Ted Striphas is an assistant professor of media and cultural studies and director of film and media at Indiana University. His book, The Late Age of Print, has just been published by Columbia University Press.
Scott Esposito: Your overarching argument is that books—their production, consumption, and dissemination—have been developing alongside capitalism, and in fact are very emblematic of capitalism. And just as we’re in what’s known as “late capitalism” we’re also in the “late age of print.” Could you briefly explain what you mean by the late age of print?
Ted Striphas: “The late age of print” is a term I borrow and adapt from Jay David Bolter, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to describe this particular—indeed, peculiar—moment in the history of print in which we’re now living. It helps me to name a paradox. On the one hand, books and other printed materials exist—and for some, are becoming lost—in a media landscape more densely crowded than ever. On the other hand, printed books now enjoy an extraordinary prevalence and degree of accessibility, owing to the recent rise of big-box bookstores, Internet bookselling, televisual book promotion, and the like. How could it be that books are dying and thriving all at once? This is the overarching question that the late age of print—both the idea and the book—addresses.
“The late age of print” also is a rejoinder of sorts to those who claim that we’re now living in a digital age and that, for better or for worse, print is consequently dead. The history of communication technologies tends to be written in terms of supercession, and usually it goes something like this. In the beginning was the word, which is to say, the human voice. Its predominance is challenged once writing, and eventually printing, appear on the scene. Print eventually gives way to first generation (i.e., analog) electronic media such as radio and television, whose pre-eminence eventually succumbs to networked personal computers and other digital media.
The problem with this type of history lies in the one-dimensional—antagonistic—relationship that successive generations of communication technologies supposedly share with one another. Where’s the complexity? For decades books and electronic media have been vying for people’s attention. That much is undeniable. But a singular focus such as this obscures the many ways in which electronic media have augmented both the presence and authority of books in society. Consider for example the bar codes appearing on most books today. These symbols work in conjunction with digital communication technologies to ensure that the book you want is available where and when you want it.
“The late age of print” is the phrase I use to underscore the complex relationships that books share with other media. It leads us to acknowledge the maturity of books as a medium and to deny claims that they are anachronisms today.
SE: In the book you describe something known as “The Cheney Report.” This was a report published in 1932 urging greater efficiency and integration in publishing. Basically it chastised publishers for being sloppy and said they could do better if they got their act together. Even though the report didn’t have much immediate impact, you argue that in the long run, with the introduction of things like standard sizing and pricing, more efficient warehousing, and the big one, ISBNs and EANs, that the industry has more or less reformed itself as Cheney said it should. A lot of people now view publishing in a similar way as the 1930s—an underperforming industry that has a fundamentally sound product and could be doing a lot better than it is. What would you put in a new Cheney report for the 21st century?
TS: What a wonderful question! Indeed, today’s book industry needs a comprehensive “Cheney Report” of its own. I suppose that The Late Age of Print aspires to be that type of resource, albeit in a modest way. The “Cheney Report” was 150,000 words, after all.
Cheney’s brilliance lay in the way in which he resisted popular wisdom about how to jumpstart the ailing book industry of the 1930s. Nearly everyone at the time was saying, “more advertising!” Cheney didn’t exactly reject this view, but he forcefully insisted that advertising wouldn’t be enough. What was lacking in the book industry, he claimed, was adequate intelligence about who buys which books, and why. He also suggested that the book industry pay much more attention to improving its behind-the-scenes technical infrastructure. In a sense he was asking the industry to listen better, and to find a more productive balance between competition and cooperation.
These days the book industry is quite logistically savvy, and in significant respects it resembles the one that Cheney imagined almost 80 years ago. Many new challenges have emerged in the intervening years, however, and only some can be addressed by looking to the “Cheney Report” for inspiration. One thing Cheney clearly tells us is that advertising will never be a cure-all for the book industry’s woes. It is at best only a partial solution—often a haphazard one at that.
To my mind, Cheney’s insight about listening endures above all else. But the book industry of today needs to do more than just figure out who buys which books, and why. It needs to become significantly more intelligent about how, where, why, and with whom people engage books. This is, incidentally, one of the reasons for the success of Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah has been adept at recommending strategies for how people might fit book reading into their busy schedules. She doesn’t perceive a lack of interest in books to be a moral or intellectual failing as much as a technical problem—one that requires relatively straightforward, “everyday” solutions. When her followers complained about lacking sufficient time to read, she suggested that they ask their loved ones for alone-time—as opposed to material things—at the holidays. The book industry needs to engage in exactly this type of listening, plus it needs to be much more proactive in terms of educating people about how to creatively align book reading with everyday routines.
SE: Throughout Late Age you elaborate the idea that the book is in many ways the quintessential capitalist good. It’s gone from being a somewhat uncommon item that’s sold to a certain subset of consumers to a mass marketed good that is aimed right at the heart of capitalist society, i.e. the middle class. Ebooks fit very much into your vision of books as the representative capitalist good. In fact you write that “ebooks don’t suggest a waning of consumer capitalism. . . . They point to its intensification or, rather, to the emergence of new practices of controlled capitalism.” Could you discuss this idea a little bit?
