The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas. Columbia University Press. 272pp, $27.50.
We are not lacking for signs that publishing is at a crossroads. Though perhaps obscured by the higher profile implosions of the American auto and finance industries, publishing has had plenty of its own problems. Since October 2008 the world’s largest publisher, otherwise known as Random House, has steadily bled jobs and cut benefits; most notably, in December of 2008 it eliminated two entire divisions while conducting a sweeping reorganization.
Random House has hardly been alone among publishers cutting and retrenching: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, MacMillan, and Simon & Schuster are all shedding jobs, and university and independent presses are getting into the act. On the other side of the industry, bookstores reflect economic turmoil: Borders continues to be a dead man walking, Barnes & Noble is closing stores, and independent bookstores, which by some counts have lost half their ranks since the early 1990s, also remain troubled.
However, note the word I used. Publishing is at a crossroads, not a precipice: all is not gloom and doom. Amazon beat analysts’ forecasts for the first quarter of 2009, posting a strong 9 percent profit. This showing was quite possibly helped by the debut of Amazon’s second generation ebook reader, and just as Amazon has jumped on the electronic book bandwagon, so have media giants like Sony, Samsung, and Apple. Publishers too have not been shy to look toward the new medium; by some counts ebook sales jumped by 55 percent in 2008. Firms like Penguin and Random House have ramped up their ebook efforts, and the Michigan University Press recently made headlines when it became the first university press to place its scholarly publishing on a digital footing.
|Searching for full texts in Google.
And there is even more change afoot. Google just settled its court case over digitizing the contents of the world’s research libraries, leaving many to conclude that there is now no obstacle to it eventually creating a universal library on the Web. (Lawsuits continue, however, and a growing number of doubters are questioning the wisdom of leaving Google the benevolent master of the world’s books.) If such a library ever comes to exist, there might be strong demand for it, as the NEA’s 2008 Reading on the Rise report makes sweeping claims for a great change in the number and demographics of Americans who read. Beyond the Western world, enormous developing nations like China and India are showing unprecedented taste for novels.
In the face of such historic change, publishers, authors, and journalists have agonized very publically in an ongoing discussion that is some parts wisdom, some parts folly. This makes it a doubly appropriate time for Ted Striphas’s slim, no-nonsense book, The Late Age of Print. It is a lucid, calm addition to the conversation, a book that unites many threads of discussion and begins to offer something like a master-narrative. Starting in the mid 19th century and continuing right up to the present day, Striphas casts a wide net, yet his analysis rarely feels superficial. He uses five essay-like chapters and a sizable introduction and conclusion to trace out the histories of trends that are now defining the future of the industry. Throughout, he returns again and again to books as the quintessential capitalistic good, showing how they—and the industry devoted to making and selling them—have evolved alongside capitalism itself, and continue to evolve as both move beyond their so-called late phase.
The first thing is to dispense with simplistic notions of reading and books, the later of which Striphas calls “deceptively straightforward.” We’re encouraged to believe they’ve been the same since Gutenberg first inked his press, but Striphas believes otherwise: “the only constant is the technology’s relentless metamorphosis,” he writes. So with reading. Sounding reminiscent of Pierre Baynard, whose How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read deconstructed the many biases and methodologies inherent in the simple act of reading, Striphas writes that “reading is an intricate, multifarious activity . . . [and] ‘read’ and ‘reading’ are among the most complex words in the English language.”
The point of this is to upset our notion of books, reading, bookstores, and publishers as timeless entities that have remained much the same for decades. In contradiction such conventional wisdom Striphas excels, as he is skilled at getting beyond the point/counterpoint that impoverishes many of the current debates over books. He takes a more pragmatic approach, and although that causes certain troubles of its own, it does allow Striphas to examine old questions with fresh eyes.
Thus, while discussing the leap from printed to electronic reading, Striphas trots out Sven Birkerts—the closest thing we have to a go-to curmudgeon for print cheerleaders—in an oft-cited essay from his collection The Gutenberg Elegies:
Nearly weightless though it is, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not—it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave. . . . The former occupies a position in space. . . . The latter, once dematerialized, digitized back into storage, into memory, cannot be said to exist in quite the same way.
