Friday, January 2, 2009

Bits and pieces and Poetry Friday

[…]And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The sun is lost, and th'earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation;
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind, of which he is, but he.

-John Donne (From “An Anatomy of the World” 1611)

Happy New Year!  Actually, it’s not such a gloomy poem when you think it was written 400 years ago, but it was definitely on my mind a lot recently.

For instance, over at the Harper Studio blog The 26th Studio, Debbie Stier makes an excellent observation about watching music industry statistics: “I watch the music industry like a little sister who may find lessons to learn.” Well said, though I might say “older, underappreciated step sister” instead of “little sister.” We were here first, after all.

And speaking of “all in pieces, all coherence gone . . .” The gist of her observations is, for me, that the music industry is a very mixed, broken picture at the moment. CD sales are in free fall; downloads are growing steeply (but not downloads of albums—more single tracks and ring tones). In short, the music industry is trading “analog dollars for digital dimes” (I have heard this phrase often lately regarding both books and music).

Then, in last week’s New Yorker, there’s a fascinating piece about cell-phone novels in Japan (novels both composed and read on cell screens that, in later print editions, have begun to occupy significant bestseller space):

The Japanese publishing industry, which shrunk by more than twenty per cent over the past eleven years, has embraced cell-phone books. “Everyone is desperately trying to pursue that lifeboat,” one analyst told me. Even established publishers have started hiring professionals to write for the market, distributing stories serially (often for a fee) on their own Web sites before bringing them out in print. In 2007, ninety-eight cell-phone novels were published [in print]. Miraculously, books have become cool accessories. “The cell-phone novel is an extreme success story of how social networks are used to build a product and launch it,” Yoshida, the technology executive, says. “It’s a group effort. Your fans support you and encourage you in the process of creating work—they help build the work. Then they buy the book to reaffirm their relationship to it in the first place.” In October, the cover of Popteen, a magazine aimed at adolescent girls, featured a teenybopper with rhinestone necklaces and pink lipstick and an electric guitar strapped to her chest, wearing a pin that said, “I’d rather be reading.”

There’s no aha! in any of this for me, actually. I don’t think you can tease any of these data points into a trend or a single direction. And maybe that’s the point. For the better part of a century, our experience of music was coherent on the format side (whether radio, LP, cassette, or CD) and reasonably neatly generational and cultural on the content side (your parents reliably didn’t understand your music and Pat Boone and Elvis had to sing black R & B before it could be mainstream). Now, this coherence is largely obliterated. “Crumbled out … to atomies” seems absolutely apt when you think that that even the basic building block of popular music, its atom, the single, has been split: “Twenty percent of Rihanna’s revenue, he said, has come from the sale of ring tones,” says the New York Times.

The prospect of a similar atomization for books is even more head spinning, given the much longer history of the format and the relative inflexibility of the content (what is the book equivalent of the ring tone?).

Obviously, no answers here, but I think 2009 is going to be very interesting.