Late AgeTed Striphas will challenge every entrenched notion you have about the publishing industry.

You think Big-box retailers like Borders and B&N have put independents out of business?

Striphas argues that other factors often contributed to the indie’s close, that the big-box retailers rectify the social/financial inequalities present around indie’s, and that big-boxers have a history and a sense of place, too.

Think the problem of books is on the consumer side, that people aren’t reading?

Nope. Striphas argues it’s on the supply side, with how books are printed and distributed, the inequality of supply/demand (books are “ubiquitous and mundane”), and how books have been commodified since the 1930’s “bookshelf in every house” campaign.

You think the emergence of e-readers creates a new problem for the book industry?

Well, back in the 1930s, publishers fought tooth-and-nail against consumers exchanging books with each other, even holding a contest to create a derogatory name for book-sharers (the winner? Book Sneak).

You think e-piracy will be a problem for booksellers like it is for the movie industry?

If you do, it’s rather ironic, given that in the late 1800s, America didn’t respect international copyright, and thus pirated European books and sold them at a heavily discounted price here in the States.

I could go on, because there’s a wealth of data, narrative, and ideas here, vaulting this slim volume into the heavyweight class of tome. Striphas discards canards about the publishing industry and creates his own narrative, which makes “Late Age” fascinating to read, even if I remain skeptical at some points. I remain skeptical that big-box retailers ever capture a place or maintain a history in the same way an indie bookstore does, simply on the basis of my many interactions with indie’s and big-boxers.

And I’m not sure that big-boxers challenge social inequalities. If you want to talk about access to books, there’s always the (free!) library, which levels the playing field.

Some of the material here is just helpful information, and doesn’t steer the industry toward its next step. For instance, the third chapter exposing the King-Kong-like ascendancy of Amazon.com using draconian efficiency protocols on their employees is interesting from an employee-abuse perspective, but leaves you wringing your hands asking what’s next.

Also, the fourth and fifth chapters detailing the aesthetics of Oprah’s Book Club and Harry Potter’s copyright-protection wranglings around the globe both are intriguing narratives about our current cultural moment, but are more observational than argumentative.

I should warn you that the book’s a bit academic. Striphas teaches American Studies and Cultural Studies at Indiana University and he quotes Heidegger and Marx within the first few pages. He also has an annoying habit of telling you what he’s going to write about rather than just writing it (as well as summarizing everything at the end). These are academic protocols, I realize, but you have to expect your readers to be smart enough to get it the first round.

There are also some patchy spots with language that’s been infected by theory:
“In 1891, the accession of the United States to international copyright didn’t represent a Copernican revolution in its stance toward protecting foreign works inasmuch as it expressed the declining marginal utility of the discourse of civic republicanism relative to the development and consolidation of industrial capitalism.”

But if you can overlook the occasional academicism, I highly recommend this book. It’ll have you chewing over the book industry for a good spell.

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