Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

Literature & the value of values [post 34/100]

I spend rather a lot of money on Amazon, as do an enormous number of people. But for the last year and a bit I’ve been trying not to spend as much money there on books.

There is no doubt that Amazon offers supreme convenience, and thanks to my travel schedule and a healthy dose of laziness, that has a certain seductive appeal. But it does come at a cost: Amazon has for years been on a campaign to force publishers to cut their prices so that it can offer books more cheaply than anyone else. As a result of this and other more depressing factors, bookshops have been disappearing from high streets all over the world. I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg, though. It’s not just Amazon that’s at fault, and it’s not just bookshops that are suffering.

As a friend reminded me over dinner last week, Jeff Bezos didn’t choose books as his starting point for Amazon because he’s a literature geek. He also didn’t set out to be an online bookseller, at least not exclusively – the plan all along was to sell a broad range of goods. He chose books first because they made good logistical sense – they’re compact, mass-market, non-perishable items that don’t require complex packaging to ship. But books are more than that, aren’t they? They certainly are to me. They have profound power to further society, to be a part of lifelong learning, to make us better, more understanding, more compassionate humans. And this is what I really find troubling – treating literature as a commodity has broader reaching consequences than the local Border’s disappearing.

My mother instilled in me her love of reading, and I was brought up with the notion that books are my friends. I still think of them that way – many of my paperbacks have been loved very nearly to death; there are whole series that I reread when I’ve got a flu or am recovering from a bad breakup. And whenever I come across a new author that I really connect with, I have a passionate, emotional, joyful response. I don’t read indiscriminately and I don’t read exclusively highbrow stuff, but I do love reading and adore discovering something new that challenges me, inspires me, transports me. [Update for clarification: I read a lot of stuff these days on e-readers, and have absolutely nothing against them. I do still love the physical objects, but the transition from physical to digital isn’t what I’m concerned about – it’s the transition in the way we think of literature overall]

When publishers are strapped for cash, that means they have less money to spend speculating on new authors, new styles, new genres, anything deemed risky – they need a high rate of success in order to stay alive. This necessarily leads to a strategy that pushes more of what’s most popular – and what’s most popular is usually pretty unchallenging. Without going off on a tangential rant about the state of modern education, I think it’s still pretty important to have challenging literature out there for those who remain interested in reading it. Like art and music, literature speaks to our hearts, inspires us and opens us, takes us to places real and imagined that we might not have access to otherwise.

So I don’t want to see publishers backed into corners to the point where all they’ll bet on is romance novels and police procedurals. But the thing is, it’s not just Amazon who thinks of books as just another commodity and prices them accordingly – we the people do that now, too. We’ve absorbed this way of thinking, and now the thought of spending £8 on a book in a shop seems ludicrous when we can get it on our Kindle for less than a fiver. Literature has moved from art to commodity in one short generation. It took nearly a century for that to happen to music.

At the same time, many of us resent the idea of art as a commodity – the raging debate over Amanda Palmer’s (IMHO) quite brave openness about how she manages the business of her art is a great, depressing, bewildering example of this. It also shows that like many things about this brave new world that we’ve made with technology, we haven’t necessarily processed what it means to the point where we can make good, or even truly informed, decisions.

I think part of our job as we build the new businesses that technology enables is to be more thoughtful about these kinds of things, because we may be changing more than we realise. When we look at what we’re doing in purely financial terms, we have a tendency to over-simplify and that can lead to unforeseen (and unpleasant) consequences. Money isn’t the only kind of value we humans appreciate – there is value in joy, discovery, learning, collaboration, escape, empathy. Which means that there is value beyond the financial in what inspires those things. I’d like to see some Corporate Social Responsibility money spent investigating how we might measure and support values as well as value, so that the businesses we build foster social as well as economic development.