editors and producers

The Internet is conspiring against me. Or, more to the point, the Internet is conspiring to make me write about editors and producers and publishers.

It started with a short bit I read (via Loden Jinpa) about the demise of publishers due to the rise of e-book readers. It suggests that in five year’s time, Amazon, Apple, whomever, will cut out the “middle-man” of traditional publishers and work with authors directly to deliver content to our devices of choice. It really is a short bit, and I didn’t have time this week to read the article it’s referencing. And, let’s be honest, this is an an area of expertise that’s a little far-afield for me. (Like, for example, the article suggests that the iTunes Music Store is circumventing music labels. That’s not actually true, is it?) Nevertheless, it raises some interesting questions for me.

Here in the new age of digital content, and the expectation of free digital content, I’ve noticed how easily people demonize the producers of media, the record companies, movie studios, publishing houses. It seems fun to assume that these people are a bunch of faceless, nameless, soulless capitalists who care naught for creativity, for pure art, and are only interested in maximizing profits. If we could only get rid of them, we’d have all the music, movies, and media we could ever want.

But it seems to me that that’s not completely true. Yes, I’m sure that there are a good number of people in these industries that are, in point of fact, soulless capitalists who could care less about art for art’s sake. And I’m in complete agreement that these industries have done some spectacularly stupid, down right assholish things (like suing housewives and college students for millions of dollars or threatening to consider a ringing cell phone a public performance). But the producers of content, publishing houses, record companies, and movie studios, perform other important, artistic functions beyond simply reaping the profits of the next best seller.

These industries also provide the creators of content with editors, with producers, with sound engineers.

Think about it. Where would the Beatles have been without George Martin? (If you don’t believe me, listen to Abbey Road and (the original version of) Let it Be back to back. Same four guys, different producer.) Or, for that matter, would Thriller have been history’s best selling album of all time had Quincy Jones not been on board?

I know that artists could certainly employ sound engineers and producers and editors without using the mainstream industry. And without having a major label backing them, I still think In Rainbows is great freakin’ album. If nothing else, I’m merely suggesting that these industries provide services beyond distribution, beyond being caricatures of soulless capitalists.

And then something else happened on the Internet. A full-blow discussion erupted on the H-Buddhism discussion list for Buddhist scholars. The vast majority of the posts on H-Buddhism fall into the category of “announcements” (“So-and-so’s new book is out!”) or “queries” (“Anyone have so-and-so’s email address? Reply off line.”) Discussions that seem to get everyone involved are rare; discussions that last more than a day or two are equally rare. (I think I know the reason for this, but it’s somewhat off-topic.) But a couple of weeks ago, someone started a discussion about non-English words that have made their way into English dictionaries which lead into a lengthy discussion about italicization and diacritics and whether or not we, as the writers of books, should italicize or use diacritics which, in turn, lead to statements made by editors and publishers about how these things look “cluttered” which in turn created something of a backlash…

(I’ve lost most of you, haven’t I? I know there’s at least three, maybe four, of you hanging on my every word. The rest have probably left to look at pictures of Lady Ga Ga. Can’t say I blame you, really. But, bare with me. The point is coming.)

In the middle of this conversation, someone made (to me) the surprising comment that, if you’ve got tenure, why not just move to self-publishing on the Internet since working with academic publishing houses has become so difficult. (Now you see the connection. Thanks for sticking with me!) I was floored. It was the first time I’d heard a serious scholar suggest that traditional book publishing may be on its way out.

Then again, he did say “if you’ve got tenure.” That’s the important caveat. The fact of the matter is that until you’ve gotten job security, there are still some expectations in the field, the expectation that scholars get their work published, on good-old-fashioned paper. I’m quite sure that if I went to my dean and tried to convince him to give me even a full-time faculty position based solely on the fact that I published my last book on the Internet, I’d be laughed out of his office. (And he’s a one of my supporters.)

