the book wars

Tim Mara, Lamp and book, 1995-6
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By JOHN B. THOMPSON*

Author's preface to the newly edited book

In recent decades, we have undergone a technological revolution as radical and as far-reaching as there has ever been in the long history of the human species. Among other things, this new revolution is transforming the information and communication environment and destroying many sectors that played a decisive role in shaping this environment, before and during most of the twentieth century. All of the traditional media industries – newspapers, radio, television, music, film – were thrown into a whirlwind of change as old analogue technologies were replaced by new technologies based on digital encoding and the transmission of symbolic content.

Many of the media organizations that were key players in the analogue era found themselves threatened by the digital transition: their revenues plummeted and their once-predominant position weakened, while powerful new actors emerged and began to reconfigure the boundaries of our information space. We live today in a world that, in terms of forms and channels of information and communication, is profoundly different from the world that existed just half a century ago.

The book publishing industry is no exception – it too has been hit by the turmoil wrought by the digital revolution. And, in a way, there is more at stake here than in other media sectors: it is not only the oldest of the media industries, it has also played a key role in shaping modern culture, the scientific revolution in early modern Europe. to the vast amount of literary works and forms of knowledge that have become such an important part of our lives and societies today.

What happens, then, when the oldest of our media industries collides with the greatest technological revolution of our time? What happens when a media industry that has been around for over five hundred years and is deeply rooted in our history and culture finds itself confronted, and threatened, by a new set of technologies that are radically different from those that have underpinned its practices? and business models for centuries?

If you were working in the book publishing industry during the first decade of the XNUMXst century, you wouldn't have to look far to find reasons to feel anxious about the future: the music industry was in free fall, the newspaper industry was in decline. a sharp rise in revenue, and some of the big tech companies were getting serious about digitizing books. Why wouldn't the book industry be sucked into the chaos wrought by the digital revolution? No pragmatic administrator or impartial analyst would be optimistic about the book publishing industry's chances of emerging unscathed from its struggle with the digital revolution.

But what form, exactly, would the digital disruption of the book publishing industry take? The sector would undergo an indiscriminate transformation like the music industry, in which physical formats became downloads Digital and major labels, which had controlled the production and distribution of music, suffered a drastic drop in revenue? Would digital books take off and become the vehicle of choice for readers, relegating the paper book to the dustbin of history? Would bookstores disappear and publishers be eliminated as intermediaries by a technological revolution that would allow readers and writers to communicate directly over the internet, freed from the traditional controllers of the book publishing industry?

At the beginning of the third millennium, all these possibilities – and others – were being seriously contemplated, both by top executives in the sector and by the countless observers and consultants who were willing to opine about the future of an industry that seemed on the verge of ruin.

Over the years, this extraordinary clash between the oldest media industry and the formidable technological revolution of our time has slowly taken shape, producing results that few observers had foreseen. It's not that the observers were simply wrong – although in many cases they were, a lot. Its way of analyzing what happens when technologies disorganize traditional sectors was based excessively on the analysis of the technologies themselves and on the belief – usually implicit and rarely examined – that new technologies, due to their intrinsic and advantageous characteristics, would end up prevailing . What was rarely present in these analyzes was the real perception about how the development of new technologies and their adoption, or not, as the case may be, is always embedded in a set of institutions, practices and social preferences, and is always part of a process dynamic social environment in which individuals and organizations seek their own interests and objectives, seeking to improve their positions and outrun others in a competitive and sometimes relentless struggle.

In short, what most observers lacked was a true understanding of the forces that were shaping the specific social space, or “field,” within which these technologies were being developed and exploited. They focused on the technologies themselves, as if they were one deus ex machina that would eliminate everything it found in front of it, without taking into account the complex social processes in which these technologies were inserted and of which they were part. It is clear that the abstraction of social processes greatly facilitated the task of observers: the social world is a chaotic space and it is much easier to predict the future when one ignores the chaos of the present. But that doesn't make predictions any more accurate, and one doesn't better understand technological change by disregarding the social, economic, and political factors that shape the contexts within which technologies exist.

This book starts from the assumption that we can only understand the impact of the digital revolution on an industry like the book – and indeed any industry, media or otherwise – by delving into the chaos of the social world and understanding how technologies are developed. and explored, how they are adopted or ignored by individuals and organizations that are situated in certain contexts, are guided by certain preferences and pursue certain goals.

Technologies never produce effects ex nihilo, but always in relation to individuals and organizations that decide to invest time, energy and resources in them as a way of pursuing their interests and objectives (whatever they may be). The chaos of the social world is not a detour from the path of technology, but the path itself, as it is the interaction between the possibilities of new technologies – that is, what these technologies allow or make possible – and the chaos of the social world that it determines the impact new technologies will have and the extent to which they will disrupt, if at all, existing institutions and practices.

