Douglas Rushkoff Dissects Publishing Inc.

In Feature Articles by Edward Nawotka

By Edward Nawotka

NEW YORK: “About half to two-thirds of the publishing industry needs to disappear,” says Douglas Rushkoff, professor of media studies at the New School in New York City and author of eight books, including novels, nonfiction and comics.  “There is an oversupply in the market. What we’re learning is that publishing is an industry that doesn’t scale-up quite as profoundly as our corporate fathers would have us believe.”

Rushkoff’s latest book is Life Inc. Subtitled “How the world became a corporation and how to take it back,” it asserts that corporations have become the dominant force in our lives, transforming us from citizens into consumers, and, in the process, disassociating us from our work and each other.

Though an anti-corporation polemic, its publisher is Random House, a division of Bertelsmann AG, itself among the largest media corporations in the world. How does Rushkoff address the irony? With the dedication, which reads, “To You, the Real People on the Other Side of This Corporate Mediated Connection.”

Life Inc. The Movie from Douglas Rushkoff on Vimeo.

Taking into account the subject of his book, did Rushkoff consider a different route to print? “I was tempted,” he says, “But having have published some of my books differently before, frankly, they didn’t attract much notice,” he says. “The existing review structure is dominated by people working at corporations, the New York Times for example, and the people who review books tend to only recognize the validity of other corporations.”

He sums up the essential function of a corporation as finding “a way to make more money by having money,” and thus the large media conglomerates that own publishing companies are terminally disassociated from their own products.

“These conglomerates are far more concerned with the sums of money a book can bring from movie and TV deals than the books themselves earning out advances. They’re basically interested in selling up,” says Rushkoff.

As a consequence, there have been efforts to expand the very definition of a “book” into something more interactive and mutable – something more like TV and movies – but this in itself is not practical. “Books are less liquid, viral and recombinant,” says Rushkoff. “Text is pretty straight up and down, books are lopped off. They are live media, but they are static — the ink is set, the tree has been killed, like the Bible, they have been redacted. Books are a complete, self-contained experience.”

Under the current system, Rushkoff feels that the major global publishing conglomerates are “too big to stay alive.”  As a sustainable business strategy he recommends scaling back “to a sustainable plateau,” something that can be achieved with publishers focusing on their core competencies – distribution and publicity (for midlist or lower).

He advocates that publishers form small elite teams to do focused, limited lists of books. It’s something he says that could easily be done independently of conglomerates by some of the “very smart people” who have been fired in recent months. And despite cheap, widely available publishing tools, he believes professional publishing will always exist, just not in the way it does today.”There will always be a need for professionals,” he says, “so long as they are more competent than your average bar or Bar Mitzvah band.”

But the fact remains that conglomerate owned publishing needs to make money faster than publishing can ever hope to provide it. “It’s very possible that in the long run,” says Rushkoff, “publishing doesn’t occur on a scale that’s appropriate for these corporations to be in the business. We have to see then if our economy will even allow publishing to be a sustainable business on its own.”

WATCH: Douglas Rushkoff’s videos on Vimeo

READ: Life Inc.

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.