TS: The historical trajectory I trace in The Late Age of Print is “from consumerism to control,” which is the book’s subtitle. I begin by exploring how books provided a kind of alibi, or moral license, for the growth of a conspicuously consuming middle-class in the United States. People often forget that the system of consumer credit that sustains this group today (until the recent financial crisis, at any rate) was virtually unknown a century ago. Guided by the Protestant ethic, most ordinary Americans used to consider consumer debt to be a fool’s paradise. This type of thinking posed a problem for the industrialists of the early 20th century. They realized that capitalism would continue to thrive and expand if and only if they could open up markets beyond the wealthy minority to whom they’d generally catered. Books served this purpose unusually well, in that they tended to be looked upon as vehicles for moral, aesthetic, and intellectual uplift. That is, books could be marketed to the adherents of the Protestant ethic as productive investments, rather than as frivolous things. This belief also helped the burgeoning middle-class to justify its use of consumer credit to purchase books (along with sewing machines and the like), which helped pave the way for more liberal practices of consumption later in the 20th century.
The eventual result is the emergence of a true mass market for books in and beyond the United States. But this in turn created all sorts of anxieties among publishers, and to a somewhat lesser extent authors, particularly over the ways in which this mass of books could circulate beyond their control. At first the worry was that people were passing on their books too frequently to friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances. Later, the book industry fretted over the duplication of books using photocopiers. Today, the bête noire is the digital scanner. In all cases, the overarching concern—and perhaps the erroneous assumption—is that the uncontrolled circulation of books and book content leads inevitably to lost sales.
Given this history, it’s unsurprising—if ultimately disappointing—to me to see the book industry now scrambling to find ways to micromanage the circulation of books in everyday life. The paradigmatic case for printed books is Harry Potter. Each new installment of the series brought with it ever more stringent legal guidelines and technological control mechanisms. These were aimed at regulating precisely when, where, how, and among whom the books would move up until their release dates. Many commercial ebook systems, such as the Amazon Kindle, employ digital rights management and other technological protection measures to achieve a similar end. The broader result of all this is the emergence of a variant of capitalism that is deeply suspicious of, and at times even hostile to, the consuming public, whose relationship to books is now monitored and regimented to an unprecedented degree.
SE: Speaking of the Kindle, you discuss the idea that ebooks are evolving our idea of copyright—from a concept of copyright that more or less says “you bought it, you can do whatever you want with it,” to an idea that your rights over what you buy will be managed even after you buy it (built-in digital rights management would be an example). Do you think that ultimately copyright will evolve toward greater restrictions along these lines, or do you think a backlash along the lines of what we’re seeing with Creative Commons licenses and open source will change that?
TS: My inclination here is to agree with Lawrence Lessig, who, in his recent book Remix, suggests that we’re presently moving in the direction of a “hybrid economy.” By this he means that a more restrictive (i.e., copyright- and DRM-intensive) mode of cultural production is likely to exist side-by-side, or perhaps in some combination, with more sharing-oriented systems such as Creative Commons, open source, and the like. If indeed this assessment is true—and I think Lessig offers compelling evidence to suggest that it is—then it seems to me that two challenges will present themselves.
The first will be to develop strategies so that the latter doesn’t merely become the appendage of, or “free labor” for, the former. I’m thinking of the photo sharing site Flikr, for instance. Some budding photographers who’ve posted their images there have, as a gesture of goodwill, offered them under a Creative Commons license, only to discover those images being used for commercial purposes because they chose the wrong type of Creative Commons license! There have been fewer instances of this type of disrespectful behavior in the book world, but clearly the temptation will be there as more material is made publicly available on- and offline through various open systems.
The second and related challenge, then, will be to preserve choice in a hybrid economy—and thus to keep the hybrid economy hybrid, as it were. The Late Age of Print will soon be offered for free online under a Creative Commons, Attribution 3.0 BY-SA-NC license. The printed edition will continue to be available for purchase, and perhaps one day Amazon.com will offer a digitally rights-managed Kindle edition. The tragedy for me would be if only one of these versions of the book were made available—the latter one, in particular. Like other industries, the book industry needs to learn that its clients will expect more and more choice as the years go by, and that they will find always ways to revolt if their choices narrow or become artificially restricted. As Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point shows, disrespectful behavior begets disrespectful behavior.
SE: In your discussion of Amazon you argue that it has made the business of bookselling more of a science than anyone has previously been able to. That is, its success is basically due to being able to sell more books more quickly and efficiently than anyone in history. You cite some incredible stats: books sit on Amazon’s shelves an average of 18 days, compared to 161 in a traditional bookstore. Amazon turns over some books as much as 150 times per year, compared to 4 times a year for traditional stores. And, in fact, recent stats indicate that Amazon is growing its booksales while traditional bookstores are flat or in decline. First, what is the downside to Amazon’s model? What do they do poorly? And secondly, what can traditional bookstores do to compete with does Amazon’s incredible efficiency and reach?
