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Words & Money Hardcover – November 8, 2010
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“A masterful assessment of the media crisis of our times and a roadmap to workable and effective solutions. This elegant essay is intelligent, informed, reasoned, and humane—exactly the book the world needs at this time.”—Robert W. McChesney
“A utopian vision, to be sure, but a refreshing one.”—Le Monde
“This book reads like a novel. Schiffrin continues to sow ideas for saving the independence of the press, the cinema, and bookstores. Visionary as always.”—Le Magazine des Livres
“A lifelong promoter of independent media, André Schiffrin again leads the charge in Words and Money, offering a host of original and valuable ideas about one of the critical challenges of our day—saving books, movies, and news in an era of chains, blockbusters, and the internet.”—Michael Massing
“Schiffrin shows how media consolidation is pulling the teeth of serious journalism, and how it can get its bite back.”—Vanity Fair
“Masterfully written and extremely thought-provoking, this work should stimulate a much-needed dialog among those interested in the communications and publishing field.”—Library Journal
“A sophisticated voice of reason.”—Los Angeles Times
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Some types of government support have a long tradition in American history. For example, thanks to Ben Franklin, newspapers historically enjoyed low postal rates. It's only in recent times that the US government has tended to argue against such special breaks for publications. Other forms of support would benefit users without imposing a burden on them. E.g., news organizations are being hurt by aggregators like Google, who gather headlines without paying for them -- reading these has in many cases become a substitute for reading the original sources. Why not impose a tax on Google's profits or its ad revenue, to be used to make grants or other subsidies available to news-gathering organizations? Schiffrin cites the example of France, where TV ads are taxed in order to support the film industry.
No doubt the conjunction of "France", "tax" and Google, our epoch's poster child for entrepreneurial and innovative success (i.e., the attainment of monopoly power), will induce many American readers to dismiss Schiffrin's suggestions as too "left." For such folks, the book offers many facts and figures that are signs of the world to come, when the free market (with regulations friendly to the largest corporations) decimates our culture even further. E.g., at the end of World War II Manhattan had 330 bookstores; today it has 30, including the chains. No less scary is the dissection of how e-book economics (and monopolies) will further destroy not only bookstores but publishers themselves. Nor is self-publishing on the Internet a solution. Schiffrin points out such books only succeed when there is a "defined audience that has a specific need for a book [...] an unknown author has less of a chance of reaching a new reader than do the millions of unknown bloggers" (@104).
The book also has a lot to say both about the spread into Europe of the American-style approach to the publishing, press and film industries (whose historical rise, at least in the book industry, is described in Schiffrin's "The Business of Books" (2000)), and about the imaginative solutions many European countries are implementing to slow down or arrest these trends. And the author performs a service by clearly laying out the fallacies in the "thanks to advertising, we can read this stuff for free" argument. Advertising costs increase the price of everything you buy, so ads actually make stuff more expensive (though that cost is displaced from the Internet to something else). For immediate proof, Schiffrin suggests, go to the supermarket: the only cheap things are either generic or the store's unadvertised house brands. Ads also contribute to the loss of diversity in content, since content has to be chosen to maximize audiences. Nor are ads inevitable: some countries (including the UK, France, and though the book doesn't mention it, Japan) charge licensing fees to support their state-owned broadcasting , which often produces news and cultural programming of very high quality. Why not a tax on computers for similar ends?
This slim book can easily be read in an afternoon. The more outrageous its constructive proposals sound to you from this review, the more I recommend you make the small investment of time to read it. At least you'll get a clear idea of the cultural landscape into which market forces are pushing us; and maybe the solutions won't look as scandalous, in context, as you expect.