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Ethical reading : a call to action or a middle-class pipe dream?

This afternoon at The Space Between Us (the thought-provoking event organised by NALD), we presented some very early thoughts around our ‘ethical reading’ project : a simple look at whether readers could be asked to make ethical choices about buying books. These thoughts have been loosely collated around a number of conversations with publishers, writers, readers, retailers and agents around what happens when book content is given a price tag of (or near to)…  zero. 

There has been much discussion this month around how much writers really understand about the publishing industry. The catalyst for this latest debate was kicked off by the literary agent Jonny Geller’s manifesto, followed by the writer Kate Pullinger’s blog, in which she refers to the social scientist John Thompson’s book The Merchants of Culture which suggests that writers function in a knowledge vacuum when it comes to understanding the publishing industry.

We might now be seeing a better understanding between writers, publishers and agents, but this doesn’t detract from the fact that book prices are being pushed to zero – either through piracy or aggressive pricing strategies. So if we are looking for writers to be paid for the books that they write could one option be to educate the reader into making ethical decisions about their buying habits? Do readers care whether writers are fairly renumerated for their work?

We did some digging around. ‘Ecosystem’ is a word which props up again and again at conferences – but what does ‘ecosystem’ even mean in the publishing context? What is this ecosystem that we’re trying to protect – is it writers, literary agents and publishers? In looking at definitions of ecosystems the concept of bio-diversity offers an even more interesting analogy.

“Biodiversity is the degree of variation of life forms within a given species, ecosystem, biome, or an entire planet. Biodiversity is a measure of the health of ecosystems. (wiki)”

In a digital realm where book buying choices are being led by market demand, SEO, keyword research, and so on, is there a risk that the publishing landscape starts to look less varied? And if so, what are the consequences of this?

We also checked out the definition of Sustainable Development:

“Sustainable development (SD) is a pattern of growth in which resource use aims to meet human needs while preserving the environment so that these needs can be met not only in the present, but also for generations to come… (wiki).”

Could we be destroying the environment in which writers are developed and nurtured, and do we risk losing voices for generations to come?

The most interesting analogy was that of Fairtrade:

“Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade… By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers.”

This phrase around pricing “which must never fall lower than the market price” seemed particularly poignant. Fairtrade  producers are paid properly – led by consumer decisions – so why not the producers of books?

In our discussions around this concept we’ve had a range of reactions, some very encouraging, some very skeptical – do we really expect readers to make ethical choices around reading? Well – they already are…

According to the American Booksellers Association, “Those in communities with a “buy local” initiative reported revenue growth of 5.6 percent on average in 2010, compared to 2.1 percent for those in areas without such a campaign. These studies document the positive economic impact of locally owned businesses, and how they contribute significantly more money to the local economy than do retail chains.” This is a group of ‘consumers’ making ethical choices about where they buy books.

There have already been many anti-piracy campaigns which aim to raise awareness to consumers around films and games content – from the 1992 ‘Don’t Copy That Floppy’ (a must-watch video if you get 9 minutes!) through to the most recent British film industry campaigns which try to encourage viewers to support the film industry with the message:

“Every time you pay for a cinema ticket, a DVD or Blu-ray, or a legal download, it makes great British films happen and highlights the immense wealth of constantly emerging talent we have in this country.

At present we don’t have a parallel campaign to support writers. There have been attempts to try and educate whole cities to understand the impact of supporting its creative industries. In New York City a Campaign Against Content Theft & Piracy has been launched. Its key distinction from other anti-piracy campaigns seems to be in it really trying to educate NYC readers, viewers, etc of the ‘ecosystem’ in which the content that they consume sits within:

“If you live and work in New York City, there’s a good chance you know someone who could be affected by job loss in creative industries: 21 percent of all New York workers, directly or indirectly, in creative professions. Or maybe you’re one of the thousands of students working hard toward a degree in film, music, publishing or fashion. Without serious action against content theft now, your future job is at risk too.”

But this works both ways – following the Lift Conference 2011, a manifesto called Don’t Make Me Steal tries to lay out a set of rules around ‘Digital Media Consumption’. The manifesto pushes the onus back to the producer: consumers won’t ‘steal’ so long as a certain list of criteria is met.

In our digging around ethical reading, we commissioned the writer and commentator Ewan Morrison to give his thoughts on the subject. Morrison argues that “at a certain point we end up acknowledging that we don’t really know for sure if our ethical consumption is really all that ethical.” His essay, which you can read BELOW, states that “the (ethical reading) argument is, unfortunately, flawed and is dangerous for a few reasons.”