Striphas’s reply is sterling: he notes Birkert’s pleasure that he composed Gutenberg on an IBM Selectric typewriter (the gleefully anachronistic Birkerts happily raising his editor’s ire in the process), notes that Birkerts “sees his decision as an act of defiance,” and then dives right down into the meat of his argument:
Yet it is precisely here—in the confidence Birkerts feels in slowly, methodically, t-y-p-i-n-g o-u-t w-o-r-d-s on his IBM Selectric—that his claims about presence, social power, and media begin to get all jammed up. . . . Only a profound act of forgetting could sustain Birkerts’s claims about the transparency of typewriting. His typewriter, after all, is not only mechanical but electrical (hence, Selectric), and as such it’s a technology engaged in an abstract process of rendering.
This is more than clever one-upmanship. Striphas goes on to note that IBM itself originally advertised the Selectric as a way to be faster; thus, by imagining it as a way of slowing down, Birkerts reveals how caught up he is in the context of the computer culture he supposedly stands above. Striphas then cites Heidegger, who claims that all mechanical writing is a distancing from handwriting, and that in fact only handwriting can escape the kind of “abstraction” that Birkerts is rebelling against.
The point of all this is not that Striphas wants to take down pundits or advocate paper over screen. Leave those arguments to other people. Taking the stance of a cool-headed cultural critic, Striphas shows his primary interest to be what the arguments that each side make tell us about the culture of books as a whole. In the case of Birkerts and his Selectric, his conclusion is provocative: the general presumption that the point of ebooks is to mimic exactly the experience of reading a printed book is “a historically produced and learned relation, not an inherent one.” For anyone who recalls that radio was once predicted to kill the movie industry, Striphas’s caution against expecting ebooks to be just like books, only better, sounds sage.
In addition to considering how we read, The Late Age of Print is very interested in understanding the immense superstructure that has emerged to deliver those books from the author’s pen (or typewriter, or screen) to the reader’s face. Striphas locates the seeds of modern bookselling in the first quarter of the 20th century, when the American economy was consolidating its transformation from agricultural to industrial and the titans of the industry were just starting up. He notes that as publishing was faced with the Great Depression, publishers were advised to advocate bookshelf-construction in new homes, so that people would feel pressured to fill them up with books. Apparently this worked rather well: middle class consumers not only began buying books to put on their shelves but also fake books purchased by the yard. (And suddenly it makes sense why the world’s largest retailer of books—which is now ramping up efforts to sell ebooks—is pushing a device with an ever-larger capacity to store those ebooks.)
|The title page from Bernays’ 1928 book, Propaganda.
Striphas also notes that it was long before Internet piracy or even the Xerox machine that publishers were concerned with people reading books they hadn’t bought. In 1931, Edward L. Bernays, head of the Book Publishers Research Institute, was contracted by Knopf, Harcourt Brace, Harper & Brothers, and various other major firms to hold a contest to “look for a pejorative word for the book borrower, the wretch who raised hell with book sales and deprived authors of earned royalties.” Out of a field of rather awful coinages (including “borrocole,” libracide,” and “blifter”) emerged the winning term, “book sneak,” although it failed to catch on, much less confer shame on readers who might borrow a book from a friend.
Nonetheless the tone was set: Striphas regards this contest as an early, misguided salvo in a war publishers have waged ever since, and with increasing success: to control what readers do with a book once it’s been purchased. Striphas duly trots out the 1976 Copyright Act, which set the legal basis for anti-photocopying and -reproduction measures. He also notes that as late as 1984, publishers, with the support of the Authors Guild, fought to establish national legislation over when the lending of a book was legal or not, a law that would have entailed remuneration for lending. (Though such a law sounds farfetched at first, Striphas reports that nations including Britain, Australia, West Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden had all established such a right at the time.)
Striphas takes an entire chapter to consider the case of the book that set a new standard for publisher control over a book’s content: Harry Potter. He notes the extreme security placed over the contents of the latter Potter books, which included GPS satellite tracking of all trucks hauling them, thorough inspection of the quality of shredder used to destroy stray pages from the production process, and a number of lawsuits leveled at those who managed to discover the contents ahead of publication. He also documents how Scholastic has been unusually aggressive in legally prosecuting anyone who seems to be making a derivative Potter work. Striphas’s concluding point is that although ebook and Internet technologies broaden the potential for pirating, they also offer publishers unprecedented opportunities to control how reading is conducted. The battle that has raged since 1931 will most likely take on novel and unforeseen contours in the digital age.
