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What Is the Business of Literature?

Courtesy of John Ritter.

[clock] 41-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2013
As technology disrupts the business model of traditional publishers, the industry must imagine new ways of capturing the value of a book.

One of the remarkable deficits in contemporary accounts of both book publishing and Internet business is sociohistorical awareness. That it should be so with the Internet is unsurprising, prone as so many popular tech commentators are to triumphalist or progressive teleologies—one technology replacing another, one company killing another, IBM’s dominance unquestioned, then Microsoft unquestionable, followed in turn by AOL, MySpace, Facebook, etc. The implacability of Moore’s law is extrapolated from processing power to the social order. Similarly, most current discussions of the book economy rarely reach back earlier than the Golden Era of American publishing in the 1950s, the British one dating back perhaps a little farther, to the 1930s.

While many histories of the book incorporate serious empirical research—Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is an epic example—three have arguably done the best job in applying that rigor to contemporary publishing: J. B. Thompson’s The Merchants of Culture; Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print, a series of case studies with particular focus on retail; and Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists, which was almost purely about the retail side. Most other accounts of the contemporary business of literature are autobiographical, hagiographic, or histories of literature, avoiding the business and economics of it all. So why study a business that is sui generis, that isn’t even really a business—that, like America, is exceptional? 

It is the Exceptionalists, the ones who claim the mantle of defender of the book, who undermine the book by claiming that it is a world unto itself, in need of special protection, that its fragility in the face of the behemoth or barbarian du jour (Amazon, the Internet, comic books, the novel, the printing press, illiteracy, literacy, to name but a handful of purported sources of cultural decline) requires insulation, like the skinny kid kept away from the schoolyard and its bullies. Who are these Exceptionalists? I think we’ve all read them, so I’ll restrict my strawhorses and offer as an example Sven Birkerts, who, in his introduction to the reissue of The Gutenberg Elegies, writes that “fiction is under assault by nonfiction”—this despite all the data that demonstrates fiction is disproportionately flourishing in the digital format. More problematic, though, is his characterization of the book as “counter-technology.” One may counterpose the book to many things, but technology shouldn’t be one of them. The book is not counter-technology, it is technology, it is the apotheosis of technology—just like the wheel or the chair.

Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.” Current accounts of publishing have the industry about as imperiled as the book, and the presumption is that if we lose publishing, we lose good books. Yet what we have right now is a system that produces great literature in spite of itself. We have come to believe that the taste-making, genius-discerning editorial activity attached to the selection, packaging, printing, and distribution of books to retailers is central to the value of literature. We believe it protects us from the shameful indulgence of too many books by insisting on a rigorous, abstemious diet. Critiques of publishing often focus on its corporate or capitalist nature, arguing that the profit motive retards decisions that would otherwise be based on pure literary merit. But capitalism per se and the market forces that both animate and pre-suppose it aren’t the problem. They are, in fact, what brought literature and the author into being. 

The story of the book as technology—the book as revolutionary, disruptive technology—must be told honestly, without triumphalism or defeatism, without hope, without despair, just as Isak Dinesen admonished us to write. A great challenge in producing such an account, however, is the “availability heuristic.” This is a model of cognitive psychology first proposed in 1973 by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, which describes how humans make decisions based on information that is relatively easy to recall. The things that we easily recall are things that happen frequently, and so making decisions based on the samples we have at hand would seem to make sense. The sun rises every day; we infer from this that the sun rises every day. A turkey is fed every day; it infers that it will be fed every day—until, suddenly, it isn’t. Heuristics are great until they aren’t. A person sees several news stories of cats leaping out of tall trees and surviving, so he believes that cats must be robust to long falls. These kinds of news reports are far more prevalent than ones where a cat falls to its death, which is the more common event. But since it is less reported on, it is not readily available to a person for him to make judgments. 

Publishing is tremendously susceptible to the availability heuristic for two significant reasons. First, prior to recent innovations, manuscripts not published were unavailable for analysis. So the universe of knowledge we have about books, literature, and publishing excludes that universe of books that were never published. It also mostly excludes those books that were commercial or critical failures. One doesn’t see books that don’t sell, not on store bookshelves or in friends’ houses, not on Top Ten lists, not on Twitter, not in the Times (London, New York, Irish), and so on.