Can we really expect readers to make ethical choices about reading? And if they are making ‘ethical’ choices around reading, then are we clear about which ecosystem are they even protecting? If writers don’t understand how the publishing industry works then how can we expect readers to know or care about it?

This is merely a simple kick-off post to generate some interest in this subject area. Do please read Ewan Morrison’s post below – and we’d love to hear thoughts on this subject…

Why ‘ethical reading’ couldn’t work: Ewan Morrison

A certain idea is floating around in the e-ether and it is that, in spite of all of the changes happening within book manufacture and distribution since the ebook appeared, the publishing industries will survive and books will continue to thrive because the people who consume books are not the kind of people who are digital pirates; they are ethical consumers.

They won’t let the book go down the same route that the music and photography industries have gone down, losing half their value in the last ten years, as they turned digital. Although the ebook might transform the book into a free PDF file floating round the internet, the ebook is fundamentally different from the millions of pirated MP3s, MP4s and QuickTime movies, or so the argument goes. The book is different because the people who consume books are a different kind (or class) of people from those who rip digital content from the net without payment. Book readers inherently understand that they have to pay for culture in order for culture to survive.

But the argument is, unfortunately, flawed and is dangerous for a few reasons.

It assumes that the class of people who consume books are aware of the jeopardy that the publishing industry is in.

It assumes that the vast majority of readers/consumers of books are different from your standard consumers in their buying behaviour.

It assumes that a willful act on behalf of this class of enlightened people can reverse a trend that exists within the rest of society.

It is helpful in such instances to call a spade a spade, and the spade in this case is the middle class. For sure they are the very class that the book has traditionally appealed to over the last two hundred years; the book and in particular the novel – with its inherent notions of self-betterment through reading and learning, with its propagation of the ideal of human empathy – is a symbol of all that is liberal and progressive. Reading books allows us to experience the extremes of human experience and to formulate our own ethical standpoints. From Crime and Punishment we learn that the murderer is haunted by his crime, from Beyond Good and Evil we learn that God is dead and that we must create our own ethics, from Pride and Prejudice we learn of the subjugation and inner strength of the female sex; from The Female Eunuch and Das Kapital we learn to critique our society as we live within it. Books make us better people.

But we are snobs or willfully blind to the realities of the publishing industry and its problems if we assume that everyone who buys books shares these transcendent liberal values.

We truly live in postmodern times in which society as a whole has abandoned such ideals of self-betterment through reading, in which we have let power slide away from the gatekeepers and elites that governed the 20th century. The collapse of the net book agreement and of cultural price fixing, the appearance of bestselling books on supermarket shelves and the destruction of over 2,000 book shops in the UK in the last half decade demonstrate that books, for all their airs and graces and high moral standards, can become something on par with a can of beans or a bottle of wine. Something you pick up on the way to the checkout in the supermarket.

And we should not underestimate the power of the mass-reader-friendly massively discounted books over the market. We may have prizes like the Man Booker and the Orange to preserve and promote the ideas of high culture, but they too over the last decade have had to pander to the supermarket to legitimate themselves and hit sales targets. If James Joyce’s Ulysses had come out in 2012, I very much doubt that it would have won, or even been nominated for the Booker, as there is no way that it could “cross over” into the mainstream.

So really, this idea that there is a class of people who will maintain cultural standards for the rest of us is a fallacy because the financial bedrock for most publishing houses is not in selling high cultural commodities, but in selling celebrity memoirs and cookery books.

Over and above that, what makes money for publishers, according to Nielsen, is the synergized crossover novel. The novel that becomes a movie, the serial novel that becomes a serial franchise of movies. Harry Potter, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This is what the masses consume and this is what keeps publishing houses afloat. This is also where ebook and film piracy cross over. The remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was one of the most pirated films of 2011.

And why should we trust in the ethical consumption behaviours of the middle classes vis-a-vis piracy. Personally – and I say this scientifically noting myself as a representative demographic slice of the middle class – I know of at least twenty very middle-class parents who rip films from the net regularly, or access pirated films on YouTube, because they haven’t got the time on their hands to nip down to Blockbuster. And there are other parents who know that their kids are ripping music, pop videos and essays from the net, who try to clamp down on such activities, but nonetheless are not in control of “what the kids do on their smartphones in their own rooms”.

Of course, the evidence here concerns movies, music and pop videos. But the emerging generation, now in their teens and early twenties, sees no distinction between one form of culture and another, between ebooks and pop videos. The “i-media” generation has no care for whether or not their casual acts of piracy will impact on future generations of creative people, because everything for them is immediate, like instantaneous downloads, and everything on the net is free. This is what they know because this is what they are offered by companies like Apple, YouTube and Google when they sign up for their new smart platforms.

