We hear a lot these days about the growing concentration of the media, on one hand, and the wild expansion of the blogosphere on the other. It calls to mind A.J. Liebling’s famous dictum that “freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” These days, almost anybody can own the equivalent of a printing press. Like your humble servant here, for instance.
Which gives us the chance to think about what the free marketplace of ideas is really about, and what kind of metaphor it really is. If I want to hear interesting ideas from reasonably competent writers on subjects I care about, I can go to the corner and buy a newspaper, or to the bookstore in the next block and buy a magazine or a book. Or, if I want to make money, I can find a magazine or a newspaper that wants to buy something I write, or even line up a publisher for a book I want to write. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, writing for a mag or a paper makes a lot more economic sense than trying to get a book published, or even having succeeded at doing so, at least judging by my daughter’s experience and my own in the literary world.) Both sets of operations are based on the presumption that more people want to read than to write, and that therefore the financial incentives should be directed at would-be writers from would-be readers rather than the other way around.
Guess what, people? That presumption is dead solid wrong. The blogosphere, in both its professional and amateur incarnations, is proof positive of that. Not to mention the experience of Ted Kaczynski (sp?), the Unabomber, who spent nearly 20 years mailing bombs to commercial and non-profit techies (killing 3 recipients and seriously injuring 23 others,) but promised to stop in exchange for publication of his “manifesto” in a major paper. The New York Times and the Washington Post took the deal, mute testimony both to what it takes to get published these days, and to the determination of some unpublished authors to get into print anyway. If Kaczynski had only waited until the invention of the blog, the Unabomber’s victims might all still be alive and unhurt.
Or maybe not. In general, the incentives are all running in the wrong direction.
1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
70 percent of books published do not earn back their advance.
70 percent of the books published do not make a profit.
(Stats from the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop, University of Dayton: http://www.humorwriters.org/startlingstats.html)
What somebody needs to do is set up a system in which writers pay and their readers get paid. It should start on a smallish scale, obviously. Most writers don’t have enough money to pay lots of readers, even in small sums. But many readers could use the money. And perhaps many illiterates would be motivated to take up reading. A couple of school reading programs have tried similar incentives, with a fair degree of success. Prisoners might find the idea especially attractive.
Or perhaps we should start with a reader/writer cooperative—or is that what the blogosphere already is? Anyway, this needs a closer look.