publishing in a digital age

In the growing digital age, it is important to pass legislation protecting brick and mortar publishers and bookstores from the behemoth that is Amazon. In the US, discussions have begun about how Amazon should be treated in regards to anti-trust laws. Due to their immense access to data and size, big online companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook are being scrutinized more and more, with the US Justice Department announcing they intended Attorney General Jeff Sessions to meet with state attorneys general to discuss “a growing concern that these companies may be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms” (Bernstein 2018). Although Jeff Sessions is no longer Attorney General, the scrutinization of these major companies is likely to continue. This might be good news for the publishing industry, which has been put in danger by companies like Amazon.

 

It is hardly the first time Amazon and publishing have been linked in the press, demonstrating the bad blood and power moves on both sides of the aisle. Amazon had a falling out with Hachette books in 2014 in which it “delisted the publisher’s books from its website during business negotiation” (Khan 2017). In 2012, Apple and five of the top six publishers in the US; Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin (now Penguin Random House) and Simon & Schuster- were accused of “collusion in e-book prices and sales models” (Carmody 2012). Mathew Ingram goes so far as to describe these publishers as a “cartel” in his article (Ingram 2015). With the rise of Amazon’s power in the ebook industry, these five publishers and Apple decided to band together, agreeing to “act collectively to force up Amazon’s retail prices and thereafter considered and implemented various means to accomplish that goal, including moving under the guise of a joint venture” (Carmody 2012). Publishers cited fear of driving not just ebook prices down, but print books as well. Ingram states that their actions originated, “[…]from a desire to maintain the existing favorable price structure for books, which allowed them to milk the market for high-priced hardcover versions of new novels before eventually releasing cheaper versions” (Ingram 2015). Apple, on the other hand, was accused of desiring to raise their own profit margin on ebooks, supplanting Amazon and other competitors (Carmody 2012). While the publishers saw this as an effort to supplant the growing monopoly of Amazon’s hold on ebooks, the US government saw it as an illegal attempt to break the American anti-trust laws. Although Apple, MacMillan, and Penguin initially intended to fight the lawsuit, these plans were rejected (Ingram 2015). It was determined that the companies “engaged in collusion with what amounted to an oligopoly” (Ingram 2015). A settlement was reached that called for a disbandment of Apple’s preference towards the publishing houses and for a “cooling-off period…during which agency relations would be potentially halted (a clause titled “most favored nation” in Apple’s contract with the publishers) and publishers could not renegotiate new contracts with retailers” (Carmody 2012).  It seems strange now to look back at this case, as it is clear that, although the publishers were in the wrong (they destroyed email evidence to attempt to hide their crime), they were fighting what we now know as a behemoth of ebook publishing that is driving the publishing business into danger. 

 

Anti-trust laws in the US do not affect Amazon the same way that they affect publishers. Anti-trust laws are not necessarily set up to stop monopolies or to protect corporations and business; rather, they exist to protect consumers from overpriced goods. Unfortunately for Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin, Simon & Schuster, and Apple, Amazon’s particular strategy is to sell books at a lower price to establish an understanding of their customers through data and algorithm. Lina M. Khan’s focuses on this issue in her journal entry “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” emphasizing the outdated nature of antitrust laws in the digital age. She states, “the current framework in antitrust—specifically its pegging competition to “consumer welfare,” defined as short-term price effects—is unequipped to capture the architecture of market power in the modern economy. We cannot cognize the potential harms to competition posed by Amazon’s dominance if we measure competition primarily through price and output” (Khan 2017). Drawing from Khan’s findings, Lewitt writes that “it is therefore highly rational for online companies [like Amazon] to engage in predatory pricing” (Lewitt 2018). Although this is bad for publishers, who make less and less money on ebook and print sales through Amazon, it is great for the American consumer, who is the subject of anti-trust laws. The Guild and Author’s United writes, “unregulated and unchecked growth of the major internet monopolies has squeezed the publishing and news industries, resulting in lower pay for authors and journalists” (Authors Guild 2018). 

 

There need to be changes to the antitrust laws in the future to accommodate the growing power of these online companies that escape traditional antitrust laws with these law prices and discounts that run smaller business models out of business. These bigger companies might argue that they bring other opportunities to smaller business through distribution, with almost half of reported online sales coming directly through Amazon (Khan 2017). They might also argue that the old antitrust laws that protect consumers still stand up in the 21st century, which is in line with their consumer-centric business model. However, there is no denying that these companies are taking advantage of their size in order to control industries and crush competition. 

