Friday, May 11, 2018

The Writer’s Existential Crisis: The Dystopian Future of the Literary Marketplace

Print declines. Literature moves online. Online disappears. This isn’t a plot to a techno-thriller but a genuine concern for what “permanent” means in the digital age.  ♦ 
As humans, we’re all terrified that our existence won’t matter, and we look for ways to leave our mark on the world. For writers, editors, linguists, filmmakers, scholars, and other artists, that way is through our work, hoping that something we’ve created might live beyond our years and prove that we were ever here. (Even Shakespeare worried that his words would be insignificant in the long run, and he was Shakespeare!) But the twenty-first century offers its own particular issues for the writer’s existential crisis, and the question of whether one’s work will survive has taken on even greater importance given recent developments which have reshaped publishing and how we read. Specifically, the decline of the literary print industry, the monopolistic growth of online e-book publishers and retailers, and relentless governmental regulations on internet accessibility are contemporary threats to the writer’s hopes that their words might indeed last forever.

The Demise of Print

Print started out as one of the major proponents of the Great Equalizer, as the printing press allowed masses of lower class individuals to become literate and to enjoy literature But with the rise of big publishing in the twentieth century, and with its consolidation of power into the current one, the Great Equalizer’s most influential tool became corporatized and monopolized as big publishing branded itself as literature’s “gatekeepers.” The “Big Five” publishing houses (Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan) account for around 60% of the print books in circulation throughout the literary marketplace, as these companies held the capital and clout required to control literature’s production and distribution. In order to even have the chance of becoming a renowned, recognized author in this model, authors had to infiltrate the ranks of one of the “Big Five” publishers, to make it past the gatekeepers, just to have a shot at success.

This stayed the essential dynamic in publishing until 2007, when Amazon, exploiting the inequities in this situation, constructed a system that gave more liberty, more rights, and more money to authors and small book business owners on an easy, digitized platform: Kindle Direct Publishing. This initially seemed like a good thing, democratizing publishing and potentially threatening to drive the “Big Five” and its gatekeepers out of business, but Amazon’s rise has led to problems of its own. For one, Amazon has been aggressively monopolistic in its own practices; one of the best examples of Amazon’s new-found, unrelenting control over print corporations is of its abuse against Hachette after a disagreement between the companies concerning concessions on books sold through the online marketplace. Amazon took its fury out on Hachette by delaying Hachette deliveries, refusing to make Hachette books available for preorder, and allegedly subverting sales by an algorithm adjustment. In this case, Amazon uses its platform to bully its way to getting better business deals, which ultimately drives its competitors out of business altogether.

Even more concerning, Amazon’s opening the gates to online, digital publishing is slowly murdering the print industry altogether—and we’re acting as accomplices. Whether it’s for a better deal as consumers, to pay a fraction of the price for an electronic version of a book, or whether it’s to satisfy that tiny voice in our heads, as authors, saying that e-book sales will guarantee that our work lasts forever, we’re feeding the electronic-literature monster and perhaps destroying print in the process.

The Death of Net Neutrality

So why would a shift to e-books and electronic literature be a cause for concern? As if monopolistic practices and unchecked capitalism weren’t enough to worry about, the government is now actively trying to regulate our access to the Internet, which is currently protected by net neutrality. Net neutrality mandates that all information on the internet is treated the same by service providers, which cannot block, slow down, or charge money to view certain online content. In November 2017, legislation was put forward by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal net neutrality, which will be put into action unless both Congress and the House of Representatives pass a Congressional Review Act. In layman's terms, our internet access will be restricted and charged unless the legislative branch stops it within the next few months. We’ll have to pay to scroll on Instagram, to rant on Twitter, to write an essay on Google Docs, to look up something on Wikipedia—and, of course, if publishing continues its trend into online and e-books over print, then a threatened net neutrality threatens the future of publishing, or at least it threatens those smaller independent publishers and artists whose work could be throttled or buried altogether in the online marketplace.

This has happened before in United States history. With the invention of the radio, many technological pioneers used their radios to experiment with signaling, communicate with other operators, and produce material. That is, until 1912, when “An Act to Regulate Radio Communication” limited the distance these amateur users were allowed to broadcast to. This act is similar to the nullification of net neutrality, because it too limits the everyday users and privileges institutions. By 1920, the corporatization of the radio had become official with the enforcement of commercial licensing for all broadcasters. The governmental institution that protected the major radio companies was named the Federal Radio Commission, and was shortly renamed thereafter the Federal Communications Commission. So, the same people who took the radio away from the American people and put its power into the hands of a few is now trying to take the internet away—and as a result, those writers and artists who’ve chosen to publish digitally, with the mistaken belief the internet would make it last forever, could find their words vanishing as if they’d never been written.

What Does This Mean?

Where should the writer publish in order to ensure their words will outlive them? And what can we do, both as artists and consumers, to make sure this dystopian future never comes to pass? We have two options really: 1. Wallow in despair about the inevitability of obsolescence, or 2. Fight and write. We can fight the “Big Five” and up-and-coming monopolies like Amazon by supporting small presses and independent booksellers. We can fight legislative efforts to destroy the digital free market currently sustained by net neutrality by contacting your elected officials and protesting until our voices are heard. And lastly, we must fight to write by becoming authors, editors, linguists, filmmakers, scholars, and artists and by doing the unfathomable— write like our words will last forever.
  • About the Author
    Jessi Wright is a junior with an English Literature and Professional Writing double major and a Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies minor from Miami University. Originally from a small town in Southern Ohio, she hopes to escape country life one day and become an English professor and editor. In her free time, Jessi likes to read, hike, and play with her many animals.

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