There are books in the data set now, such as Leaves of Grass, that were self-published, and others, such as Moby-Dick, that were ignored in their time but reappeared through good luck. The novelist Paula Fox published, vanished, published again. Her reappearance is a triumph of publishing. But what about all the unrediscovered Paula Foxes? Or, for that matter, what about all the books I published at Soft Skull in the 2000s that had been rejected by ten, twenty, thirty, sixty publishers? And what about the manuscripts I rejected at Soft Skull that I would subsequently see published by prestigious publishers large and small? Is this proof of the effectiveness of the existing system for the production and dissemination of literature? It’s quite clear that while we do our best, our output is as much proof of the awfulness of the system as it is of its strengths. Much like Patty Hearst, we cannot bear to consider the alternative.

When one speaks of “the system” in relation to the business of literature, traditionally this has been code for capitalism. More recent critiques of the system have focused on the series of mergers that began in the 1960s and begat, over thirty years, the configuration of publishing that has subsisted for the last twenty years: the Big Six. Their ownership was initially driven by scale, then by a fad for synergy. (In the end, this was mostly a euphemism for empire-building by managers, typically at the expense of shareholders, a phenomenon that has more to do with human nature than capitalism.) Today, only Simon & Schuster remains in a structure (CBS Corporation) conceived of as an entertainment-synergy hybrid. The remaining synergies having been unwound and replaced by a logic of scale, now at a multinational level—German, French, and British-owned, as is frequently and sardonically noted, though it has never been clear why the German, French, or British should be any more contemptuous of literary prerogatives than Americans. In fact, there is little evidence any of these processes has made it any more or less likely for “quality” to be published. What is published is published, and from that pool we choose to celebrate what we celebrate, and we say the system produced these celebrated works because, well, they’re available. 


So what was the business of literature, pre-book? There were words, for sure, and there was culture. There were books and there were writers. They were paid, in fact. Very well. But few writers of today would likely forgo the life of the twenty-first-century writer for that of a thirteenth-century writer.

Moreover, the role of the writer before Gutenberg was simply to transcribe.  The writer’s purpose wasn’t to reimagine language—not gainsaying the existence of outliers such as Virgil. Writers were not thought leaders, conjurors of other worlds, conjoiners of emotion and aesthetic. Writers were the machines through which the word of God was reproduced and disseminated. Or, at most, the knowledge that humans had accumulated thus far—the myths, the legends, what is now called “folk wisdom.” They captured the store of human knowledge to date. The writer was the printing press. At most, it could be said that the writer was a representative of her generation because, quite literally, the writer faithfully reproduced the stories and beliefs of her time. Such were the trade-offs: a job for life, doing nothing but writing, but you were, in the words of the academics who study this period, a “trained scribal laborer.” A calligrapher.

The advent of the book, in the sense of bound typeset pages, was an economic disaster for the writer. It was John Henry avant la lettre, the manual laborer supplanted by the machine (albeit without steam for another 400 years). It was not at all clear at the time that the printing press would transform religion (by eliminating the Church’s monopoly on reproducing and interpreting the Bible), on art (by allowing innovation in the depiction of three-dimensional objects to spread across the world; in other words, the Renaissance), and on science. In this last instance, the printing press essentially made science possible by allowing experiments to be replicated through the introduction of falsification, the ability to prove something wrong. The effects took more than a hundred years to begin playing out (nor have they finished playing out).

If the demand for writers had waned, wouldn’t the supply likewise atrophy? One of the ways in which an economic analysis of literature can be useful is to see where it fails to explain behavior. As humans do, when it comes to knowledge, culture, and incipient personal expression, we rose to the occasion. As printing presses flourished, around them clustered scholars, poets, philosophers. The supply of writers in no way withered. The sixteenth-century printers’ shops became magnets for people with something to say, as would the eighteenth-century coffeehouses that followed. 

A variety of copyright-like regimes sprouted throughout Europe, the first purpose of which was censorship—to thwart the “greate enormities and abuses” of “dyvers contentyous and disorderlye persons professinge the arte or mystere of pryntinge or selling of books,” as England’s Star Chamber pronounced. The second purpose was to achieve the commercial equivalent of copyright for a cartel of businesses agreeing not to compete with one another, so as to increase their prices when it came to reproducing writing. For much of the seventeenth century, licensed printers earned a return on their investment by mutually agreeing not to pirate one another’s books. Then, in 1710, with the Statute of Queen Anne, England’s Parliament arrogated unto itself the right to regulate the cartel. Copyright is a legislatively granted, limited right to monopolize the reproduction of a given sequence of words (and later, images and sounds, and nowadays, in some countries, numbers and movements). It was born from corporate self-interest, then was regulated as government sought to balance the prerogatives of both the weak and powerful in order to maintain social equilibrium. The statute recognized that a balance needed to be struck around the commercial needs of the printer and the needs of society to minimize exploitative monopolies, as did the US Constitution at the end of the eighteenth century. In both instances, the quid pro quo was very clear. The title of the 1710 statute was “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by Vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or Purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned” and the copyright provision in the US Constitution makes explicit that it exists “to promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