 

Khan argues that “gauging real competition in the twenty-first-century marketplace—especially in the case of online platforms—requires analyzing the underlying structure and dynamics of markets” (2017). It seems as though these issues are finally being addressed by the Federal Trade Commission, which is launching a series of hearings entitled “Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century” (Authors Guild 2018). This commission will focus on how to deal with internet monopolies that cater to consumer interest but drive down prices for other business. Among the topics covered in these hearings are listed as things like “Antitrust Law; Mergers and Monopsony or Buyer Power”, “Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Predictive Analytics”, and “Antitrust Evaluation of Labor Markets” (Hearings 2018). These hearings are ongoing, having begun in September 2018 and continuing well into February 2019. It is difficult to tell if anything definitive will arise from these hearings, but it is important to note the issues with Amazon’s power online are being addressed. 

 

Tech-based companies like Amazon force us to reexamine our understanding of antitrust laws in America. The Department of Justice needs to carefully analyze new antitrust legislation that does not give either side of the argument an advantage over the other and does not put customers in a difficult position. This is a particularly difficult task because of the vastness of the issue and the myriad of factors like data analytics and consumer rights. It is unclear what these changes might do to the publishing industry, but it is clear that there needs to be change in order to save traditional publishing from becoming a thing of the past.

 

Work Cited

“Authors Guild Comments to FTC on Internet Monopolies’ Impact on Creators.” The Authors Guild. August 22, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.authorsguild.org/ industry-advocacy/authors-guild-comments-to-ftc-on-internet-monopolies-impact-on- creators/. 

Bernstein, Leandra. “Does the Government Have an Antitrust Case against Amazon, Google and Facebook?” WJLA. September 10, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://wjla.com/ news/nation-world/does-the-government-have-an-antitrust-case-against-amazon-google- and-facebook.

Carmody, Tim. “DOJ Files Antitrust Suit Against Apple and 5 Publishers Over E-Book Pricing.” Wired. April 11, 2012. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.wired.com/2012/04/ doj-files-antitrust-suit-against-apple-and-five-publishers/.

“Hearings on Competition and Consumer Protection in the 21st Century.” Federal Trade Commission. November 14, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.ftc.gov/ policy/hearings-competition-consumer-protection.

Ingram, Mathew. “Apple’s Mistake Was Hooking up with the Book-publishing Cartel.” Fortune. June 30, 2015. Accessed November 24, 2018. http://fortune.com/2015/06/30/apple-court- books/.

Khan, Lina M. “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” The Yale Law Journal 126 (January 2017): 710-806. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.yalelawjournal.org/note/amazons- antitrust-paradox.

Lewitt, Michael. “How Long Can Amazon’s Ingenious Antitrust Avoidance Last?” Forbes. May 01, 2018. Accessed November 24, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaellewitt/ 2018/05/01/how-long-can-amazons-ingenious-antitrust-avoidance-last/#53dae6870ac0.

There is a terrific quote in Rowland Lorimer’s Ultra Libris, which, modified for this essay, goes like:

 

A press is not founded… out of a desire to process manuscripts and bring them to market…. Neither is it usual to found a press solely to produce bestsellers or to make pots of money. [….] For the most part, presses are founded… to advance civilization….

 

The argument of this essay is fundamentally structured around the idea that, not a press specifically, but Publishing exists to advance civilization.

There is another terrific quote, from Richard Nash’s What is the Business of Literature that states:

 

Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.”

 

The argument of this essay is also concerned with the relationship between publishing and literature.

But most importantly, the argument of this essay is about the definition of publishing and how that definition shapes society’s approach to the industry and the practice of publishing in general, and that by overhauling the definition, the industry can become more flexible to keep up with the changing social and technological needs of various societies.

