aspects... and that overemphasizing one while neglecting the other, or making mistaken claims that the balance among good, bad, and irrelevant or indeterminate is the same in commercial category fiction as in serious nonacademic nonfiction, let alone in textbooks and nonprofessional references, is little more than imposing Baron Rothschild's process on Dole bananas, or vice versa.

In short, you didn't advance the debate, guys. Get over it and at least talk about the same thing. Just because the inventory system can be massaged to treat a case of Chateau Lafitte the same way as a box of peaches (or, more to the point, a case of Boone's Farm Strawberry Wine the same way as a box of strawberries) doesn't mean that one can draw accurate conclusions about damned near anything relating to production of that inventory from the inventory system. Unfortunately, commentators on "publishing" (and managers at various stages in "publishing") forget this all too readily.