TS: The major downside of the Amazon model is what goes on behind the scenes, out of site and essentially out of mind. Most of us interface with the company through its website, where we’re greeted with an extraordinary range of books and other consumer goods. But what do we really know about Amazon.com, beyond its attractive website?
Indeed, many of us forget that the website isn’t just a portal through which we enter the Amazon store. It’s also a conduit through which Amazon quietly enters our everyday lives to engage in intelligence gathering. Amazon knows more about which books we’re interested in and have purchased than just about any bookseller around. This occurs as a result of its sophisticated client tracking capabilities, which transform our browsing around the Amazon website into an opportunity for data mining. The problem here isn’t surveillance per se. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy Amazon’s personalized recommendations, which are the result of my own and others’ computer-aggregated browsing and buying habits. The problem lies with the asymmetry of this relationship. There’s little possibility for opting out of any or all of Amazon’s surveillance practices, much less of finding out what the company thinks it knows about us—erroneously or otherwise. Its data gathering and retention is all the more worrisome in a political climate in which, despite whatever thaw we’ve seen under the Obama administration, the USA PATRIOT Act remains the law of the land.
Another downside is the labor practices that Amazon must engage in to supply books and other goods as efficiently as it does. I document these issues in some detail in The Late Age of Print, so I won’t delve into too many specifics here. Suffice it to say that Amazon has quite stringent performance expectations for its warehouse workers in terms of item storage and retrieval, packaging, and more. It’s also been quite aggressive about staving off their unionization. In these and other ways, Amazon.com doesn’t at all resemble the image of the genteel bookstore that most of us would conjure when we hear uttered the word, bookstore. For that matter, it doesn’t much resemble a Borders or a Barnes & Noble, either. Amazon is a bookseller stripped down to the bare bones.
To be blunt about it, traditional bookstores cannot compete with Amazon.com unless they’re prepared to abandon the mantle of the “traditional” bookstore—by which I mean, a retail outlet where something more than an economic calculus holds sway. Nevertheless, I would suggest that they make more of an issue of Amazon’s data policies, while doing their best to ensure their own client confidentiality. Traditional bookstores also might take on more of an educative function as well, along the lines of what I mentioned above in discussing the success of Oprah’s Book Club. Finally, traditional bookstores must recognize that they cannot simply rest on tradition, and that more and more people have come to expect both off- and online bookselling experiences. What this means is that, where possible, they’ll need to invest in digital infrastructures that allow their customers to interact with the store and with one another wherever they may happen to be on the network. IndieBound is an important, if still somewhat limited, step in the right direction.
SE: You’ve mentioned Oprah a couple of times in this interview, and indeed in Late Age you devote a chapter to Oprah’s Book Club. Therein, you advance what I think is an interesting argument: the book club’s success was far from pre-ordained and in fact rested on Oprah’s ability to make people who previously did not read much (or in some cases at all) enthusiastic about reading. Certainly this is exactly what a lot of people concerned with reading want, and you say that there’s a lot to be learned from Oprah. However, you also note that Oprah’s method doesn’t necessarily promote a book for its aesthetic or literary value but for its ability to be vital to the lives of its readers. Some people won’t like this message, and they’ll be of the opinion that literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers, or that this will water down literature as art and reading as something special and unique. What’s your response?
TS: The belief that “literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers” is short-sighted in any number of ways. In a crudely economic sense, it’s completely self-defeating for authors and publishers. If the book industry is indeed under-performing, shouldn’t it be doing everything in its power to court any and all would-be readers, instead of freezing some—and perhaps many—of them out? That type of exclusive attitude is a pathway to one thing and to one thing only: irrelevance.
Another concern I have with this view is that it is short-sighted historically. People often forget that “pure aesthetics”—by which I mean aesthetics for their own sake, or aesthetics divorced from the immediate realities of daily life—is largely an invention of the 18th or 19th century. For most of human history (at least in the West), what made good art good was its relevance, utility, or connection to people’s everyday realities. The idea that a book’s beauty is inversely proportional to its usefulness forgets two essential facts: first, there is more than one way in which to relate to art; and second, the definition of art is neither essential nor trans-historical.
Finally, it seems to me that a “literature doesn’t need those kinds of readers” attitude is short-sighted with respect to the future. Just because a person may learn to engage with books in one particular way doesn’t mean that she or he will engage with books that way for all time. I used to chew on my books as a toddler, but do I continue to do so today? Absolutely not! This example is pretty glib (and kind of gross, admittedly), but it’s roughly analogous to one of the more interesting features of Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah often follows easier titles with more challenging ones. So, for example, Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible was followed by a “breeze” (Oprah’s word) of a book, Elizabeth Berg’s Open House. There are many more examples like this in The Late Age of Print. What the broader pattern suggests is that Oprah sees reading as a trajectory to challenge, rather than a challenge in itself. And this to me is a profoundly respectful way in which to welcome people into the world of books instead of turning them away at the door.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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