YouTube, it has to be said, is the subtle, almost invisible thin end of the wedge that drives itself into the heart of copyright. According to Robert Levine in his groundbreaking analysis of the impact of piracy on the cultural industries, Free Ride, up to 70 per cent of content on YouTube is illegal; it should not be there, no permissions from makers or copyright owners were given for this material to be ripped and re-published.

Most people who use YouTube regularly have no sense that they are involved with piracy. There is no illicit download procedure, almost everything from the entire history of western culture is available instantaneously for free. When I have explained to middle-class liberal people that YouTube is 70 per cent illegal piracy I am regularly met with shocked faces. “But we’re good people! No one told us we were being pirates!”

Readers of books are somehow different from YouTube pirates, or so the argument goes. They are inherently more responsible, these ethical consumers. To that I can only say that the idea of the ethical consumer itself is a contradiction in terms. As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman stated, “The consumer is not a citizen,” and by this he meant that the consumer does not assume the moral and civic responsibility of the citizen; the consumer has over the last twenty years been taught to act irresponsibly, with no concern for the consequences of his or her actions. This is part of the fun of shopping – we don’t have to worry about where stuff came from.

There is a real moral gap between how we think we consume and the social reality of how the things we consume were manufactured. This is because complex processes of international production and distribution have created a huge gap between how the products were made – usually in the third world – and the shiny products we buy.

We may try to shop ethically, for example by buying organic vegetables or free trade coffee or clothes that were not manufactured in sweat shops, but we do not know for sure that our products were ethically made. Again and again clothes manufacturers with a no-sweat-shop policy have been revealed as lying through their teeth. At a certain point we end up acknowledging that we don’t really know for sure if our ethical consumption is really all that ethical; we end up just hoping that it is. “Oh well, what can you do?” we sigh. “We meant well, we tried our best.”

And it’s not really the fault of the ethical consumer that they are such pathetic apologists; in most cases they don’t really grasp how unethical consumerism is.

That smartphone we hold in our hands, for example, contains precious metals like coltan, the exploitation of which has fuelled civil war and environmental catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But even the most ethical consumer will not be giving up their cell phone anytime soon. They might instead protest that “nobody told us it was connected with war,” “we won’t buy another smartphone,” or “we’ll give some charity money to the Congo and post about how evil this is on Facebook,” while at the same time they continue to use their smartphones.

There is really very little solitary consumers can do about such things. There is huge systemic pressure on us all from above by huge corporations to consume less than ethically. Take, for example, Amazon and Tesco. We know that Amazon are destroying profit margins for publishers and that writers make no money at all on any of the 1p books that Amazon affiliates sell (so they can get a share of the postage fee), but it is just so much easier to shop on Amazon, and we’ve all got so little time these days to go out and find a book shop, and God knows they’ve all shut down anyway since Amazon came along. So we choose our massively discounted books and click on “Buy now with 1-click” and we turn a blind eye to the ethical consequences of the act of consumption. Just as we do when we pop into Tesco or shop by Tesco Direct. It is just so much easier than going to a local store, and since we’re only popping in, it’s not really going to do that much damage to the local economy. And we tell ourselves, “I know, I know, I shouldn’t shop in Tesco because they are an aggressive, monopolistic multinational, but it’s just me, it’s not like I’m changing the world all by myself.” And so it goes on: “I know I shouldn’t shop in Walmart because they are union bashers who sell sweatshop goods, but it’s on the way home and I really need to get some lightbulbs and a new doormat – and it’s cheap and no one will know.”

Ethical consumption breaks down because it places too much on the shoulders of the individual, who is already pressed for time and resources, and because the consumerist world in itself cares little for ethics.

What does this mean for book and ebooks? Well, books and bookshops will only survive if all of you ethical consumers out there can stop shopping on Amazon and in Tesco and in Walmart, and stop using your smartphones, and if you are willing to pay the full price for books at independent bookstores, and also if you can start teaching your children, right now, that getting all of that great stuff through free downloads on their new platforms has got to stop.

All of this is going to make consumption much more expensive and time consuming and fraught – but that is the way it has to be if ethical consumption is to exist at all. It also might be of help to ask our governments to lay down the law on how these companies do their business so that the burden of ethical consumption is lifted from the weak shoulders of individuals.

With something as important as the survival of the book industry it is really not enough to sigh, “Oh well, we tried to save it, but what can you do? We meant well, we tried our best.”

Ewan Morrison’s new book Tales from the Mall is launched in paperback, enhanced ebook and app formats on 1 May 2012 and is available for pre-purchase from Cargo Publishing.

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