Twinned to publishers’ grasp over what is done with books post-sale is booksellers’ increasing control over inventory and pricing. In this respect, Amazon emerges as something approaching the apogee of modern bookselling, a nearly almighty behemoth that is stomping all competition by virtue of its incredible capacity and efficiency. Striphas’s numbers on Amazon reveal a simply incredible operation, what must surely be the biggest bookstore in the history of reading: 20 million customers by 2000, stock encompassing one-fifth of all books in print. An Amazon warehouse is revealed to be an eerie, lonely place of pickers guided by blinking lights and bar scanners. “Any given volume,” Striphas reports, “remains in one of Amazon’s warehouses for an average of just eighteen days, in contrast to the typical 161 days” of a traditional store. Likewise, whereas the industry average returns rate is between 30 and 40 percent, Amazon only returns about 4 percent of its books to publishers unsold.
The purpose of all this information is twofold. First of all, this is what books have become in a post-industrial, late capitalist society. Publishing has developed from a jerry-rigged, poorly integrated industry to one that spreads information with incredible efficiency and managed to mastermind the simultaneous global laydown of 12 million Potter books, selling at a rate of 50,000 per hour in Barnes & Noble alone. Secondly, it is Striphas’s contention that, as the representative capitalistic good, books can teach us much about where our economy will be headed tomorrow. This contention, although not as well-argued as some of Striphas’s points (why not a simpler, most basic good like milk?) nonetheless carries enough weight to make one ponder the questions it raises.
There is a lot to enjoy in The Late Age of Print. It doesn’t lack for probing analysis and well-reasoned insight, although one can’t help but feel that Striphas’s case would be strengthened in places were he not so eager to play the devil’s advocate. From corporate chain stores to Oprah Winfrey to Chinese book pirates, Striphas seems to relish finding ways to stick up for those typically maligned by elite circles of book culture. Certainly he is right to say that those who would build a nation of readers have much to learn from how Oprah got millions to read, or that America couldn’t have developed an infrastructure to mass-market books to a post-war middle class without big box retailers. It is true, as Striphas says, that these facts are too often discounted by the pious. There would almost certainly be many fewer books and readers were it not for Oprah and Barnes.
However, what’s missing is a consideration of the values underlying the late age of print to complement Striphas’s well-honed analysis of the age’s infrastructure. This is where Striphas’s pragmatic distance as a cultural critic shows its weakness. When discussing Oprah, for instance, he too-quickly brushes away concerns that she is advocating reading by forgoing the very things that make literature literary. Likewise, it’s true that Barnes & Noble has brought books to communities that would otherwise not have had them (most small publishers I’ve spoken to are thrilled to sell in Barnes); but this is not the same as proving that the values corporate bookselling has brought into the industry have been for the good. Yes, more people are reading, and that is good. But what price has been paid in ceding control of bookselling to enormous corporations? While Striphas rightly sticks up for corporate bookstores as businesses that can be as integral to communities as independent stores, nowhere does he mention the routine selling of valuable table space in corporate bookstores, nor the diminished interest in handselling in corporate chain stores, nor the fact that most new books are lucky to last as much as a month on Barnes’ bookshelves before they are sent back to be pulped.
I don’t say this to imply that Striphas’s interests are not with book culture (he describes himself in the book as a dedicated bibliophile, complete with shelves containing far more books than he could ever read); rather, I mean to state that the picture of late capitalist book culture offered in The Late Age of Print, rich as it is, remains incomplete. At least one major question—how can high literary art and a mass audience coexist?—remains wholly unaddressed. From Striphas we can learn how the late age of print functions in a schematic sense, but what are the values and the morality that it thrives within?
This may be to say that The Late Age of Print does not have all the answers, but it does bristle with more than its share of provocative analysis, as well as offer a trove of information and statistics. The book’s achievement is far from small, and few could walk away from this book without their understanding of publishing and bookselling broadened and deepened. Those who hope to understand the industry at its crossroads should read The Late Age of Print, and hope that more books like it are written.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Reading and Publishing in Print’s Late Age: An Interview with Ted Striphas 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...
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