Since the rise of Amazon, the Kindle, ibooks, the iPad, etc., it’s hardly news that the publishing industry is struggling to cope with radical change. The latest, and perhaps most ludicrous, is an antitrust suit brought by the U.S. Justice Department against Apple & the Big 6 U.S. publishers alleging that their agency model is, in fact, price fixing. Poor little Amazon! Meanwhile print sales bleed away into the digital market which is dominated by Amazon and Apple. And digital sales bleed away to the pirates who sail that wide Sargasso Sea called the internet. Every time we read articles about the publishing industry, it seems the waters have turned red.
My speculative brain has been sitting well back from the kerfuffle wondering if the rise of ebooks and the struggle between publishers and their online vendors might be viewed through the lens of disaster capitalism. Naomi Klein describes disaster capitalism in The Shock Doctrine. The thesis is fairly straightforward. Disasters erase existing structures and provide opportunities for capital to swoop in (often in the name of aid) and impose exploitative structures upon a helpless population.
Klein’s book is a litany of disasters exploited by Western capital. One example she offers is the tsunami of December 26 2004 which destroyed coastal regions of Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. Klein focuses on the experience of local fisherman at Arugam Bay on the east coast of Sri Lanka. The fisherman had lived and worked on the beach there, but were always in conflict with local hotels. Although plans had been drawn up to develop the beaches for five-star hotels and eco-tourist resorts, local resistance had stalled things … until a giant wave swept everything away. Here’s what Klein writes:
Regaining Sri Lanka [a "World Bank-approved shock therapy program"] was rejected first through a wave of militant strikes and street protests, then, decisively, at the polls. In April 2004, Sri Lankans defied all the foreign experts and their local partners and voted in a coalition of centre-leftists and self-identified Marxists who vowed to scrap the entire Regaining Sri Lanka plan. … For those dreaming of building a plutonomy playground, it was a major setback: 2004 was supposed to have been Year One of the new investor-friendly, privatized Sri Lanka; now all bets were off.
Eight months after those fateful elections, the tsunami hit. Among those mourning the demise of Regaining Sri Lanka, the significance of the event was understood immediately. The newly elected government would need billions from foreign creditors to reconstruct the homes, roads, schools and railways destroyed in the storm—and those creditors knew well that when faced with devastating crisis, even the most committed economic nationalists suddenly become flexible.
Can the same model be applied to publishing?
The comparison isn’t exact, but here goes:
1. The struggle between Amazon, Apple, and the Big 6 U.S. publishers is a red herring. They all represent capital. Each of the big 6 is a subsidiary of a big media giant. For them, the struggle is between retailers and wholesalers and who will get a bigger slice of the pie. This is like the Sri Lankan government negotiating with Western hotel chains.
Meanwhile, the villagers on the beach, that’s you and me, i.e. the 99.99% of people who write for peanuts, have no voice in the arrangements which shape the future of book publishing. Nor do the readers, the millions of ordinary people like you and me who depend on the intellectual and emotional food that books provide.
2. Then along comes a disaster: piracy. Arrrrgh! In the shift to digital reading, books become infinitely replicable which has the potential to reduce a book’s value to zero. All those 99.99% of writers who already make nothing should panic, because they’re about to make even less than nothing.
I’m willing to argue that piracy is an imaginary threat, but that belongs to another post. For now, all I want to do is draft the outline of a thesis—disaster capitalism in publishing—which I can develop more fully at my leisure. For now, let’s assume that the economic consequences of piracy are: 1) grossly overstated; 2) have no negative (and oftentimes positive) impact upon 99.99% of writers. Real or imagined, what matters is how the disaster gets exploited.
3. As in the case of the tsunami, here, capital enjoys the endorsement of an international organization run on neocon principles of deregulation and “free” trade –WIPO. You can visit them at their web site, but they have only favourable things to say about themselves.
4. The post-disaster plan is DRM—digital rights management—locking files so that their use is restricted to authorized devices. This, in turn, locks the consumer into an endless cycle of purchasing disposable electronics: buy reader A to read format A; vendor comes out with format B which is even better than format A but can’t fully be appreciated without reader B; buy reader B to read format B; vendor comes out with format C …
You buy Kindle which reads a proprietary format and, effectively, you’re in bed for life with Amazon. The more books (which are really licenses) you buy in .mobi format (now superseded by its KF8 format), the more you have invested in the hardware that supports that format. (Yes, I know there are apps to read Kindle books on other devices, but Amazon retains control and always has the option of pulling the plug on its apps.)
5. The luxury hotels move in, the investors make their millions, the government gets its cut, and the locals (that’s you and me) either work as bellhops and cleaners or they clear out.
Except that something strange is happening.
It looks like some of the hotel chains are willing to work with the locals.
Some of the Big 6 publishers may drop DRM. This is strategic, of course. It’s a way to fight back at Amazon’s monopoly and the Justice Department’s refusal to do anything about it. But it has the incidental effect of acknowledging the only people who matter in this conflict—the readers. They’re tired of stories about piracy as an excuse to filch money from them.