To this day, copyright does not address certain challenges: Is there demand by readers for the writer’s unique arrangements of words? Moreover, the writer may have a monopoly on the arrangements, but does she have the means to actually reproduce them? While framed in terms of the individual creating the words, clearly the purpose of copyright is suited to the entity that can reproduce the words, who can make and market a salable thing. What copyright ensures is that there is a potential return on investment for the printer or publisher. It provides a guaranty to the author not that she will be published, not that she will make money, only that she can be published, that there might be publishers who might publish her work. Indeed, the UK law expressly vests the right in either the author or “purchaser,” which refers to the printer; when the US copyright clause was written in 1787, only the author was mentioned. Why was it not vested in the author from the very beginning? Martha Woodmansee, a scholar of literature and law who has written extensively on the invention of authorship, points out that even Alexander Pope, the first major beneficiary of this new business model and the first person to earn a living from the sale of books instead of patronage, continued to see himself as a conduit rather than a genius. Woodmansee writes: 

In a familiar passage from his “Essay on Criticism” (1711), Pope states that the function of the poet is “not to invent novelties but to express afresh truths hallowed by tradition”: 

True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft’ was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.

Pope’s view of himself was still as a transmitter of culture, not its originator. To originate, we invented genius. 

To truly consummate the transformation of writer from scribe to God, and to provide a cultural as well as economic rationale for copyright, we had to invent the Author. Woodmansee offers a comprehensive account of how German Romantic aesthetic theory provided the philosophical underpinnings for authorship; Mark Rose, in his Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1993), does the same for English-language writing and publishing. Rose emphasizes how the construct of authorship was necessary to maintaining copyright—”what finally underwrites the [copyright] system, then, is our conviction about ourselves as individuals.” But the reverse is also true—the economic value to be derived from exploiting the copyright monopoly warrants the construction of authorship so as to capture it.

By the early nineteenth century, the two key elements of literature’s business model were the business (copyright) and the literature (genius). Innovation continued apace. Advances in printing itself (bigger, faster, more colors), along with allied manufacturing and advances in distribution (faster, higher, further), meant that books were able to penetrate deep into society, woven into the fabric of the everyday. In 1930, in publishers’ relentless efforts to find demand for their supply, they retained the ur-genius of public relations, the “father of spin,” Edward Bernays. As Ted Striphas describes it in his excellent The Late Age of Print (2009), quoting Larry Tye:

“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respected public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

It was a sign, almost one hundred years ago, of the book beginning to achieve what most technology will never accomplish—the ability to disappear. Walk into the reading room of the New York Public Library and what do you see? Laptops. Books, like the tables and chairs, have receded into the backdrop of human life. This has nothing to do with the assertion that the book is counter-technology, but that the book is a technology so pervasive, so frequently iterated and innovated upon, so worn and polished by centuries of human contact, that it reaches the status of Nature.

What is particularly crucial to understand is that books were not dragged kicking and screaming into each new area of capitalism. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism, they virtually began it. They are part of the fuel that drives it. The growth of the chain model in books offered the twentieth-century public the opportunity to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore, utterly belying the reality, as Striphas outlines in The Late Age of Print—by quoting Rachel Bowlby—that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket:

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.

There are other examples of significant innovation being driven by the publishers—Penguin founder Allen Lane’s 1937 paperback vending machine for better commuter distribution being among the most charming—but the point is that books aren’t sitting grumpily in economy class on the airplane to the future. They’re in the cockpit.


By the twentieth century, books, now cheaper and more widely available, had had social and political effects far beyond what the publishing business itself could harness and exploit. Books spread such ideas as the equitable distribution of social, cultural, and economic capital—precisely the resources required to read and write a book. American publishing in the 1950s consisted too often of Ivy League white men publishing one another—Mad Men in tweed. But in the twentieth century, the G.I. Bill, the expansion in education (in general, but college education in particular), the Civil Rights movement, the decolonization in Africa and Asia, feminism: all were advanced by the power of literature and dramatically increased the number of human beings who had read enough books to (a) want to read more, and (b) be able to imagine writing one themselves.

