The Past and Future Histories of Books: An Interview with Ted Striphas (Part Two)

You trace the surprisingly long history of Barnes and Noble as a book store which has transformed itself many times across the 20th century.  Given this nimbleness, why have we seen so many brick and mortar bookstores close over the past decade or so? Is this simply the next stage in their evolution or does it represent a more fundamental shift in the place of bookstores in our lives?

This is a wonderful and challenging question, Henry, because bookstores mean so many different things to different people. The best way for me to answer it is to think about what Amazon.com has done to the idea of a bookstore. The company has succeeded for many reasons, chief among them a commitment to low prices. But it’s also succeeded, at least with books, because it’s taught consumers that many of the things people liked best about physical bookstores could be reproduced online, often algorithmically. I wish I had a dollar for the number of memoirs I’ve read about readers and their relationship to particular (often independent) booksellers. They often wax nostalgic for how their favorite bookseller just seemed to know which books would most interest them. Well, along comes Amazon, which can perform more or less the same service but without direct human intervention. That may be a drawback for some, but many people avoid buying books about sensitive issues — say, sex, mental illness, or divorce — for precisely that reason. What Amazon has done so successfully is to create a bookselling environment that mimics most of the strengths of traditional bookstores while at the same time throwing their many drawbacks — most of which people just accepted as the status quo — into sharp relief. Oh…and Amazon is always open.

I don’t have any grand prognostications about the future place of bookstores, beyond wanting to sound a note of caution about Amazon. It wasn’t all that long ago that Amazon deleted pirated copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from its customers’ Kindles. Can you imagine another (physical) bookseller breaking into your house in the middle of the night to reclaim a pirated copy of a book you’d just legally purchased? Amazon says it will never do something like this again, but because every Kindle is “tethered” to the company, it will always possess the capacity to do so. Similarly, that Amazon accidentally de-listed gay and lesbian themed books from its product catalog a few years ago, re-indexing them as pornography, tells you something about the delicacy of its computer systems. What are the implications of delegating the curatorial work of culture to databases and computer algorithms? That’s a question I’m pursuing in my current book project, on the topic of “algorithmic culture,” and have posted about at length over on my Late Age of Print blog.

When you ask about “a fundamental shift in the place of bookstores in our lives,” these are the types of questions that arise for me. And they’re not exactly the kinds of questions we’ve had to ask about bookstores in the past.

You see the introduction of the ISBN code as a key moment in transforming our contemporary relations with books. What led to this innovation and what impact did it have?

I had the good fortune of receiving a very positive review of The Late Age of Print when it first came out, in UK’s Guardian newspaper. The reviewer admiringly called me a “distribution nerd” because of my enthusiastic discussion of the ISBN. I haven’t lost any of that exuberance, as you and your readers are about to discover!

The ISBN is a simple, elegant, and effective code, one that tells you just how wired the book industry is. In fact, it’s one of the things that tells you that book publishing was among the first wired industries, period, despite the fact that people tend to think about it as behind-the-times.

Basically, in the 1960s, a British bookselling chain confronted a practical problem: how to inventory all of its books and coordinate stock among its numerous stores? The company’s management team studied the issue and later convinced a trade organization to agree to a book coding standard — what was called the “Standard Book Number,” or SBN, later to be known as the ISBN when it was adopted internationally. Originally it was 10 digits long; in recent years it’s grown to 13 digits. With this you can electronically communicate a book’s language or country of origin, as well as its publisher, title, edition, and binding. That’s an astonishing amount of information to convey in such a tiny amount of space.

I see the development of the ISBN as a technological counterpart to advertising, public relations, and other types of “ideological” work that the culture industries routinely engage in. So much of the story of popular culture in the United States in the 20th century focuses on how “captains of consciousness” — people like Bernays and others — helped to square capitalist production and consumption through their work. And yet, their work would have amounted to little had there not also been an adequate infrastructure in place for book publishing and other industries to coordinate the distribution of their products. It’s much sexier to talk about “swaying the masses” than it is to discuss product coding, and yet the latter is no less significant to the story of popular culture than is the former.

You discuss the debates around the contribution of Oprah’s Book Club to contemporary print culture, but now, Oprah is off the air. To what degree was the impact of this institution linked to the nature of broadcasting? Could Oprah’s book club have functioned the same way in a digital environment? If not, what kinds of digital practice might be encouraging people to read more rather than less (as seems to be the fear of many cybercritics)?

I really appreciate how you’ve inflected this question now that “Oprah has left the building,” as it were. One of the reasons for the success of Oprah’s Book Club was Winfrey’s repute and notoriety, but celebrity alone can’t explain why a TV personality became such a major force in the book world. One of the claims I make in The Late Age of Print is that Winfrey and her producers cleverly tapped elements of the televisual medium to make the Book Club successful. So, for example, they were sensitive to the seasonal dimensions of television viewing; recommendations for long books tended to coincide with the end of the regular television season in May, thereby giving readers plenty of time to read the selection before the new season of Oprah began in September. Similarly, Oprah Book Club shows were carefully segmented in such a way that even those who hadn’t read the latest selection wouldn’t feel left out. It was an extremely adept, decade and a half-long example of how to marry books and television, happily.