My plunge into the chaotic universe of the publishing industry began two decades ago, when I began to study the structure and transformation of the modern book publishing industry. I spent five years studying academic publishing in the US and UK, followed by another five years of deep immersion in the Anglo-American general interest publishing industry, and I have written two books about these worlds, Books in the Digital Age [Books in the digital age] (about the academic publishing industry) and culture merchants (on publications of general interest).

In both books, I devoted considerable attention to the impact of the digital revolution on these very different sectors of the book publishing industry – as it was a key issue in both sectors of that industry from the mid-1990s onwards, no serious study of the publishing industry has taken place. at that time I could ignore it. However, understanding the impact of the digital revolution was not my only or even main concern in these early studies: my main concern was to understand the fundamental structural characteristics of these sectors – or “fields”, as I called them – and to analyze the dynamics that shaped their evolution over time. over time.

When the digital revolution began to make its presence felt in the book publishing world, it did so by building on a set of institutions, practices and social relationships that already existed and that were structured in certain ways – and, in some cases, disrupting them. Digital technologies and innovations have enabled traditional organizations to perform old tasks in new ways and to perform some new tasks – increase their own efficiency; better serve authors, readers and customers; repackaging its contents; develop new products; and, in countless ways, improve and strengthen your position in the field. But they also allowed new players to enter the field and challenge existing stakeholders by offering new products and services.

The proliferation of new actors and possibilities created a mix of enthusiasm, alarm and fear in the field and generated a profusion of new initiatives, new developments and conflicts, as new competitors sought to establish themselves in a field hitherto controlled by the traditional actors of the industry. editorial. Of course, conflicts and changes in the publishing industry were nothing new – the sector had gone through countless periods of turmoil and drastic changes in the past.

But the turmoil generated by the developments of the digital revolution in the publishing industry was unprecedented, both for its specific characteristics and for the scale of challenges it presented. Suddenly, the very foundations of an industry more than five hundred years old were being called into question as never before. The old book publishing industry was thrust into the limelight with the emergence of sharp conflicts between publishers and new competitors, including powerful new technology companies that saw the world very differently. Skirmishes turned into battles, which took place in public view and which, in some cases, ended up in court. The book wars had begun.

Since books are part of culture, book wars could be seen as culture wars, but they are not the kind of culture wars that we normally refer to when using this expression, which usually refers to social and political conflicts based on values. and divergent and deeply held beliefs, such as those concerning abortion, affirmative action, sexual orientation, religion, morals and family life. These conflicts stem from values ​​and value systems to which many people are deeply attached.

They relate to identities as well as interests, to different perceptions of who we are as individuals and collectivities and what is, and should be, important to us – hence the passion with which these culture wars have been waged so often in the public sphere. . The book wars are a very different type of conflict. They don't stir up the same passions as the culture wars; no one took to the streets or burned books in protest. By culture wars standards, the book wars are decidedly low-key. In fact, “book wars” might seem like a rather dramatic expression to designate a state of affairs that does not involve public manifestations of violence, nor demonstrations or screams in the streets. However, the absence of violent public demonstrations should not lead us to mistakenly think that conflicts are not real or not very important.

On the contrary, the struggles that have erupted in the usually quiet publishing world over the last few decades are very real; they have been fought with a determination and conviction that confirms the fact that, for those involved, these are important battles affecting vital interests in which questions of principle are at stake. At the same time, they are symptomatic of the profound transformation the book industry is undergoing, a transformation that is disrupting the field, questioning established ways of doing things, and forcing traditional actors into conflict with both new competitors and old employees who have discovered new opportunities made available by technological change and seized them, sometimes at the expense of others.

My goal in this book is to examine what really happened when the digital revolution took over the world of book publishing, and what is still happening. Unsurprisingly, this is a complicated story, with many different actors and spinoffs, as traditional organizations sought to defend and advance their positions while large numbers of new actors sought to enter the field or test new ways of creating and disseminating what we have been through. to consider as "the book". Since the book publishing world is itself extremely complex, comprising countless different worlds with their own actors and practices, I have not tried to be comprehensive: I have reduced the complexity and limited the scope, focusing on the Anglo-American publishing universe of general interest – the same universe that was the focus of culture merchants.

By “general interest publishing” I mean that sector of the industry that publishes books, both fiction and non-fiction, aimed at non-specialist readers and sold in bookstores such as Barnes & Noble, Waterstones and other retail outlets, including bookshops. Online like Amazon. By “Anglo-American” general interest publication I mean the English language general interest publication that is based in the United States and the United Kingdom; moreover, for various historical reasons, the US and UK based publishing industries have long played a dominant role in the international field of general interest publishing in English.

In order to understand the impact of the digital revolution on other sectors of the publishing industry, such as academic publishing or the publication of reference works, or on publishing industries that operate in other languages ​​and in other countries, it would be necessary to carry out different research, since the processes and the actors would not be the same. Although my focus is the Anglo-American general interest publishing universe, I have not limited myself to the traditional actors in this field. They are important – there is no doubt about that. But a fundamental element of the disorganization caused by the digital revolution is that it represents a turnaround that opens the door for other actors to enter the field.