For the most part, however, the technical and business-model innovations in literature were one-sided, far better at supplying the means to read a book than to write one. The 1970s and 1980s brought supply-chain management. Books flowed from printers to retailers with ever less friction. Wholesalers quickly replenished their inventories of successful books because they could share information with publishers and printers more rapidly and comprehensively; in turn, retailers could rely on publishers and wholesalers to resupply them when the books were “flying off the shelves.” 

But this also drove hubris. The more seemingly efficient the systems, the more publishers were willing to drive them to achieve greater economies of scale. Yes, inventory management was designed to tell you what you wanted less of and what you needed more of, but mostly it was used for the latter. This was by no means unique to books. The world has also become better at allowing people to buy a desk than to make a desk. In fact, from medieval to modern times, it has become easier to buy food than to make it; to buy clothes than to make them; to obtain legal advice than to know the law; to receive medical care than to actually stitch a wound. 

Then things got extreme. The number of titles published had grown significantly since the advent of the printing press, but it was about to get far more dramatic. This dates not to 2007, when Amazon introduces the Kindle, nor to 1993, with the invention of the first popular web browser. If you look to see where the really significant growth in title count begins, you go back to the late 1980s—to July 1985, when a company called Aldus, naming itself after the great Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, releases PageMaker. You put PageMaker on a Mac, put the Mac in a new chain of photocopy shops called Kinkos, you rent them for six bucks an hour, and you’ve got Publishing 2.0. Exhibit A: Soft Skull Press, a publisher founded in a Kinkos in 1993, and which I ran from 2001 to 2009. Further exhibits: the hundreds of thousands of zines, chapbooks, and books produced since, many of which begat small media businesses, magazines, and book publishers. The number of U.S. titles created by traditional print publishers, whether of the indie variety like Soft Skull or the large corporate publishers, increased from about 80,000 per year in the 1980s to 328,259 in 2010.

Abundance, it turns out, is a much bigger problem to solve than scarcity, or as Clay Shirky frames it: “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.” We learned to handle the first phase of abundance in books: we invented copyright, we built a viable business to manufacture and distribute them, we invented the author, so as to simplify choice. We don’t need to read all words, just the words of these ten important authors. This was humanity’s first stab at artificial scarcity, artful enough that we forgot it was a contrivance. Vonnegut noticed the contours of this Industrial Revolution phase of the culture business earlier and more cogently than most—and it is its end I am now making an account of. Speaking in Bluebeard through the protagonist, painter Rabo Karabekian, he writes:

I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.
I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives—maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically, to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn’t afraid of anything and so on … [A] scheme like that doesn’t make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world’s champions.
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.”
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning. “Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”

The economics of the analog reproduction of culture lead inexorably to the exhibitionist. It is far better, economically, to have the fewest number of authors, the fewest titles. Ideally, there would be one publisher with one title—let’s call it the Bible. Regardless of the fact that there would be no competition for reading material, the Bible would be maximally profitable simply because in analog manufacturing, marginal cost always declines (that is, the cost to print each additional book falls). So if the price stays the same, the more you print and sell, the more profitable you are. The most profitable print-publishing business of all would be in a society where everyone reads the same book.

The PostScript output of PageMaker (later to become the more familiar “PDF”) undermined the Industrial Revolution model, initiating the digital, post-Industrial phase of abundance, even though, at the time, it appeared to be reinforcing the Industrial model by reforming it. Independent presses could make digital files and send them to offset printers. They still had to deal with the classic economies of scale of analog printing, but they didn’t have to deal with the complex, inaccessible, and arcane world of traditional typesetting. The number of publishers began to increase, as did the number of titles, as the creation of a title (by publisher, of course, not by author) became significantly cheaper and began to undo ever so slightly Vonnegut’s otherwise accurate analysis of the business of culture. The genius opera singer needed systems to distribute her genius as broadly as possible, and the copyright system combined with analog reproduction made that easy. And it was getting easier for the non-mainstream, too, be that the lover of the avant-garde or the early music or the campy or the local, or the familial (the recording of your grandmother singing opera). The non-mainstream was abetted by the growth of the superstore model of bookstores. The traditional independent bookstore stocked 5,000–10,000 titles, and so could only handle the new and backlist output of a limited number of publishers. But a Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore could have 50,000 or 60,000 or even 70,000 titles! Indeed, it needed those non-mainstream offerings to fill its shelves. Ironically, while indie, alternative, and literary presses frequently decried the predations of the superstores, the superstores were critical to their existence. 

