Mr. Penumbra’s Out-Of-Touch Publishing Industry

Writer and “Media Inventor” Robin Sloan wrote an interesting book called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore about an out-of-work web designer in San Francisco who goes to work at a bookstore. The only things fantastical about his novel, I suspect, are that the web designer, named Clay, is out of work and that he can find a book store in which to work.

But Sloan said something very interesting in an NPR interview today: he worked with his publisher to print the cover of the book in glow-in-the-dark ink. “When you’re making a print book in 2012, I actually think the onus is on you, and on your publisher, to make something that’s worth buying in its physical edition,” he told NPR.

I bring this up because last week the Association of American Publishers, an advocacy group for publishers, came to an agreement with Google about its books scanning service – seven years after initially bringing up their objections to Google essentially pulling their content from the vast hoard of information that is the library system and making it available digitally. Like a child who becomes interested in an old toy the minute another child starts to play with it, the AAP and the Author’s Guild aimed to save authors from big bad Google by remonetizing their back catalog – mostly for the benefit of the publisher.

First, I don’t mean to disparage libraries, librarians, or the noble tradition of putting words to paper. I think these things are excrutiatingly important. So important, in fact, that I’m loath to put them in the hands of those who would usher in their unmaking. Past a certain level, business and marketing decisions cloud the scenario and we are left with breathless rants like this one wherein the AAP says that “There’s no such thing as a ‘free’ textbook” – that is, no open source textbooks can be worth a damn if they are too expensive to produce.

The Author’s Guild, another organization looking at things from an interesting vantage, noted that:

“The publishers’ private settlement, whatever its terms, does not resolve the authors’ copyright infringement claims against Google. Google continues to profit from its use of millions of copyright-protected books without regard to authors’ rights, and our class-action lawsuit on behalf of U.S. authors continues.”

My problem is not with authors or even editors. My problem is with the short-sighted nature of these advocacy groups and the publishers who became irate when awoken to the possibility that their valuable content may actually be read. Like Ptolemy III Euergetes collecting books that came into Alexandria, copying them, and returning the copy to its owners, Google has created a resource that has not yet existed in any form, anywhere. In the course of researching a long book about watchmaking, for example, I consulted digital copies of long out-of-print titles that lay mouldering in some university library. These titles were, at best, marginal to a publisher’s interests and at worst garbage in their eyes. The same thinking should extend to modern books in print – as long as I can’t read the entire thing in a sitting, books should be open to search and, to be clear, there is hardly a recent title that isn’t hidden behind a Google Play price-tag, a price I’m more than willing to pay for a title I want to read.

To fight the future is to hasten the end. Authors know their future is in electronic form and publishers want to head that exodus off at the pass. The fat cash that comes in from tentpole authors and the dribble that comes from back catalogs could soon fall down and dry up if Stephen King self-publishes and lesser-known authors “print” straight to the Internet. The fact that Sloan has to add a gimmick, any gimmick, points to a media in decline.

Sloan’s comment is all the more important in light of these moves by these advocacy groups. There will be a day, and it is coming soon, that you can’t sell a paper book, glow-in-the-dark ink or no. It’s my hope that publishers can find a way forward that does not punish rich benefactors for doing them a favor and doesn’t prevent the free and simple exchange of information around the world. Publishing is an entrenched, deeply primitive industry. Perhaps Sloan’s glowing book can help them find their ass in the dark.