Gerry Dongaghy, the Backlist Tsar of Powell’s Books, sent me a care package the other day, a kind of arsenal of support for the beginning publisher. Among other items found as I dove into the seemingly bottomless box: a publishing trends newsletter, way too expensive for me to consider actually subscribing to (very thoughtful, Gerry, thanks), two DVDs made as support materials for books (something I’m obviously interested in, since we do a lot of in house DVD making around here), a copy of BOOK FORUM (which I have to get a subscription to, I see), a really terrific nuts and bolts book about publishing, and a postcard advertising the Pope’s cologne (I don’t think that had anything to do with publishing, but it does show that Gerry’s on the same page with the rest of us here at EAP).
Best of all — well, best of all was the nuts ‘n’ bolts book, which is truly helpful — but most fascinating was a sociological study of attitudes toward bookselling in the US: RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS. The thesis of the book is that the cultural and economic battle between independent, community bookstores and the big box corporate superstores shines a light on a too little explored question: i.e. what is the purpose of economic activity? Is it really, as our dominant story says, and as every schoolchild can tell you by rote, to maximize profit? Is the responsibility of the individual consumer, therefore, to guard her/his interests jealously, always making sure to get the best possible deal, while the responsibility of the seller is to make as much profit as possible? That, anyone can tell you, is how the free market works. And that is supposed to be for the good of all.
However, as the author points out, if this was completely true, then the big box stores, with their greater convenience and their marked down prices, should have wiped the floor with the small, independent, community embedded bookstores. Yet that hasn’t happened. In some places, the independents are growing. Why?
Laura Miller, the sociologist who wrote RELUCTANT CAPITALISTS, points out that bookselling, and book publishing (and book writing, too, of course), are areas where one can see that the purpose of economic activity is not necessarily to maximize profit. As she points out, independent booksellers and independent book publishers don’t make much profit. More than that, they know they’re not going to make much profit — sometimes they know they’re not going to make any profit at all. What’s more, even the people who purchase books from them assume that these groups are not in it to make much profit., And the consumers who recognize this actually question their own buying habits, and will frequently go against what, under classical theory, should be their own best interests. Instead of buying cheap, they buy dear — instead of going to a big box store that provides deep discounts on books, a lot of people will consciously decide to go to a community bookstore that can’t afford to.
Now why is that?
Naturally, if we were all little computer generated models, this wouldn’t be happening. We would behave ‘rationally’ at all times. And yet we don’t.
Or rather, I would argue — and this is why Miller’s book is so interesting, because it’s a great attempt to start asking other questions than the old tired one of how do we maximize profit — our concept here of ‘rationality’ is too limited. For example, why should it be more rational to choose having lots of money over a better quality of life? Anyone can look around and see for themselves that if you have a decent income, a clean environment, good neighbors and warm community relations, family involvement, good food and health, that this is better than any amount of cash you might be offered in its place. At least, I would hope anyone would be able to see that.
On second thought, though, not everyone can see that. People get fooled. They get fooled by the abstract idea. A million dollars a year is obviously of more value than, say, the fifty thousand dollars a year that might provide the comfortable life. Million is more than fifty thousand. Therefore it’s better.
Of course, it’s not better. It’s just more. The two concepts are different. More is not necessarily better. You can prove that one right there in your every day life, every minute of your every day life. Are five cups of bad coffee in the morning better than one perfect cup? No way. Are five lovers better than one loved husband (come to think of it, I would guess even a bad husband would be less trouble than the lovers)? Are twelve children better than the one child you have and love? Of course not. But why one thing is better than another is impossible to quantify. You just know it is. You can’t prove it mathematically. Which tends to promote anxiety — the lack of our control over our own feelings. I think that’s why we get so anxious when we try to talk about feelings in any meaningful way.
So what Miller points out is that there is a dimension of feeling, of meaning, in economic activity which we tend to overlook, but which shows up quite plainly in the bookselling arena. There are feelings involved here, and feelings trump the idea of abstract advantage. People sell books and independently publish them, and write them, most often, too, are thinking about the economic activity involved. Of course they are. How could they not be? Everybody’s got to live, and to live you have to be part of an economic structure: that’s part of being a human. But they are not thinking ONLY of economic activity. They are thinking about meaning, and what gives meaning to our lives, and that to participate in forming meaning, and relationships that both convey that meaning and ARE the meaning itself simultaneously (and what a mind bender that is), that that is the most worthwhile kind of activity. And it’s activity where it’s worth taking a cut in pay.
Now of course there are plenty of other areas where, in theory at least, meaning trumps economic activity. Religious activity springs to mind — although not the activity of large religious organizations, which are, to my mind, the big box stores of the spiritual life. But take the Catholic Worker. The people in the Catholic Worker movement actually refuse to participate in traditional economic life. In that they’re quite radical. And then there’s the ideal of the starving artist, who also traditionally refuses, out of principle.
But why the example of bookselling is so interesting is because that is an area where someone who is not called to a ‘heroic’ (or extreme, maybe, depending on what you want to call it) stance, someone who is just humbly a part of the human race along with the rest of us, where that person can wrestle with the issue of how to balance finding and passing on meaning while still participating in the human market that’s existed for about as long as human history.
Because the questions are opening up, these days. The story, that we’re all pursuing our own rational self interest, the story that Ayn Rand told, that Alan Greenspan so happily enshrined in our financial systems, the story that a lot of us out here (the ones who, from birth, never particularly cared about how much money we made as long as we weren’t starving to death or otherwise trapped) never found satisfying, never found real, never found to be a part of our own experience — that story is breaking up, and showing an opportunity of transformation into something new, something closer to our real experience.
I find that quite exciting. And much truer to my own experience. So now we’ll see how EAP does — if it can pursue that search for meaning without being starved out of the game.