Which raises the first question for me. We’re at a crossroads between old and new media. Old media still has value, if not in obvious or even financial ways, it certainly has symbolic value. And at the end of the day, that symbolic value is going to translate into financial value; on the first of the month, my landlord isn’t going to accept a PDF copy of my latest musings on the state of global Buddhism. He’s going to want a check. And if I want that check to be covered by the bank, I’d better make sure the Dean is still signing my paychecks which I’m pretty sure he’d stop doing if the only think I ever did was write on my blog.

Moreover, as I mentioned before, the institutions of old media perform more functions than just reaping the profits of the latest best seller. In my field, they provide editors. And my long-term readers know I am in desperate need of an editor!

(And, as an aside here, I saw an advertisement of the “e-edition” of the SF Chronicle this morning (and can I just say, “e-edition”? What is this, 1997?) claiming that it was “green.” I refuse to buy into the notion that digital media is more green than print media based solely on the notion that the former is not printed on paper. In order to access digital media, you need to use electricity. And the reality of our current global warming crisis is that a significant portion of our CO2 emissions comes from our homes, i.e., charging up the batteries in our laptops, Kindles, and iPhones. Moreover, when Apple rolls out the new gadget and convinces everyone to upgrade, all the old iPhones and Kindles end up polluting rivers in South East Asia. Yes, a book cuts down a tree. But that’s more or less the end of its impact on the environment.)

It’s an interesting time to be alive, to be sure, at this crossroads between old and new media. The geek in me wants to embrace the new, wants to rush out and buy the Apple Tablet once it’s more than just an invisible unicorn. The futurist in me want to live in a Star Trekian utopia where there is no money, where the sky is always blue, and we’re able to pilot our flying cars around the Transamerica building without harming the environment, and I don’t have to worry about supporting my family. But we’re not there yet, are we?

And that’s the real question, isn’t it? How do we get from here to there?


4 thoughts on “editors and producers

  1. I confess that I only scanned your post but it did ring familiar to me.

    A quick comment about scholarly publishing: Academics constantly bitch and complain about publishing companies (especially scientific ones such as Elsevier) and recently many academics are moving towards open access e-journals to publish work. It is a much faster turn-around (no 2 year waiting lists to get an article published) and it provides peer-reviewed work for academics and non-academics alike at no cost and online. That should keep anyone’s Director or Department Chair happy and I think is a great way of supplementing your “standard” publishing outlets.

    I get some great material on genetics and the biological sciences this way – right into my blog reader.

    While I am in agreement that times are a’changin. I try not to demonize publishers since with out them scientific material gets out to the public and they do need to make a living.

    It also provides a comments section for the learned and unlearned alike to comment on some heavier stuff provided. I enjoy the ability to see academics and scientists comment on some of the finer points of methodology and research that, ordinarily, would be missed by the non-expert.

    Hope that made some sense – I types one-handed while munching on a pb&j during my lunch break while reading my thesis proposal. Who says Buddhists can’t multi-task.


  2. @ Jack Daw: “they do need to make a living.” Certainly part of my point.

    And, yes, in Buddhist studies as well there’s a… “market”?… for e-journals. But I think that “peer reviewed” part is the one issue I didn’t directly address in this post. Anyone can post his stuff to the Web. But it’s the assumption that someone else has read it and said, “This person knows what the hell they’re talking about it,” that gives it certain, academic value. And I think that’s important.

  3. No one’s really mentioned the gatekeeper function of publishers. Buried in the idea that once you’re tenured you can go straight to the Internet is the assumption that once you’re tenured, it doesn’t matter if what you publish is rubbish.

    Fifty years ago or so, defending the mystery novel as a genre, Raymond Chandler said something along the lines of “The average novel isn’t any better than the average mystery. The problem is that the average novel doesn’t get published.”

  4. Of course, on reading this and the discussion on H-Buddhism, I wondered how many Buddhist scholars even have a realistic option of tenure? Is that like getting picked for the NBA as a dream of high school and college basketball players?

    I’ve certainly been working with the idea that tenure doesn’t really exist in my (potential) new line of work. It seems to be less prone to disappointment to think this.

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