In 1996, I was working in my off hours as a secretary for the poet Joseph Brodsky when he died of a heart attack at the age of fifty-five, leaving me as his literary executor. The great rush to read previously forbidden books was still strong in his native Russia, which had only recently begun to publish his poems after his twenty-plus years of exile. Many of Brodsky’s readers were appalled that some person in America was deciding how their beloved poet’s works appeared; they saw it as another form of censorship. No, I argued, copyright is an instrument of freedom: It allows the writer (or creative person) to benefit from their work and dictate how it reaches the public. Without copyright the creative person is serving another master—a patron, a “writers’ union,” a boss.
Unbeknownst to me, five thousand miles away in Silicon Valley, the inventors of the Internet were having a similar argument, although no one seems to have been listening to my side of it. Information, said the pioneers of digital reading, wants to be free. They built this presumption into the technology of contemporary reading, which has had far-reaching consequences for the life of ideas.
As the tech pioneer Jaron Lanier laid out in this illuminating interview, the axiom that information means to be free determined that the economy of digital media would be based on advertising. When you read something online without paying anything, or paying less than the costs of making it, you are paying for that experience with your data, which the platforms are harvesting to sell advertising or put to other—possibly unknown—future uses. Your payment does not go to the person who made the thing; their right to control its dissemination has been compromised by ubiquitous digital distribution. As Dina Srinivasan explained in a recent article about digital advertising markets, the consolidation of digital media among a few giant players has drawn advertising dollars away from the writers and publishers who create what you read. (Similar mechanisms are in play in other creative industries: music, film, photography.)
As the monopolies grow, the possibilities for securing revenue for writing and being party to its distribution constrict. According to the Poynter Institute, jobs in journalism shrank by 23 percent between 2007 and 2018 (in print by 45 percent). Shane Bauer’s 2016 report on private prisons, which contributed to a Justice Department decision to end private prison contracts, reportedly cost $350,000 to produce and brought its publishers $5,000 in ad revenue. Observers dispute attempts to place a dollar amount on what Google and Facebook have pulled from journalism earnings, but no one disputes that Google and Facebook have grown rich advertising around journalism, and news publishers, who create the “content” and pay those who write it, are losing. Other models for funding journalism, such as philanthropy and venture capital, are coming up short as well.
In books there are also disputes over reports of how much authors’ revenues have shrunk, but no one challenges that Amazon’s command of the retail market has given it unrivaled ability to dictate debilitating terms to publishers, which places a downward pressure on royalties. Amazon sells and ships books below cost to wipe out the competition, increasing its ability to set incapacitating terms and also its ability to collect data on its customers and manufacturers, which it in turn converts to advertising advantage and uses to supplant its own merchants and widen its control of the market. Many economists now argue broadly that corporate consolidation has inhibited wage growth; the consolidation of media, and the effect on the earnings of those who make its “products”—writers—is no exception.
Meanwhile, the promise of the “free” internet, a public square where the best ideas rise to the surface, seems increasingly remote. Recent events have shown not only how easy it is to game the system, but that the system by its nature juices our most destructive impulses. Anger, fear, conflict—these drive clicks, the “engagement” that whips up user data, and the algorithms that determine what we see respond to engagement: a digital fight attracts engagement just as violence draws a crowd. “Whenever something significant happens it attracts negative emotions,” Lanier says, “negative emotions are the most addictive patterns … You engage people by ruining society. That is the current business model.” Algorithms reacting to the worst in us organize what we see; plus the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality enables industry heavyweights to buy our attention outright.
Writing (read, any creative endeavor) begins in solitude. An editor approaches a solitary person, a person who has given long thought to something, whether a creative idea, or the product of careful research or analysis, something they have nurtured alone in order eventually to share it with others, and helps them navigate this transition, from thinking to disclosing. I began Book Post a year or so ago because I was looking into this feverish swamp of disclosure, where ideas are told to move fast, to scrape up “engagement,” to become “viral” (formerly a bad thing), and I wondered how strong, considered thinking is going to take hold in our digital future. What happens when people who develop substantive ideas cannot be compensated, and, on the other side, when readers and consumers are not provided with good information? News journalism has strong defenders, but what about other, slower, more fundamental ideas, the ones that ground our culture and inform our values?
Lanier recommended subscription as a way forward. “If the incentive structure rewarded individuals then I think you’d see individuals being themselves instead of being pack members. That’s the reason people should be paid for what they do online.” With a newsletter, for instance, one can protect writers from the demand for clicks, protect readers from the drive for their data, learn about them, hear from them, connect readers, regular readers, to the bigger project of building our shared ideas, and participate in what I hoped might be a broader cultural counter-pressure in favor of human-driven decision-making in the communication of ideas.
Remembering the local paper’s book review (a casualty of the decimation of local journalism), and the local bookseller (whom we at Book Post support with our links and our partnership program), both tended by people from within a community responding to that community, I created Book Post to put a known group of readers in touch in a concise and direct way with ideas that stand a chance of holding up. The Notebooks I’ve been writing about the life of books—not at all by design—have found themselves circling around a larger case for restoring the place of the individual and the local in our information ecology, reclaiming ideas from the algorithm. I wish the “legacy media” were talking more with its readers about how we need to read in the future—about what’s going on with new platforms, and how payment structures effect the health of ideas. It is in the strong interest of the tech conglomerates to lull readers with convenience into accepting unhealthy mechanisms for maintaining our culture; we need to be building vital alternatives.
I sometimes think of publishing as a kind of imaginary room. I think readers and writers both, when they send in their pieces and read pieces, feel in a way like they are coming together with other live humans in conversation. Economic conditions and also specific personalities and visions created rooms like the mid-century New Yorker, for example, which brought us Hershey’s “Hiroshima” and Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” We need in these perilous times to create rooms in which writing can grow, and readers can find it, in order to sustain the writer of the future and the as yet unknown ideas they will bring our way.
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