Such is the digital transformation of the business of literature. And it predates the equivalent transformation of the music industry by a good fifteen years. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that one could create a digital master that was as high quality as a record label could, that is, until the music industry had the equivalent of true desktop publishing. However, the MP3, the means for digital music consumption, significantly predates the Kindle, the first viable mode for digital consumption of long-form text. 

Under a digital publishing model, while the costs of creating the text don’t vary, the model for reproducing the text for mass consumption is entirely different. The marginal cost is zero: It costs as little to produce the billionth copy as it costs to produce the second copy.  As abundant as analog reproduction made books and other cultural artifacts, digital reproduction makes them all the more so—not because it changes the resources required to create, but because it changes what is required to reproduce. Copyright, though nominally instituted to encourage the creation of a work, has as its only logical purpose the encouragement of the reproduction of the work. What we see again and again in our society is that people do not need to be encouraged to create, only that businesses want methods by which they can minimize the risk of investing in the creation.

Richard Stallman has argued that the central bargain in copyright is that the public gives up a right they couldn’t actually use. Until recently, it was more expensive to make a copy of a book than it was to simply buy the book. So when society agreed to grant authors and publishers the monopoly, it was a good bargain. Now that the public can make copies of something, they are giving up a right they could in fact enjoy—or, rather, the public has proceeded to make copies anyway, regardless of the previous bargain, a kind of jury nullification. As with any law that loses the consent of the governed because it no longer reflects the logic of society, the law is not overturned, just ignored. It recedes into the past, like laws forbidding pigs to enter saloons or alcohol sold on Sundays or adultery or interracial marriage.

What, therefore, is the business of literature to be if the reading public is willy-nilly making copies of everything?

The primary method of twentieth-century copying—of making, distributing, and allocating any given object—is barely a couple hundred years old. There is good reason to believe it may prove to be an anomalous period in human history not just for books and music but for a wide range of human output. Consider 3D printing, currently at the hobbyist phase of development, much like the computer in the early 1970s. It is a device for printing three-dimensional things, which once meant extruded plastic prototypes of things (toothbrushes, hammers, mechanical parts) but now increasingly means the actual thing. In one respect, it’s pure science fiction. In another, it’s merely a return to pre-Industrial Revolution society, where chairs, horseshoes, and clothes were all made within the village. 

In both respects, this phenomenon, a shift from mass (re)production to custom production has been prefigured by the book, by print-on-demand technology. The first 3D printer was the laser printer. Again, we see the book not as the antithesis of technology, but as apotheosis—in the avant-garde of how to apply advances in technology to produce new business models. Want another prefiguring from books? Try crowdfunding, its best-known practitioner being the company Kickstarter, which is effectively identical to the eighteenth-century subscription model whereby a book was advertised but only printed once a minimum number of purchasers had paid.

Is there a compelling reason to doubt that once again the book and the business of literature will be at the heart of disruption, as much perpetrator as victim? To be sure, the book won’t be the only reproducible cultural artifact, not the only mode for storytelling, just as the chair long ago ceased to be the only device for sitting  (the couch, the barstool, the swing, the exercise ball). But can we see how it continues to have cultural salience and how it might point to its own future as well as broader changes in culture and society? 


Previously I suggested that with the kinds of friends the book has, it needs no enemies, but of course it does have enemies. It has always had enemies, prior even to its existence in the familiar format of the present.

Several years ago, I met with gaming guru Kevin Slavin, a man who could be assumed to be an enemy, one who might ridicule the stasis of the book. At the end of our coffee, he fell quiet for a second and then said that what books have in common with games is that they reward iteration. The more you play, the more you read, the better you get at it, the more fun you have. The way I have integrated that into my own mode of thinking is: In games you get to wonder what door to walk through; in books you get to wonder what the character was thinking, walking through that door. You get to imagine the color of the door, the material, the kind of doorknob, whether it was warm or cold to the opener’s touch.

