Saturday, April 19, 2014

Suppl Reading: Andre Schiffrin "Words and Money" (2010)

Words and Money is a slim volume written by a legendary editor and publisher, Andre Schiffrin, who died last December.  You could say that he was something of a hero for cultivating critical/independent works and authors (e.g. Sartre, Gunter Grass, Studs Terkel, Foucault, Chomsky, Simone de Beauvoir, Matt Groening, Art Spiegelman, and the guy who wrote Wisconsin Death Trap [see previous link]). In his later career (1990 on) he founded a not-for-profit, alternative, publishing house: The New Press.

Schiffrin is mentioned in the Finkelstein/McCleery chapter (p.124) in their discussion of media mergers and the subsequent intensified pressures for higher profits and sales on all subordinate publishing divisions (as opposed to a model in which bestsellers allowed a diversity of less lucrative books to be offered). He’d agree with them that the state may need to intervene increasingly to “promote and protect the reading of books” (132). Schiffrin’s basic argument is that the profit-driven model under corporate consolidation in publishing, newspapers, and bookselling is crushing crucial (though resilient) institutions that support a vibrant democracy. You may have heard the argument before: news, books and film should be seen as public goods necessary for a “diverse and independent culture” and for a vibrant democracy. He shows some successful examples of cooperative ventures and straight-ahead state support in which Norway stars with its programs supporting publishing, libraries, and film houses.

His concluding chapter is called “Technology and Monopoly” and here he touches on ebooks. Writing in 2010 he leans toward the agnostic camp in terms of how the digital juggernaut will play out. He does have concerns, given Amazon’s monopolistic practices and low ebook pricing schemes, about what ebooks mean for publisher profits, and he observes that an increasing emphasis on ebooks on the part of publishers threatens to undermine the distribution network (i.e. bookstores) they depend upon. He also focuses on the threat posed by the kind of monopolistic control (and profit) Google sought in its building of its digital library using much of what is either public domain or should be considered a public good in the way genuine libraries actually function. Unfortunately, he doesn’t address the issue in nearly the depth that this week’s authors do, but his notion that alternatives to the current model do exist seems important. In this 2010 C-Span interview about his book, Schiffrin responds to questions about digital books and other issues at 52 min, if you’re interested.

If David Reinking posed his question about the shift from print to digital books in terms of which attributes of print books we want to preserve (and improve), Schiffrin thinks in terms of what kinds of reading-supportive institutions (e.g. publishing houses, libraries, journalism, bookstores) we should preserve. And if Ted Striphas (p. 42) is right that digital rights management schemes force ebook users (and libraries) to give back to media companies “much of their ability to circulate, dispose of, and reproduce whatever titles they’ve purchased,” then having institutions that might in some ways counterbalance this intensification of capitalist control (though I’m not sure how), seems pretty important in what looks like a very threatening power grab.

Schiffrin, André. Words and Money. London: Verso, 2010.

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