Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
For a week last summer, I was completely engrossed in Patti Smith’s Just Kids. Among many notable scenes in the book, the one that sticks with me involves Smith paying her respects at the grave of Jim Morrison while being lambasted as an “American! Why do you not honor your poets?”
That line popped into my head again today, prompted by Jeffrey Rosen’s review in The New York Times of Robert Levine’s Free Ride. Levine’s book is a criticism of what he calls media “parasites”—technology companies and distributors that sell content at prices below what it costs to create it, thereby “sucking the economic lifeblood out of those who create and finance the best achievements of our culture.”
Predictably, I thought of Amazon. Famous for its deep discounts, the company has forged a complicated relationship with authors and publishers, our “poets” and creators of culture. On the one hand, Amazon is a very important client with visibility any author or publisher would be foolish to ignore. On the other, Amazon has a reputation as a market bully that can use its leverage as a weapon in negotiations with publishers. Furthermore, some contest that Amazon’s discounting drives down consumer perception of the value of books, making them just another commodity—like music or streaming video—that consumers will come to expect for free.
Amazon’s recent foray into publishing, a move that attempts to remove editors, publishers, and “all other boundaries between the writer and the reader,” is a disconcerting move toward what Levine calls the Internet’s descent toward an “artistic wasteland dominated by amateurs.”
Some European countries have laws that prevent steep discounting of books, leading to the preservation of indie bookstores and, interestingly, difficulty in marketing Kindle. Levine presents these models as ways the culture industry can push back against distributors, but I’m not sure that these aren’t just the last holdouts in a losing battle. Nor am I entirely sure that technology companies are as evil as he makes them out to be. I mean, does Amazon really deserve to be compared to Napster, which was very overtly stealing, or news aggregators, which are slightly less overtly stealing?
Regardless of anyone’s feelings on the issue, ebooks are gaining market share and ereaders are becoming ubiquitous. This conflict of values will play out in pricing wars and self-publishing experiments, and time will tell which business models are sound. Still, I hope that Levine’s “artistic wasteland” prediction is off the mark. Here’s to hoping we find a way to “honor our poets” by keeping it economically viable to make a living as a creator of culture.