Industry News: Does this country need a cultural policy?
If you really think about it, the writing for the Random House-Penguin merger probably dried about the same time the Department of Justice found Apple and five of the big six guilty of collusion in pushing the agency model for e-book sales. After all, if the publishers can’t legally band together to fight Amazon, they can achieve a similar result by buying each other.
As of the merger, the Big Six officially becomes the Big Five. Industry insiders say it could be the Big Three before you blink too many more times. A number of forces, most of them well-documented here, have tightened the economic vice on publishing. The industry is still facing its own perfect storm of e-publishing, an economic downturn, and the emergence of Amazon as the alpha dog in the book distribution business. Given Amazon’s passage into publishing, it’s not hyperbole to say that the business model we currently see in publishing is endangered.
Against this backdrop, former LA Times arts and culture writer Scott Timberg recently wrote in Slate that it might be time for this country to adopt a cultural policy to help protect the written word and other forms of artistic expression. After all, Timberg argues, we have trade policy to help protect our industry, so a cultural policy might be in order.
Germany, he says, has a “thriving book business–with many independent book stores and a rich mix of publishers–because the government forbids” most pricing discounts. Timberg points out that our big publishers are typically owned by foreign entities, so cultural protection may be necessary to prevent its erosion from outside. And their protection may be necessary to assure the industry survives.
But while Timberg seems to favor the creation of a trade policy, he also sews the very seeds to argue against it. While the biggest publisher are owned oversees, a healthy swath of competitors–in Timberg’s words, “lean, mean presses with focused missions–Graywolf, Seven Stories, Milkweed, New Directions–could do OK.” And the biggest competitor of all, Amazon, is owned and operated in Washington state.
Instead of the disintegration of publishing, we may see a re-ordering. In fact, we are seeing it now. Not all of it is promising. If you’re in your fifties and you don’t have a huge retirement nest egg built up and you work at Random House or Penguin, you’re probably losing sleep right now. The DOJ should take a hard look at Amazon, which owns as much as three-quarters of the e-book business and is a major retailer of hard copy books, as well as an emerging publisher. Although the actions of Apple and the publishers certainly appears to be collusion, the Amazon threat is real. And Amazon has been known to dictate business terms when it feels it dominates the supply chain.
And, finally, German doesn’t have a First Amendment. The Bavarian government, for instance, has only recently allowed publication of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s book. To allow the government into a position of picking and choosing would set up a potential conflict between the power to pick, and the requirement to allow free expression.
Finally, five companies in New York are not all the options to publish. It’s arguable that they are the victim of their own business decisions. Government protection would impede their evolution from a model that’s increasingly threatened to a more sustainable approach. And if some of them don’t make it, the void would be filled by other leaner, hungrier publishers with sustainable business models.
In many ways, publishing is more flexible and robust now than ever. And that will only increase as the blending of e-readers, tablets, and smart phones accelerates. In a world where e-books become dominant–and that world is coming quickly–an author can control the entire supply chain. Amazon’s dominance may give way to the next big thing. After all, ten years ago, who’d had thought Blockbuster would be a relic? (You know, Blockbuster–the place you rented movies back in the olden days.)
No one seems primed to develop a cultural policy at this time–and one could argue that a culture that generates 50 Shades of Gray, Toddlers in Tieras, and Lady Gaga and her meat dress doesn’t need a lot of protection.
But the cost of being wrong on this count is a big one.
What do you think?