The New Face of the “Banned Book”?

I wrote a few weeks ago about my thoughts about the closing of the Borders bookstores around the country, and now, on a vaguely similar notes, I have some thoughts about recent news floating around about Barnes & Noble. It involves a collision of subjects– comic books, e-books, corporate weight being thrown around, and possible dark tidings for the future of the bookstore (and books) as we know them.

When I first heard about the fact that Barnes & Noble was allegedly pulling comic books and graphic novels off of their store shelves as a dramatic gesture to a publisher, I thought it was just an internet rumor. It turns out to be evidently true: CNN even reported on it, and I’ll link it here so you can get the relevant details if you’d like. I don’t know how familiar you are with the world of comic book publishing, but this amounts to Barnes & Noble basically jettisoning a huge chunk of the books in the genre. There are some big titles being pulled off the shelf– likely things you’ve seen in a movie theater in the last ten years. I think Batman titles are being pulled, along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and the Sandman works of Neil Gaiman. It’s a pretty big deal, involving some of the biggest names in the comic world– roughly equivalent to a bookstore declaring that they’ll no longer sell books by celebrated (and profitable) writers like Joyce Carol Oates, or Salman Rushdie.

So why are these titles getting pulled of the shelves, and sent back to the distributors’ warehouses? Did the authors become unpopular due to a controversial political remarks? Did Batman say a dirty word? Are comic books corrupting the youth? No, no, none of these things. The publisher is being “punished” by Barnes & Noble because they entered into an exclusive distribution deal of the digital version of the books with another company. As I said, you can read the details at CNN, but the whole thing seems really weird and risky in a time when Barnes & Noble is in the same danger of slipping down the slope of bankruptcy that Borders has tumbled down.

Let me put it this way: at a time when chain bookstores seem to be struggling to sell books at a sustainably profitable level, Barnes & Noble has just announced publicly that they will not have a book a customer is looking for. The take home message for the consumer? Barnes & Noble doesn’t sell some books, and may be an unreliable provider of them in the future. And, as Neil Gaiman points out, they just gave their competitor a whole bunch of free advertising in the process.

Now, in fairness, I should point out that Barnes & Noble isn’t totally refusing to sell these titles– they’re evidently still going to be able to be purchased online, or special-ordered into the store, but that seems like a chancy proposition to me. As a consumer, and as a former bookseller, I can tell you that customers don’t really follow through when it comes to making a special order for a title. It’s the 21st century– the whole reason we came to a brick & mortar store in the first place is because 1) we wanted to physically see the book to decide if we wanted to buy it, 2) we wanted instant gratification, or 3) we wanted to try to support a “local” business, even if it was the local branch of a national chain. Telling people to buy something online doesn’t guarantee that they’ll buy it online from you. And, even worse, it leads to a poor impression of the store– that’s one more time that a customer has walked into your store, only to be told that what they really want to purchase is “online”. How many times will that happen before Barnes & Noble simply becomes a coffee shop in the eyes of the customer?

To me, this looks like one of the first clear signs that Barnes & Noble is trying to literally get out of the book business. I don’t know what they’re going to do with all of their employees, physical merchandise, and store space, but it seems like their corporate management envisions the future of their stores to be little more than an espresso machine with a kiosk from which a customer can purchase a Nook. Maybe they’ll still sell Godiva gift tins and calendars. Still want “real” books? That’s okay! You can order them online.

One would think that e-books would be right in my wheelhouse. I’ve written about how I’ll probably explore digital options for any future magazine subscriptions as a strategy to reduce clutter around the house, and I can really appreciate having a folder of instruction manual PDFs available for household gadgets and appliances stored neatly in a folder on my computer, instead of hidden away in some file cabinet drawer or box in a closet. As someone concerned about the environment, surely I can appreciate the fact that no forests are being razed to publish the latest political memoir that will be virtually forgotten in five years.

Indeed, there are many things I can appreciate in an e-book, and should I find myself one day owning a reader or tablet computer, I will no doubt make use of them. I’ve even read a few short books in digital form. I love the idea of having ready access to public domain books, freely available. I love Project Gutenberg, and the idea that there is a sort of digital Library of Alexandria, housing the cumulative literary works of mankind, freely available to the public. There can be something very democratic about e-books, but the current landscape is troublingly un-democratic.

Books on a shelf are not indestructible, and can be lost to catastrophe, but what of books on an e-reader? It is early in the history of the e-book, but already Amazon has famously deleted books remotely from customers’ Kindles. The book in question? George Orwell’s 1984. The book was evidently an unauthorized edition that was nevertheless available on Amazon’s website, and customers were refunded the purchase price, but I can imagine that it was extraordinarily troubling to discover that a “book” one had been reading disappeared quietly in the night. It has spooky ramifications for the future. Has a publisher’s contract expired with Amazon? POOF! The book evaporates from your reader, or is “locked” until the publisher renews their contract. Has someone decided a book is inappropriate or too indecent for American readers? POOF! Howl has been removed from your device in compliance with a local, state, or federal law. That’s funny, my copy of Huckleberry Finn doesn’t seem to work when I’m on this school’s campus. Hmm, as an international traveler, I can’t seem to read this book in this country because the publisher hasn’t negotiated the rights for this text to be accessed in the Netherlands.