It is important, therefore, to recognize and discard the old, antiquated definitions and connotations of publishing. Since the time of Gutenberg and his innovation with the invention of the printing press, printed copy has been the most efficient and powerful way to transmit information and ideas across space, culture, and time. The multiplication of such works as the bible brought mass ideological change across societies and still persists to this day. Thought structures of societies have changed and developed with the proliferation of literacy and literature. The book, and following suit the newspaper, became the anchor of society and the mediums through which the population could conceive of their shared experience in a shared culture. As such, books were highly regarded and signs of status and intellectual ability. Books became, to quote Lowrimer again, “a rallying point for social change” (Lowrimer, 41). It is no wonder, then, that the idea and historical precedence for book bans and book burnings exists as a literal and metaphorical means of censorship and political strongarming. Restricted from certain texts, people do not become indoctrinated into those texts’ lines of reasoning.

And so, for most of our recorded history, publishing has been, as the primary form of disseminating information and ideas, predominantly about the manufacturing and distribution of books and other written texts (pamphlets, newspapers). Can we be blamed for so strongly associating the word ‘publishing’ with the physical book we can hold and smell and admire?

The internet was the biggest revolution in information distribution since the printing press because, now with digital technologies, texts can be disseminated without actually being manufactured in a physical format that requires physical distribution. Suddenly, ideas can be transferred in milliseconds, and responding ideas can come in a matter of minutes.

With this new technology in place, and the continuous and rapid change this technology is undergoing, the old idea of publishing cannot survive and a new idea of publishing must be created.

A search for a modern definition of publishing (which is different from an understanding of publishing) shows conflicting ideas from various sources. Dictionary.com defines Publishing simply as “the activities or business of a publisher, especially of books or periodicals.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the business or profession of the commercial production and issuance of literature, information, musical scores or sometimes recordings, or art.”

This is a very narrow and restrictive view of publishing as it puts an emphasis on the business of the process, that it is an economy-driven industry (which isn’t entirely untrue, but does not capture the full scale of the act of publishing). Most publishing is not business driven.

The word, Publish, in that form, Publishing, for some reason, distinctly carries the connotational baggage of the Publishing Business1. But publishing in itself is not a business – rather, it is an action. An action that is utilized in all businesses, all industries, and essentially all facets of public society.

The infinitive form of the word, To Publish, is defined, in the Cambridge Dictionary as “mak[ing] information available to people, especially in a book, magazine, or newspaper, or to produce and sell a book, magazine, or newspaper.” Unfortunately, this still holds the attachment of business and a press. Merriam-Webster dictionary, on the other hand, defines it as: “to make generally known” and “to make public announcement of” and “to disseminate to the public” and “to produce or release for distribution. (specifically print)” Essentially, publicizing something, and to release and spread a tangible state of information and ideas through the public.

I would, however, argue that the strongest definition of publishing I have found, the one that can be carried over into any new social and technological landscape, is in the UK’s government website and is stated simply:

 

Publishing means making information available to the public.

 

There is, however, no singular form of Public, and where this definition fails is in specifying the multiplicity of publics, which are groups of people formed by the shared experience of having been exposed to and observed the same text (Warner). This definition excels in its simplicity, though, and keeps open to interpretation how the information is made available to a public, which is essential as more ways of delivering information are proliferating thanks to the digital age.

To refer to the opening quote again, a press is founded to advance civilization. However, more correctly, publishing is the action and method used to advance civilization, and a press is only one manifestation of this action. Simply making information available is not good enough to achieve that end, as it will be completely missed and left unobserved if that information, once made available, is not pushed to engagement with a public. And so it is not just making it available, but actively disseminating that information to a public that is required, in this new age of an overcrowded information market, of a publisher.

But if publishing is simply an act, what role does the publisher play? In the past, publishers were the ones with the technology – the printing press. Nowadays, the technology is so readily available to the common person that the phenomenon of self-publishing has come to pass – inadvertently creating a need for the term Traditional Publishing. So where does the traditional publisher sit in this landscape? First, the word traditional needs to be dropped because it is a misdirection. As stated earlier, publishers need to discard of the old, traditional definition of publishing to make way for a new one. But that aside, the publisher as an agency must serve another purpose if the author of an idea now has the means to publish their own text2.

The publisher’s advantage is in the understanding of and established infrastructure through which to publish. In the analogue world, this is an elaborate, system involving printing, warehousing, shipping, and storefronts. In the digital world, this takes the shape of directing a public’s attention to digital publications. This works through algorithm (amazon’s “people who bought also bought”; youtube’s suggested videos based on interests and viewing history) and direct announcement (social media announcing and linking to internet publications; podcasts advertising other podcasts within the same network during an episode) in which the existing infrastructure is an existing following3. For both analogue and digital spheres, the publisher will already, or will aim to, have an established grasp on the social connections and marketing avenues that will allow the publisher to push the information to publics.

