Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Need for Dissent

Just this week, there was an event in Cambridge, MA celebrating the life and words of Howard Zinn, whom our own Christopher eulogized here. Zinn was a legendary historian and activist who prided himself on advocating for dissent. He worked with a number of independent publishers to this end, including Beacon Press, South End Press, and Seven Stories.

In the spirit of Zinn, I just have to question the way any voice of dissent against anything "e" - e-books in particular - gets either painted as Luddite whining or seen as conservative, as if the person questioning the e-revolution is some kind of guard against progress. The leading voice of this movement to squash any dissent against e-books et al seems to be Mediabistro's eBookNewser, which obviously has a dog in the fight. (Controversy = content.) Craig Morgan Teicher decided, on this site, to go after City Lights Books, a leading indie publisher, for supposedly calling for the trashing of Amazon Kindles. He based his accusation on the cover of City Lights latest catalog, seen here as eBookNewser displayed it.


Note Teicher's tone:

This is the current City Lights Books catalog. As you can see, it depicts a kind of Kindle graveyard. "Smash your Kindle," City Lights seems to say, "we publish books in print."

Is City Lights, the maverick publishing house founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the 1950s, against eBooks? So it appears. Or at least they're holding out a while longer. Though who wouldn't love to get a copy of Howlon their Kindle?

City Lights publishes many wonderful books, nonetheless, even if you do have to read them on paper.

This seems truly distasteful and childish, and in fact reminds me in fact of the Republican student group on the University of Texas campus, laughing loudly as the Socialist group protested the environmental degradation of the Amazon (fittingly) by corporations who had given money to the university. I mean, is mocking City Lights in this way necessary, appropriate, or in any way dignified, eBookNewser?

Publisher Elaine Katzenberger didn't think so and sent a smart, long, completely reasonable letter saying as much, posted here on Galleycat (another Mediabistro site, of course). I can't really say enough about her letter. I mean, it's awesome. Just awesome. In fact, I hope you don't mind, Ms. Katzenberger... I mean, I don't have to but... oh hell, I'm posting the whole damn thing. It's too good not to share directly with the good readers of SotB.

Hello there,

I'm the publisher and director of City Lights Books, and boy do I wish that someone from MediaBistro would've perhaps called or written for comment before posting such an inflammatory statement. "City Lights Says Smash Your Kindle"?? Oh, come on! We can do better! How about Smash Corporate Control of the Media? Now that's something we might be promoting.

I also wish they would've posted the entire image of the cover of our new catalog, instead of cropping off the bottom, where the caption for that photo of smashed electronics vs. old paperbacks asks in quite large type, 'PAPER OR PLASTIC?' (Maybe I'm showing my age, but I'm assuming we all remember when it finally became clear that plastic bags were ecologically unsound, and that question was asked to consumers over and over, with almost every purchase we made, right? Heck, there are city ordinances prohibiting chain stores from using plastic bags in San Francisco now...) Quite obviously, the caption would have helped cue folks to interpret the image a bit differently, and I'm perplexed at the notion that the good people at MediaBistro are somehow intentionally misleading their readers in this way. What gives?

Well, they say any press is good press, but I hear that folks are not only accusing us of being anti-technology, not forward-looking, a bunch of old Luddites without a clue who are doing an injustice to Ferlinghetti's vision, etc, but there's even an outraged Twitter feed circulating, citing the 'fact' that City Lights smashed up a PILE of Kindles (gasp!) in a monstrous act of gratuitous destruction that will prevent good people from reading just the kind of books we like to publish and sell in our bookstore. Ouch.

Honestly, I wish folks would take a deep breath sometimes. What all of us really ought to be paying attention to is the ways in which a major corporation has managed to somehow position itself and its product as something in need of outraged defense. When did the Kindle become a baby seal?! Amazon's marketing genius is certainly something to be studied.

Okay, let's get to the heart of it. First of all, that isn't a pile of Kindles in the photo (though there is one on top, obviously, and yes, we did add that to the photo to make a point about e-readers as a part of this eco-problem, but we didn't smash it ourselves. Who has the money to smash up one, much less a whole pile of 'em?? Here's a video post of book designers doing just that -- it seems designers have their own reasons to want to smash Kindles...). The photo shows some random digital waste, a bunch of broken and discarded gadgets, similar to a junklot full of smashed up cars. It's a stock photo that could probably have come from just about anywhere in the world -- and most definitely many so-called third world countries, unfortunately, where much of our "recycled" e-waste ends up, and people are exposed to horrific levels of toxicity. See, for example, [this story].

What is meant to be conveyed here (and admittedly in a manner that can be interpreted in other ways as well, for example, it could represent the rather over-heated sometimes apocalyptic discussion that rages in our industry about the direction being plotted for our 'digital future') is that the so-called 'green' nature of reading gadgets is rather a farce, when all one needs to do is to watch as each computer, each laptop, each 'smart' phone and each e-reading device is deemed obsolete and unusable and we are basically forced to upgrade and discard every one of those now useless devices every couple of years in order to continue to access information, entertain ourselves, communicate, and just simply do our work. Whatever else one might say about the conversion from print to digital, the claim for it's 'green-ness' is specious at best.

I think that all of us in publishing and bookselling realize that, like many industries, we have got to wean ourselves from ecologically unsound and unsustainable practices, and while we've made strides in that direction over the past couple of decades, there is still much to be done. This is not a defense of old ways, but a call for clarity when evaluating the new models being presented to us as something better.

So, in response to one of the comments posted in what seemed like real dismay I'd reply that no, we are not like the monks smashing printing presses (um, is that the way that story went?), but rather, we're doing what City Lights has always done, among other things, we're just sayin' Don't Believe the Hype!

Thanks so much,
Elaine Katzenberger
City Lights Books

As the kids now say, sigh....

I put in bold my favorite lines, but the whole thing is just terrific.

Here's to City Lights and Katzenberger's spirited defense! Here's to questioning the corporate greed of Amazon, and the "specious" claims of green-ness by those supporting e-publishing of any kind! And here's to Kelly Burdick at Melville House's MobyLives, that led me to this story in the first place!

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