Digital publishing, economic calculation, creative work

The thing most talked about in publishing right now — Amazon vs. the big four publishers — is but a sideshow to what’s really going on.

The publishing industry, fundamentally taking its structure from the offset press and its characteristics of high-volume, low-cost printing, centralized production requiring multiple passes of shipping and a certain type of distribution network, will need to re-engineer its own structure.

Industrial production –> mass production

The industrial mode of production revolutionized our economies and shaped modern society due to its low cost of product. But this low cost comes with a condition: high volume.

A printing press or any other type of machinery used in production lines requires set up, configuration and sometimes re-tooling to produce a new product or a new book. To offset this initial cost, we can produce a higher quantity of books and this way spread out the set up cost so that it is barely noticeable.

This means that a production run of 50 or a 100 books isn’t economically viable, but a run of 1,000 books is. It is possible to run a business on 1,000 copy print runs, but not on 100 copy print runs, unless one opts to produce “luxury” goods. The margin is simply to low on small runs for it to be economically sustainable.

High-volume publishing therefore crowds out low-volume publishing because it is backed by an economic enterprise whereas low-volume publishing is a hobby. This is why industrial production means mass production.

Mass culture

From this basic fact of production follows a set of consequences that has shaped society at large, turning it into what is called a mass culture. Every product, every media, every celebrity, has to achieve mass popularity because of the underlying mode of production. At the same time, this basic fact of production prevents smaller, more organic strands of culture from reaching the mainstream of society. It simply can’t compete on scale, nor price.

Economic calculcation

The zine became a thing in the 1980s with the introduction of the photocopier and the Xerox machine, which brought with it an important economic fact: almost free.

Photocopying a zine and stapling it together is cheap in economic inputs, so more copies can be made and the work can have a wider audience. (You do add your own work in stapling them together and distributing them, though. But you don’t need to make money to pay someone to do it.)

Creative work

Creative work is play, which is how Bob Black talked about it in his essay The Abolition of Work:

Discipline is the distinctively diabolical modern mode of control, it is an innovative intrusion which must be interdicted at the earliest opportunity.
Such is “work.” Play is just the opposite. Play is always voluntary. What might otherwise be play is work if it’s forced. This is axiomatic. Bernie de Koven has defined play as the “suspension of consequences.” This is unacceptable if it implies that play is inconsequential. The point is not that play is without consequences. This is to demean play. The point is that the consequences, if any, are gratuitous. Playing and giving are closely related, they are the behavioral and transactional facets of the same impulse, the play-instinct. They share an aristocratic disdain for results. The player gets something out of playing; that’s why he plays. But the core reward is the experience of the activity itself (whatever it is).

All economic activity is highly disciplined because the ultimate result is a profit or a loss. Introducing this thinking in the creative process suffocates it, because its discipline forbids all types of play.

A “sell out” artist’s work typically suffers because suddenly, there’s this huge economic upside to what they do. Most people who are given the chance to make millions want to hang on to that chance and not mess it up. Discipline is introduced.

Digital production

Digital production suspends the consequences of industrial production by changing the basic facts of production.

Digital production requires no set up because it is almost fully automatic. You send in the digital version of the book and it’s printed in as many copies as you like, when you like.

Because there is no or little upfront cost, there is no need to make a profit or break even. Because there is no economic calculation involved, you’re free to play.

Publishing a book print-on-demand is therefore very much like making a zine, but has the benefit of putting the book into worldwide distribution to book shops, and making it available for order online.

It makes the zine into a real thing; maybe one day we’ll be able to live off making “zines”?