There is a fascinating and disturbing article by Ken Auletta in this week’s (June 25, 2012) New Yorker about the current legal face-offs between amazon.com and six large publishing companies in the U.S. (Random House, Penguin, Macmillan, Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). Basically, Apple created a deal with the publishers to fix their ebook prices at a higher rate than amazon demanded from them, and amazon then entered into a similar deal, which has resulted in the publishers now being able to sell their ebooks on amazon at a slight profit rather than a loss, but the Department of Justice has initiated an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of consumers as a result (if you want all of the legal nitty-gritty, read the article itself [you need a subscription to the print version of the magazine to read the article online, so support print culture by going and buying a copy at your local newsstand!]—I’m more interested here in the larger ramifications for the future of books in general).
I am normally against big companies setting price controls because they hurt consumers, but in this case I am rooting for the publishers to win because they need the price controls in order to stay in business. Books are essential to a functioning democracy, and, while one could question whether our “democracy” is currently functioning considering how ridiculous the goings-on in Congress have been for the past fifteen years or so, anyone who has an interest in education or civil rights or, to put it bluntly, freedom must recognize the necessity of books and do everything they can to help protect them. If amazon—which I must admit I love and buy print books from frequently (I will never, ever buy an ebook as long as paper books exist), though this article forces me to re-think this practice—is able to force publishers to provide them with books at a loss to the publishers, the end result will be that publishers (especially independent publishers [including university presses], who are the most important because they publish valuable books that are not necessarily profitable, and thus would never be published by large publishers) begin to go out of business, leaving amazon as both distributor and publisher of books, which means that readers will be forced to accept their view of what is important enough to publish or not. I try not to let large corporations make these types of decisions for me.
The issue is not just about physical objects, it is about how ideas are disseminated, and the avenues available for this dissemination play a major role in what ideas are put into the public eye. The more of these avenues that are available, the more new ideas enter public discourse, which benefits everyone because it stimulates further thinking. Books (and print culture more broadly) have been the primary way of disseminating ideas since the 1500s (we see their power in the example of the Protestant Reformation, which would have been impossible without them), and while that does not mean that other forms of idea dissemination are invalid, it does mean that we must do everything we can to ensure that books will survive, which means ensuring that a competitive publishing field survives.
A note on ebooks versus real books: according to Auletta’s article, ebooks “make up about a third of all book sales” (37). More and more of my friends and colleagues, educated people who should know better, prefer ebooks because they are supposedly more “convenient” because you don’t have to carry them around and they take up less space. This is a ridiculous argument. If carrying several books with you is too much of a physical strain, you need to be in better shape anyway (or you are elderly or disabled, in which case I am willing to make an exception), so just think of it as some informal weightlifting. As a compulsive book-buyer, I can see the space argument, but a) you can do wonderful things with modular shelves from a store such as Ikea to maximize the space you have for your books, because any room is made better by the presence of books—they show that you are an intelligent person, which is always sexy; and b) the benefits that physical books have which ebooks do not far outweigh the minor problem of figuring out where to put your books, anyway. Aside from the unquantifiable aesthetic pleasure of holding and smelling an actual book in your hand as your read, enjoying the different fonts in different volumes and thinking about the history of the physical object in your hand if you acquired it used, a major benefit of real books is that you can flip through them, finding favorite passages with ease, or looking in the index for the subject you are interested in and going straight there. With ebooks, you are forced to go through chronologically, or at least chapter-by-chapter, not to mention ruining your eyes by using yet another electronic device (real books give me a much-needed break from the computer) and the uselessness of ereaders once we run out of fossil fuels.
A similar point is made in the article, which discusses how the process of browsing in a bookstore is essential for finding new authors, whereas online shoppers tend to just go straight for what they are looking for. This both hurts lesser-known authors and is less fun for customers. Part of the joy of book-buying is finding unanticipated treasures, and the chance of this is greatly diminished when shopping online. It is true that it is more convenient to shop at a site such as amazon’s—if I know what I’m looking for I can literally buy a book from them in less than sixty seconds—but the most convenient way isn’t always the best way. It’s fun to spend an hour or two just lazily browsing at your local bookstore. I fear that, the way things are going, this activity will no longer be an option when I am older. To prevent that horrific possibility, it is necessary to support printed books and reject their much less satisfying electronic impostors.