Forward the Foundation

The Times has been talking actively about the fight over the future of book publishing. The fight is getting serious.

I think society will have to figure out two issues with regard to books:

  1. What is the best format in which to read this particular book? Codex? Kindle? Tablet? (Scroll!?)
  2. What is the most economically sustainable model for book production? (Sub-questions here: What role will traditional publishers play? What role will massive online clearinghouses with thin margins [read: Amazon] play? What role will physical bookstores play? Is it ethical to walk into Barnes & Noble to see a book then to buy it right there—from Amazon on your iPhone?)

Amazon—an erstwhile darling now feared (and, let’s admit it, loved!) for its economic Darwinism—seems ready to overthrow the whole publishing system as it has existed since time immemorial. (Or at least since I was born; same thing.) They’ve said as much, as the article above shows.

My amateur opinion (the very definition of “blog”) is that the market will eventually work itself out. The demand for the kinds of books that cost a lot of money to produce will still exist, and people will still pay. But electronic distribution of analog and digital books will leave many middlemen out. Companies will have to move with the times or die.

But I’m a love-your-neighbor kind of capitalist. I don’t want survival of the fittest to mean the torturous death of the weak. So I think back to one book I read on dead (and decaying, in this case) tree pulp: Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. The “psychohistorians” in that story tabulated the sociological data and accurately predicted the fall of Trantor’s intergalactic empire. 40 billion people on 25 million worlds would, they said, descend into a chaos that would last for centuries. Their goal was not to stop that chaos but to shorten it with wise planning.

Is anyone in America—Barack Obama? Jeff Bezos?—capable of doing this with the publishing industry? I don’t know.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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