The lack of video, the lack of audio, the lack of ways to change the forking outcomes of plot (what is rather crudely referred to as “interactivity”) is a feature of literature, not a bug. And, as it turns out, books are interactive. They’re recipes for the imagination. Conversely, video is restrictive—it tells you what things look like, what they sound like.

Books withstood the disruption of new modes of storytelling—the cinema, the TV set. And books have been the disruptor themselves many times, disrupting the Roman Church and upending the French aristocracy, the medieval medical establishment, then the nineteenth-century medical establishment. So the assumption at one extreme end of the Silicon Valley cosmology, that long-form text-only narrative is ripe for disruption (witness Tim O’Reilly’s skepticism in his Charlie Rose talk, see the continual framing of the book as akin to the horse-drawn carriage, see any number of start-ups offering multimedia platforms designed to replace books), is borderline foolish.

Furthermore, when technologists arrived to embed video in digital text and proclaim the end of print, it was their own rules they were breaking. Any experienced entrepreneur or venture capitalist will warn you not to be a solution in search of a problem. As the Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen would ask: What is the job to be done? Many of the companies that entered the publishing industry in recent years, it turned out, were not listening to their own gurus. They were solutions in search of a problem. The book, in Christensen’s terminology, was already “good enough.” It couldn’t tweet, as the New York Times best-selling children’s book It’s a Book crowed, and that was fine. The desk I’m sitting at doesn’t tweet either. The “job to be done” is to deliver a very large set of words.

However, this is not to say that other jobs to be done won’t arise: delivering hundreds of very large sets of words into a single object that permits them to be read, annotated, stored, delivering those sets of words more cheaply, or instantly, as happens with the digital delivery of books. And it furthermore is not to say that the job of making, distributing, and allocating those books need only be performed by an agent-publisher-wholesaler-retailer-supply chain. In this regard, the disruption forecast by technologists is eminently reasonable.


 What, then, is the biggest job to be done by publishers? There is marketing and discovery, yes, but even though editors are not miracle makers who make their best decisions in a vacuum, the editor is a source of great value in the economics of literature and will therefore remain as valuable, if not more so, than before, even if less privileged.

The social thinker Clay Shirky has a rule named after him: “Institutions will try to preserve the problems to which they are a solution.” The past five to ten years have witnessed a great degree of anxiety from the editorial class in book, magazine, and newspaper publishing (relatively less so from literary-journal publishing, it should be noted). Some of the anxiety is economic and well-founded: Editors have been laid off. Some of it, though, has to do with a perceived loss of relevance, a loss of prestige, and the response has been a series of paeans to the valuable qualities of editorial judgment. Look at all the crap out there, says the editor, you need me to fix it, sort it, curate it.

One value of the editor is clear: making writing better. At its most mechanical and least prestigious, that’s the proofreader; at the intermediate phase of prestige, that’s the copyeditor, achieving consistency, continuity, grammatical accuracy, ideally dialing into the author’s deep style and maximizing it; and there’s the acquiring editor, at the highest level of prestige, who may or may not engage in developmental editing, may or may not have junior editors, may or may not be a junior editor herself, who makes product decisions, what to publish, how to optimize it as a product, and in concert with many, many, many others, gestate and birth and raise it in the world.

Ironically, the first two categories of activity, while the least prestigious, have a very clear value, and will likely serve as means of employment for decades to come as more social and economic actors (consumer-goods companies, white-collar professionals, advocacy groups, cultural institutions) become de facto publishers, producing ever more sophisticated publications online and offline, designed to deliver their message (buy it, donate to it, believe us, hire me, visit us, vote for me). Most probably they will seek individuals who can accomplish the first two activities, along with some of the third activity, and they will be called content strategists. This is especially clear in the world of magazines and newspapers. Companies once let magazines and newspapers take care of aggregating the audience they wanted to reach, and paid them to advertise in front of that audience. They now realize it is far more effective to hire the kinds of people who work for those magazines to deliver the message directly. 

Editors are also needed to produce books, of course. But beyond their editorial skills, what has kept editors in demand is relationship skills. The skill that is commonly associated with the pinnacle of editorial talent—picking the right book—is, frankly, nonsense. Success, in terms of picking things, is a hybrid of luck with the non-self-evident and money with the self-evident, and even the self-evident often requires luck. This is not to say that people don’t work hard on those books that have gotten lucky, but all the retrospective justifications for why, say, The Da Vinci Code, or the Harry Potter series succeeded are trumped by what really was a matter of luck and network effects. Books, like most entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly high and extremely infrequent success. The advent of self-publishing has rendered this ever more visible. The vast majority of the 28 million books currently in print made no money at all, and every few years one author will make more than $200 million: first Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling, now E. L. James. It is remarkable watching people fall over themselves seeking an explanation for their success—there is no explanation, no more than explaining why a particular person won the $550 million PowerBall lottery in late November of last year.

