Robert McCrum responds to André Schiffrin's Words and Money in the Observer, warning that the threat posed by new digital economies to the publishing trade has been underestimated.
André Schiffrin, a distinguished former New York publisher, has been throughout this decade an indispensable, if rather pessimistic, guide to life after a cultural apocalypse, first in the much-admired The Business of Books (2000) and now in Words and Money (Verso).
McCrum suggests that ultimately, Schiffrin's "passionate and useful" analysis of the crisis in publishing and media must take a step further into the "dark threat of digitisation" and assess the threat of "Google's free for all" to our literary tradition:
Books, like newspapers, are an essentially middle-class phenomenon whose market is the self-improving professional. As a bourgeois medium, books and their authors depend on the cash nexus. Johnson went straight to the point with: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
Johnson was right. Words that get written for money are likely to be superior to words spun out for nothing, on a whim. California's "free" movement wants to argue that literary copyright is an intolerable restriction of the public's right to access information, and that words should be free. That's a profound threat to the western intellectual tradition. I hope that André Schiffrin, having raised the alarm about the demise of serious publishing and journalism, will urgently turn his attention to the new, possibly darker, threat of digitisation and its consequences.
The debate is set to continue at Schiffrin's talks in London this October.
Visit the Observer to read the article in full.