What the Oprah example suggests, moreover, is that printed books and printed book reading can be encouraged in digital environments given the right type of strategy and, more importantly, the right sensitivities to the affordances of digital media. That’s already emerged, in fact, around Goodreads, which is a site combining social networking and online conversation about books. Amazon, too, is experimenting with a social network, its version architected around the Kindle. Readers can opt to share passages they’ve highlighted in their Kindle books with people who have decided to follow their feeds. You can opt to Tweet those passages, too, complete with ready-made hashtags meant to encourage response.

The intention seems to be to virtualize and deterritorialize the traditional reading group. The question critics are now starting to ask is, can you have a meaningful conversation about a book in settings mediated by hardware, software, and code as opposed to, say, paper and one’s living room? These digital systems are still in their infancy, so in my view it’s too early to tell. Having said that, I don’t see why, perforce, you cannot have a deep and intelligent discussion about books online, even in installments of 140 characters or less.

Given the centrality of Harry Potter as a case study in the book, I wondered what you thought the Pottermore announcement suggests about the ways that, as you write, “printed books and electronic media can complement each other”?

The Pottermore site, J. K. Rowling’s new digital hub for selling Harry Potter e-books, encouraging fan involvement, and promoting Harry Potter more generally is probably the biggest thing to happen with the boy wizard since I published The Late Age of Print. And, sure enough, it does certainly suggest the complementarity of atoms and bits, paper and pixels.

Having said that, Pottermore also seems to me to point to something even more interesting: Rowling’s desire to maintain what you might call “end-to-end” control of the Harry Potter franchise. She’s been deeply involved in the production of the film adaptations, even going as far as to have Steven Spielberg removed early on in the process because he wanted to Americanize the stories (for example, by transforming Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry into “Hogwarts High”). She’s also active in policing Harry Potter copyrights, trademarks, and related indicia, something the Harry Potter Lexicon copyright infringement case from a few years ago made clear. Moreover, until Pottermore, Rowling refused to make e-editions of the Harry Potter series available, fearing for the ease with which digital copies not in her immediate control might end up being pirated. (A footnote: I find it naive to think that anyone can control a digital copy of anything, even if it’s digitally rights managed. When I worked at a hardware store in high school, my boss was fond of saying, “locks are for honest people.”)

What Pottermore tells me, then, is that Rowling aspires to become book publishing’s equivalent to Apple Computer — something she’s quite well positioned to do. And, as with Apple, that type of end-to-end control will undoubtedly have its plusses and minuses, its benefits and frustrations; you get a great product, but it’s significantly on another’s terms.

Your Harry Potter case study is very much about “piracy,” the creation and circulation of unauthorized versions of the book in the developing world, yet many of my readers are also interested in fan fiction as the unauthorized expansion of the Harry Potter universe by its fans. How does this kind of publishing fit within the book’s discussion of print culture practices?

Piracy is an issue with a tremendous amount of gray area, one that too often gets presented as if it were simply black and white. Whenever we want to talk about piracy, I believe we need to imagine it as existing along a continuum that includes, at minimum:

1) officially authorized derivative works (e.g., the various novels in the Star Wars series sanctioned by George Lucas);

2) officially tolerated derivative works (e.g., unauthorized vanilla fan fiction that adheres closely to existing narrative universes);

3) possibly tolerated derivative works (e.g., unauthorized fan fiction that pushes the boundaries of or even departs from the standard narrative universe, as in the re-narrating of Harry Potter and Ron’s Weasley’s relationship as homosexual); and

4) allegedly infringing derivative works (e.g., unauthorized materials that are usually intended to be sold commercially, as in The Harry Potter Lexicon, the Russian Tanya Grotter books, etc.).

What this means, ostensibly, is that almost anyone whose creative work piggybacks on that of another is a pirate, at least to greater and lesser degrees. I realize that’s a controversial claim, but at some level it gets at the nature of the creative process, which is all about marshaling and remixing existing cultural resources. That’s also in part why, for instance, J. K. Rowling herself has been accused multiple times of plagiarism and copyright infringement, the Willy the Wizard suit being the most recent example. However fresh and captivating her stories undoubtedly are, they nonetheless draw on some of the deepest resources of Western culture, including the narrative of the hero’s quest, the genre of the British boarding school novel, and much, much more. (The fact that Rowling has deep, deep pockets is also a major factor here — let’s be clear.)

One of the things that most intrigues me in talking to the students of my “Cultures of Books and Reading” course, where we read my Harry Potter chapter from The Late Age of Print, is the tension that exists between categories (2) and (4), above. I’m always fascinated to hear my students debate where they think the line should be drawn in terms of what constitutes illicit (piratical) appropriation. Most are generally okay with officially authorized derivative works. Some, however, become very upset at works that end up in category (4), even as they admit to being readers and sometimes producers of fan fiction, typically of category (2) and on rarer occasion, number (3). I’m not sure how to reconcile this tension other than to point out that many have framed the piracy issue as a clash between “powerful” and “grassroots” media producers. But there is also significant tension that exists among the grassroots — which is to say nothing of all of the suits and countersuits that routinely occur among the big media producers.

The bottom line for me, then, is to begin thinking more deliberately about the ways in which law and legal concerns increasingly mediate people’s experiences of culture — this alongside the work you’ve done in terms of identifying the frameworks that fans and even more pedestrian consumers use to judge the legitimacy of particular cultural goods.

Ted Striphas is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication & Culture, Indiana University and book review editor of the journal Cultural Studies. He research and teaching interests include media history, the digital humanities, and the future of scholarly communication. He blogs about books and digital culture at The Late Age of Print. You can also find him on Twitter: @striphas.