Among them are some of the big tech companies, who have their own agendas and their own battles and who have a volume of resources that makes even the largest traditional publishers look small. But there are also countless small actors and entrepreneurs among them located on the periphery of the field or in completely independent spaces, in some cases directly colliding with the editorial field and in other cases surviving in a parallel universe that is connected only indirectly, when he does, to what we can consider the world of the book.

While some of the new players and their initiatives gain ground and become real companies, others fail and disappear – the history of technology is full of inventions that do not work. But when historians write the history of technologies and the companies that developed them, they tend to focus on the successful ones, the technologies and organizations that, in a certain way or in a certain way, transform the world. We read history from the end to the beginning through the lens of inventions and successful companies. We are fascinated by the Googles, Apples, Facebooks and Amazons of life – those exceptional “unicorns” who grew big so quickly that they took on a status almost mythical. What is left out of this process are all the inventions, initiatives and new ideas that, at the time, seemed to be useful, perhaps even great ideas that some people believed deeply in, but which, for one reason or another, did not succeed – all those trite stories of great ideas that failed.

Maybe it wasn't the right time, maybe I ran out of money, or maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all – whatever the reason, the vast majority of new businesses fail. But the stories of new companies that fail are often as telling as the stories of those that succeed. Failures and illusory beginnings reveal a lot about the conditions of success precisely because they highlight what happens when those conditions, or some of them, are absent. And if the vast majority of companies end up in failure, then a narrative that focused only on success stories would be extremely biased at best. Writing the history of technologies focusing only on successes would be as biased as writing the history of wars from the point of view of the victors.

Of course, it would be much easier to write the story of the digital revolution in the publishing industry if we had all the advantages of hindsight, if we could transport ourselves to the year 2030, 2040 or 2050, look back at the publishing industry and ask ourselves how it was transformed. by the digital revolution. We would have a lot of historical data to sift through, and some of the people who experienced the transformation would still be available to talk about it.

It's a lot harder to write that story when you're in the middle of it. What can be said about a revolution that is still so recent that it has barely begun to disrupt the traditional practices of an old and solidly rooted industry, when, surely, there is still so much to happen? How is it possible to speak and write with any degree of certainty about a world that is still in the throes of change, where so much uncertainty still reigns, and where everyone in the industry is still trying to make sense of what is going on around them? In other words, how do you describe a revolution? in media res?

There is no simple answer to this question, and any account we make will be surrounded by restrictions and qualifications. But at least it's easier to try to do this kind of description from the vantage point of 2020 than it would have been to do it in 2010, 2012 or 2015. As we have, in 2020, more than a decade of significant digital book sales, standards have had more time to take hold and have reached a level of accuracy they didn't have when digital books were just starting to take off. Some of the early experiments and some of the more radical digital publishing projects have been tried and tested; some have succeeded and many have failed, and both successes and failures will tell us something about what is viable in this area and what is not.

Furthermore, ten years on, the novelty element has lost some of its intensity, and initial circumstances that may have been influenced by the allure of the new may have given way to patterns that reflect more enduring preferences and tastes. These are all reasons (however insignificant) to think that, although a time machine would have made our task a lot easier, perhaps something useful can be said about a transformation that is still in progress.

It is not only difficult to discern what is most important when writing about an ongoing process; it is also impossible to offer a fully up-to-date description. What I have tried to present here is not so much an observation isolated in time, but a dynamic portrait of a field in motion, as individuals and organizations within that field try to understand and adapt to the changes that are taking place around them - in addition to take advantage of them. To do this properly, you need to focus on some of these individuals and organizations and accompany them as they try to forge a way through the uncertainties, reconstruct the options they faced, the choices they made and the events that happened to them. affected at different times.

But it is only possible to accompany them so far: at some point history has to be interrupted and completed. History is frozen in the act of writing it, and the story that is offered will always refer, necessarily, to a time that precedes the moment in which the story is read. As soon as a text is finished, the world moves on and the painted portrait is outdated: instant obsolescence is the fate that awaits every chronicler of the present. We can only accept this fate and hope that readers have a great sense of timing.

Most of the research on which this book is based took place between 2013 and 2019. During that time, I conducted more than 180 interviews with senior executives and other employees in a variety of US and UK organizations, primarily in New York, London and Silicon Valley – from large general interest publishers to a large number of startups, self-publishing organizations and innovative publishing companies.

* John B. Thompson is professor of sociology at the University of Cambridge. Author, among other books, of Culture merchants: the publishing market in the XNUMXst century (Unesp).

 

Reference


John B. Thompson. The Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in the Publishing World. Translation: Fernando Santos. São Paulo, Unesp, 2021, 566 pages.

 

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