Publishing has no particular ability to discern what is good or not, what is successful or not. This is true not just at the level of predicting commercial success, but also at predicting critical success. I already discussed great writers who almost vanished, books that slipped through the corporate-publisher cracks, and then between the indie cracks. If one could predict a Pulitzer Prize winner, why did Bellevue Literary Press end up with Paul Harding’s Tinkers, or Soft Skull end up with Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, which was a finalist that year too? If great editors could predict National Book Award winners, why did McPherson & Co. publish Lords of Misrule, or if editors could predict PEN Award winners, why did Red Lemonade publish Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen?

This is not a knock on publishing. There’s no evidence that stockbrokers can pick good stocks, or touts good horses. In the latter case, that’s why any honest financial advisor will tell you to invest in indexed funds, financial instruments that mirror a broad market—no one knows how to beat the market. When you do, it is simply luck, combined with an ability to tell a good ex post facto story about why you were right and the propensity in the human nature to believe in the predictive power of a good story. (Yes, another heuristic.) 

And that, as it so happens, points precisely to what publishing can do, to what the business of literature is. It is not about making art; it is about making culture, which is a conversation about what is art, what is true, what is good. What is the business model for the making of culture? What are the implications or the individuals implicated in all that—for the citizens of literature in all their guises, in the writing, in the reading, in the editing, in the teaching, in the hustling, in the gossiping?

The existing product-centric model (as opposed to the culture-centric model) looks like this: Imagine Lorem Ipsum, a hypothetical book project. It consists solely of placeholder text that a designer uses—the typographic equivalent of Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three. It’s text (originally from Virgil), unintelligible, the very definition of gibberish, yet a publisher would be hard pressed to sell a book of it for much less than $10. Why? A designer needs to lay out the text—which doesn’t have to be copyedited, necessarily, but does need to be proofread. Lorem Ipsum needs a cover design. It needs jacket copy. It needs to be sent out to other writers for blurbs. It gets a page in the publisher’s catalog; the sales reps skim it; the reps waste fifteen seconds with the bookstore buyers enduring their quizzical glances; the reps shrug their shoulders. Advanced reading copies are printed, mailed, passed around by editor, agent, and publicists over lunches. The book is printed, shipped, shelved. It sits for six to eight weeks until our little game is uncovered by the stores, at which point it is re-cartoned and shipped to a warehouse, then sent to be pulped.

From a publishing standpoint, one can sell Pride & Prejudice more cheaply than gibberish because people already know Jane Austen. At minimum, it won’t be returned and pulped at the same rate. So why is the margin attributable to the ideas in a book so low, at times in fact negative, whereby the total revenue earned by the book is less than the cost of producing and distributing it? Not because our society doesn’t value literature, as so many of us complain, but because it takes so long to discover whether or not you’ll actually like the book. Publishers offer the world a massive discount on what should be the true mark-up on manufacturing and distribution in order to persuade us to try something out, to gamble. To get us to risk wasting our time, they try to minimize the risk that we might be wasting our money. Perversely, publishers are unable to capture the upside. If it turns out we are not wasting our time and do get a wonderful experience, we get it for $1–$2 an hour, an order of magnitude cheaper than film, theatre, live music, recorded music, dance, a bar, a restaurant, a museum. We do so because a book is a much more unknown quantity, less susceptible to summary.

How might publishers capture that value? That transformative, transporting, transfixing experience, a value better compared to a trip to another country, to a university seminar, to a lover—yet obtained for the price of a T-shirt? One theory from the creative industries has been to educate the public that content is worth something, and therefore they should pay for it. That notion is everywhere, in trailers before movie screenings and in the pages of magazines, whether they talk about themselves or the book business. As charitable as Americans are, and as willing as Europeans are to subsidize, relying on the notion that one deserves to get paid will fail every time. Imagine that as a dating strategy: I deserve to be desired by you. Apple, Prada, the NFL, the purveyors of widely desired goods and experiences do not “educate” the public that they deserve to be paid. The public simply offers up its money, gratefully. The public will not do so for a basic delivery of a straightforward long-form text experience. If we cannot educate or guilt-trip our way to solvency, then what are we to do?