On the one hand, the e-book could be as revolutionary as the printing press, but on the other, it potentially turns the written word into just another licensed commodity in the hands of international corporations. What about the ramifications for small press and independent authors? Yes, the e-book could lead to a small-print renaissance– as long as the formats are open to those publishers and authors. Right now, the world of e-readers seems to be in a format war: either Amazon or Barnes & Noble. As a consumer, is it safe to choose a side? How about as an author? Will the Kindle format still be readable in five years? Ten years? Twenty? Eighty? If you’re not worried, then you should find an old floppy disk from just ten years ago, and see if you can still open one of your Wordperfect files on it. Someday we might have industry standard file formats, (and there is the more “open” e-pub format), yet the majority share of the e-book marketplace continues to sell books in largely proprietary closed-formats that may not be readable in ten years– or eighty years.

As I said, the danger of e-books is that it turns human culture into a perpetually licensable commodity. The library as we know it today would never be legally permitted by modern publishers. Lending, especially for free, is anathema to a business that wants to sell copy after copy of something. Of course, I’m not arguing that everything should be free all the time. Creators have a right to make a profit from their work. Authors, copy editors, publishers, chief executive officers, district managers and booksellers all have a right to make a living from what they do. What I think we should be aware of, though, is that we are living in an era where the idea of “ownership” is changing.

Right now, we live in a world where we “own” the books on our shelves. We can transfer and re-sell them if we’d like. If we move, we’re not obliged to throw them away and purchase new editions in our new house. If we don’t want them any more, we can sell them. If we’d like to introduce a friend to a new author, we can lend a book, or even give it away. There is potential, though, for this to become a quaint notion of a simpler time. Have you noticed how every time you install a bit of software, you have to agree to a user agreement? This is because you don’t own the software, you have merely purchased permission to use it in a specific and defined context. Those agreements are usually pretty clear on this– you may “own” a physical disk or media, but the usage of it is a right granted to you by the publisher. I think this is the case for most movies too, hence the “private home viewing” message at the beginning of movies. Even things broadcast freely through the air are licensed, not owned, like radio music or television signals. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad or unjust– indeed, it’s exactly what photographers do with our work (i.e., you can display the print on your wall, but you cannot use it for a licensed purpose, like for a book cover or advertisement) but it gets a little strange when such “gatekeepers” are applied to something more traditionally owned like books. In some ways, it would be like being permitted to only wear the clothes you’ve purchased in one country, or being only allowed to use your soup pot in your own kitchen, rather than taking it to a church function. I suppose what it comes down to is that books are no longer being treated as objects, like lamps, but as data, like software. And maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be something fundamentally important about books that makes it more of an issue.

Today Barnes & Noble is raising issue about something they cannot sell on a digital reader, but what if the next controversy is about something they refuse to sell? Right now they’re filtering their stores’ physical content, but the very process of filtering is troublingly despotic. Previously, there has been a two-party system of sorts, where publishers and bookstores rely on each other to make books available in a sort of symbiotic, or at least mutually-beneficial relationship. But what happens when we reach the point where the publisher is the seller too? It’s as though publishers and booksellers are both trying to save money by cutting out the middle-man, but they’re both middle-men between authors and consumers, and what we’re seeing is a bit of a battle where one of them is trying to establish that they are more necessary to the new marketplace than the other.

I’ve come a ways from comic books, and Barnes & Noble, haven’t I? What I’m trying to get around to, I suppose, is that things look grim for the future of the book, but not necessarily because of consumer demand. Barnes & Noble almost seems to be making some deliberate effort to drive themselves out of business, and I suppose it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if the company splits itself separate but allied digital and physical retailers in the coming years, as a goofy means of simultaneously declaring and avoiding bankruptcy. As someone who likes books, and hopes to one day make a few, this is discouraging. The future, it seems, will not be one in which authors rely on stores, or perhaps even publishers, to distribute work. Creators will have to be their own publishers, and I think this will be true whether one is a writer, a comic book artist, or a photographer. Will you one day be able to read something I’ve written on a Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader? Yes, probably. Maybe you’re even reading this on one of those now, but chances are if it ends up there, it’s due to my own efforts, and not because of the marketing division of a store or publisher. It seems funny to think about, but perhaps digital distribution will return us to a 19th century model of publishing, where word of mouth and local markets dictate what we read, rather than the marketing edicts of global corporations. Perhaps books as we know them will become quaint decorating motifs, and join the hipster pantheon of vinyl, film, and 80’s sunglasses, but my hope is that free expression and access to ideas will live on. Paper is nice, but the ideas are the important parts, after all.

In the meantime, though, I should point out that if you live in Bozeman, this news shouldn’t affect you at all. When I was last in Rook’s, they had all of the mentioned graphic novel titles on the shelf, and if you’re going to special order something, you should really order it from them.

MODEST UPDATE: It looks like Books-a-Million, a chain bookstore I’ve neither ever seen or visited (although I have to confess the name sounds a little familiar), is aping the Barnes & Noble decision, according to this New York Times article. I’ve been wondering if the Barnes & Noble decision would eventually be overturned as a sort of PR fiasco, similar to the Netflix/Qwickster debacle, but so far it hasn’t. – October 20th, 2011

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