The final concept of publishing I will present is that it is not a way for one creator of a text to impose their information and ideas onto a public; rather, it is, ultimately, a means of allowing collaboration of ideas and information to build off each other over time and generate knowledge and understanding within publics, with the end result of playing a part in social, cultural, and political change. By being published, any information is automatically entering a public discourse. Individuals of the public will prepare ideas and information to be published to the same public as a direct commentary or development of the previously published and circulated text. A good example of this, pre-digital age, is seen in the science fiction realm, where author Samuel Delaney wrote the novel Triton as a direct response to author Ursula LeGuinn’s novel The Dispossessed. LeGuinn’s novel is subtitled as “an ambiguous utopia” and Delaney’s novel, published a year later and created for the same public as LeGuinn’s, carried the subtitle “an ambiguous heterotopia.” (Walton). This shows that, even with the idea of traditional publishing, publics are automatically going to create public discrouse, and publishing, and the publisher, is the means for them to achieve it. Without publishing, this “literary conversation” and development of idea from one author to another would not have existed.

In the academic realm this is especially prevalent with new editions of textbooks constantly being released, or new research theses being born of older research publications. And even more referential than an academic paper’s bibliography is the digital publishing sphere which allows for two of the most powerful forms of information development: intertextuality (publications linking directly to referred publications within the text), and forums (direct feedback and conversation on the publication itself).

It becomes clear, then, that publishing in the traditional sense of printing a book and selling it to market is no longer an appropriate connotation of the term. Sure, historical precedence has driven Nash’s association of publishing with “business of literature” into the public mind, but new technology brings a new way of gathering and growing information, and publishing in this new landscape needs to err less on the side of business and more on the side of “the means of public discourse.”  Publishing is the dissemination of ideas and information to a public, and it achieves this by creating or finding a public, actively pushing the information to that public, and allowing that public to continually build off that information and grow ideas. It is through these principles that a publisher must function, regardless of the medium (print books, digital recordings) and the format, or document, it distributes that information, or text, in.

 

 

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Endnotes

 

1Refer again to the quoted section of Nash’s What is the Business of Literature: Publishing is a word that, like the book, is almost but not quite a proxy for the “business of literature.”

 

 

2Note that by “text” I am referring to Brown and Duguid’s definition of it in The Social Life of Documents, in that it is the content of a document, which can take on any fixed-state form including book, film, and music recording.

 

3For a more comprehensive overview of electronic publishing, refer to Lancaster’s The Evolution of Electronic Publishing (https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/7981/librarytrendsv43i4c_opt.pdf)

 

 

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Works Cited

 

Brown, John and Paul Duguid. “The Social Life of Documents.” Firstmonday.org. 1996. Accessed October 1, 2017.

http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/466/387

 

Grossman, Lev. “Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature.” Time Magazine. January 21, 2009. Accessed October 1, 2017.

http://kelleyandhall.dailymoxie.com/files/BooksGoneWild_Grossman.pdf

 

Lancaster, Frederick Wilfrid. “The evolution of electronic publishing.” (1995).

https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/bitstream/handle/2142/7981/librarytrendsv43i4c_opt.pdf

 

Lorimer, Rowland. “Ultra Libris: Policy, Technology, and the Creative Economy of Book Publishing in Canada.” ECW Press. 2012.

 

Nash, Richard. “What is the Business of Literature?” VQR spring 2013 Vol. 89, Issue 2.

http://www.vqronline.org/articles/what-business-literature

 

National Archives, UK. Accessed October 1, 2017.

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/producing-official-publications/publishing-guidance/publishing/

 

Walton, Jo. “Heterotopian Choices: Samuel R. Delany’s Triton.” Tor.com August 17, 2008. Accessed October 1, 2017. https://www.tor.com/2008/08/17/triton/

 

Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp. 413-425. November 2002.

http://knowledgepublic.pbworks.com/f/warnerPubCounterP.pdf

 

Wershler, Darren. “The Ethically Incomplete Editor.” Editing as Cultural Practice in Canada, pp. 225-238. 2006.

http://muse.jhu.edu.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/chapter/1893339