It has been an irony of recent decades that as capitalist product development shifted to an ever more customized, bespoke mode of production, using more sophisticated manufacturing systems, more flexible supply chains, and more attentive customer feedback systems, the book supply chain became ever more uniform and bland. As the pressure to have the physical book be the primary conduit through which literature reaches its audience begins to fade, the pressure to produce them as cheaply as possible also diminishes. Simultaneously the character of the retailers engaged in the business of retailing literature shifts away from ones where price and breadth of selection are central toward ones that function as a hybrid of culture hub, concierge, and gallery—that is, toward venues optimized to sell higher-end editions. More broadly it means being able to sell at a wide variety of price points: $15 trade paperback, $35 elegant hardcover, $75 slipcase, $250 with the bloody thumbprint of the author on the title page, and so forth. Moreover they are better placed to collaborate with other cultural institutions and lifestyle purveyors, with restaurants, with bars, with museums, with arthouse cinemas, creating thematic connections and cultural nexuses. 

We see instances of this throughout the business, and are even starting to see cases where traditional publishing entities are formalizing that process. Several larger US publishers now offer speakers bureau services, which, for poets and for management consultants alike, are far more remunerative than the book. (Even though the book often undergirds the value of the talk, it is not the vehicle through which the actual revenue is conveyed.) O’Reilly, the computer-book publisher, earns more from the conferences it orchestrates than from selling books, although its intellectual reputation and network of connections as a publisher positioned it to create the conferences. The MFA industrial complex is a multi-billion dollar business that typically has been a profit center for universities: The tuition of aspiring poets purchases electron microscopes for physicists. Likewise, Faber in the UK has been running Faber Academy for five years now, offering creative writing classes taught by its authors. All universities do is hire publishers’ authors to conduct the classes, so why not the publishers themselves? Literary and writers’ conferences charge aspiring writers thousands to attend, and in addition to publishers’ authors, who else attends as bait for attendees? Editors. We’ve seen Penguin deepen their merchandising; if Marc Jacobs can sell books, why can’t publishers in turn partner with designers to create shoes inspired by particular characters? Publishers could partner with wine wholesalers to offer wine clubs, with caterers providing literary-themed events, with boutique travel agencies to offer tours. 

Selling a book, print or digital, turns out to be far from the only way to generate revenue from all the remarkable cultural activity that goes into the creation and dissemination of literature and ideas. Recall again all the schmoozing, learning, practice, hustling, reading upon reading upon reading that goes into the various editorial components of publishing; the pattern recognition; the storytelling that editors do, that sales reps do, that publicists do, that the bookstore staff does. Recall the average feted poet who makes more money at a weekend visiting-writer gig than her royalties are likely to earn her in an entire year. You begin to realize that the business of literature is the business of making culture, not just the business of manufacturing bound books. This, in turn, means that the increased difficulty of selling bound books in a traditional manner (and the lower price point in selling digital books) is not going to be a significant challenge over the long run, except to free the business of literature from the limitations imposed when one is producing things rather than ideas and stories. Book culture is not print fetishism; it is the swirl and gurgle of idea and style in the expression of stories and concepts—the conversation, polemic, narrative force that goes on within and between texts, within and between people as they write, revise, discover, and respond to those texts. That swirl and gurgle does happen to have a home for print fetishism, as it has a home for digital fetishism. This is what literature has always been. Being yoked to the Industrial Revolution’s machines for analog reproduction, accompanied by an arbitrary process for selecting what should be reproduced, will prove to be an anomaly in the history of literature, useful as that phase was for the democratization of access to reading. The publisher is an orchestrator in the world of book culture, not a machine for sorting manuscripts and supplying a small number of those manuscripts in improved and bound form to a large number of people via a retailer-based supply chain best suited for the distribution of cornflakes, not ideas. 

A business born out of the invention of mechanical reproduction transforms and transcends the very circumstances of its inception, and again has the potential to continue to transform and transcend itself—to disrupt industries like education, to drive the movie industry, to empower the gaming industry. Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is. By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book. Let’s restore to publishing its true reputation—not as a hedge against the future, not as a bulwark against radical change, not as a citadel amidst the barbarians, but rather as the future at hand, as the radical agent of change, as the barbarian. The business of literature is blowing shit up. 

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