I’m away from home at an undisclosed location (which will become disclosed in an AAR, but because of the nature of this trip I don’t have time to meet with any fans, and I don’t want to offend anyone. Maybe another time) and as we boarded the plane yesterday I thought how impossible this type of trip — including the stuff in the airport like concession stands — would be to plan out, if you were some kind of a central planner.
We flew across the country whisked from a plane to another plane (with the second flight rebooked as the first was very late, before we even landed.) At the end of it, there was a hotel room waiting. We were rarely left at loose ends.
And I thought “Man this would be a b*tch to plan from the top down.” I mean, two months ago, I didn’t even know I’d be taking this trip. Anyone planning for an “average load of passengers” wouldn’t have counted on me, yet there was a place for me when I needed it, for, you know, cold hard cash.
I have traveled in different conditions. I’ve traveled through countries where airports are more or less run by the state. You’ll know this, as there is only a water fountain in the entire friggin’ airport, you have to pay for bathrooms, and if there is one concessionary, it charges $20 for a bottle of water. (Who, me? I’m just a little bitter about having to cross some aiport in Germany with two young toddlers and no water or bathroom.)
But I haven’t traveled in conditions like what P. J. O’Rourke describes in the old soviet union, of the trans-Siberian express. There since it was all planned from the top down, they couldn’t care less how people actually traveled, provided they could tick it off on the list as done, so there was only one bathroom and the way the trains were designed meant the floor was awash with piss and vomit.
Our current education system — yes, mine too — or maybe something in our minds leads us to believe that if everything were planned out, surely it would be more efficient. We want there to be some super intelligence in charge of it all, making it all perfect.
Instead, the most complex things are accomplished by what has been called “the invisible hand of the market” where you want to sell something and find someone who offers it for sale, and if that fails, you start something that sells it.
I’m explaining it all very badly, and it seems impossible that the market CAN provide the most out of the way things. Periodically I have a need of something (usually a kitchen implement) and I think “I wonder if there’s a way to juliene these vegetables faster) and look on Amazon and voila, there is a vegetable peeler Julienne thing.
Not only is the market pretty good at providing (mostly because we humans are pretty standard and if I want it someone else wants it and there is someone who thought of making money from it) but as the ability to sell at a distance and buy across the borders gets better, it becomes more efficient at providing for things that only a few people want. Because all over the world, even those of us of odd tastes are a lot. Enough for someone to get rich.
At one time, there might have been that Julienne peeler somewhere, but someone like me, in (then) small town Colorado wouldn’t have been able to find it. But now I can connect even with people making stuff intended mostly for chefs and such.
Planning that kind of exchange across the world would be insane. How would anyone know that I’d need it because — due to the low carb thing — I make fake pasta out of zuchinni a lot and chopping up zuchinni gets tedious?
No one knows, but it’s there, and I (and other odkins like me) can buy it.
So much for the efficiencies of a planned economy.
Which brings us to the book business.
You know and I now how the book publishers (except one) eventually seemed to get to a place where we just couldn’t find anything to read, even in a crowded bookstore?
Yeah, the problem is that various other trends (mergers, bookstore mergers and megastores overtaking the little local stores) overtook publishing and made them think it was not just more efficient but necessary to switch from a “pull” model to a “push” model. I.e. instead of trying to figure out what the public wanted, they thought they could sell anything to the public, given enough push and promotion. Instead of doing surveys or finding out what the public (or the super-readers who account for most of their business) actually wanted to read, given the power (they thought) of making people read whatever they put out, they thought they could publish whatever they wanted.
As ever in a planned system, (talk to people from the USSR sometime) this turned from producing what was needed (i.e. what readers wanted) to what would make the planner look good. In the old USSR that meant producing 5000 baby shoes for the left foot because the bill would show 5k shoes made. In the old publishing system it meant producing books your peers and bosses thought well of. And given the ideological (too strong a word for it. While they are Marxists, they’re not intellectual Marxists, but reflexive ones. They think everyone has to make these noises about the oppressed, and injustice, to be “a good person”) trend of people mostly educated in our best universities, there was a lot signaling that they were “smart” and “with it” by buying increasingly more hectoring books about more “societal problems.” Add in the fact most of their ultimate bosses are in Europe and view the US through the lens of Hollywood as a benighted land that needs to be preached to, and shake in the periodic crazes because, say, a mystery about shoes and sluts sold, and suddenly everyone wants their own shoe and slut book out, and you’ll realize how we got in the mess we got in. Even those of us who love to read started calling trips to the bookstore “Going to be disappointed by Barnes and Noble.”
And then ebooks happened. And indie.
Now the question is: can traditional publishing switch from a push to a pull model, fast enough to save themselves? Can they realize that their mass-production and mass-marketing business is not only no longer working, but counterproductive in modern times? Can they order surveys and studies? (While they still have the money?)
The prognosis is not healthy. Not only does it seem almost impossible for systems to switch from command and control to market (the Eastern nations are making stop and go attempts. China just went to a different type of control) but most publishers seem to be unaware they need to TRY. They lull themselves to sleep with fairytales about print coming back and ebooks being flat (hint, it’s a market distortion caused by traditional publishing’s unrealistic pricing of ebooks. Even I don’t buy their ebooks.) They sing themselves to sleep with lullabies of a bookstore return.
And meanwhile they step nearer and nearer the abyss, while continuing techniques for book buying/publishing/selling that would have been fine 20 years ago but not now.
Part of it is being insulated by their own apparatus, and editors who are the ones who have most contact with the public, being approached only by people who want to sell to them: just as it was 20 years ago.
They won’t notice that the midlist they tried to get rid of is now leaving them: mostly because most of the midlist leaves before approaching them. It just goes indie and flourishes there. They won’t notice the numbers are falling, of if they do there’s excuses to hand, the same they used these last 20 years “People just aren’t reading anymore” is at the center of those. It’s dead wrong, but it sounds good. They’ll just think people really stopped reading now.
And that’s the worst part of a planned economy. It allows the planners to fool themselves and think they’re doing the best that can be done.
And meanwhile the market passes them by, its miracles invisible and unobserved and its efficiency unnoticed.
Let us be glad that more and more the technology does allow the market to bypass the planning. And that we can find the stuff we want to read and publish the stuff we want to write.
Yes, it’s scary, but this too shall pass.
And the free marketeers will still be here. Long after the planners are gone.