Do you think leaders in Silicon Valley are just
following the technology, or are they actually
hostile to the old way of doing things, to the
legacy institutions of journalism and publishing?
I think they’re actively hostile. Maybe they’ve toned down that
hostility over time, but go back a few years and read what
Jeff Bezos wrote about elite gatekeepers, and the way he
would talk about book publishers. There was a raw, open, rank
hostility to the old guard, which he sees Amazon replacing.
Yet Bezos today is being praised for revitalizing
the Washington Post, which you write about in
the book—you say we shouldn’t applaud too
loudly for Bezos just yet. Why not?
The Washington Post has gotten a lot better. And Bezos has
spent money on it, and he has presided over an admirable
renaissance. But that shouldn’t be the limit of our horizon.
I’d actually argue that the best thing to happen to the
Washington Post was hiring Marty Baron, maybe the greatest
newspaper editor of his generation. What often happens
with oligarchical ;gures like Bezos is that they try to launder
their reputations over time. But I think we can say “job well
done” with the Washington Post and still not lose sight of the
fact that Amazon is incredibly problematic, not just for book
publishing but the entire retail economy.
This fall marks five years since the U.S. imposed
sanctions on three major publishers for fixing
e-book prices. Looking back, an antitrust case
involving Amazon and big corporate publishers
was surely not the ideal venue to address the
deeper issues that lurked there. But what else is
available? Are we left to rely on antitrust law to
regulate our emerging digital culture?
No. In the Apple price-;xing case, antitrust was used as a
bludgeon against the publishing industry. It was kind of a
cut-and-dried case, but the law clearly isn’t right if it’s incapable of addressing the core problem, and in fact, in this
instance antitrust law actually became a vehicle for beating
back competition. We really need to consider the problem of
gigantism, and not just focus on price, because I suspect
Amazon, because of its size, will always be virtuous when it
comes to price, and it will use price as a guise for expanding
into every nook and cranny of every market, making producers ever more dependent on them. That is a huge problem not
just for the health of industry, but for our democracy.
The tech industry often touts the democratization they offer. But we are now seeing evidence
that Facebook in the last election was manipulated
in ways that may have distorted the democratic
That’s right. And it’s not just Facebook: Google, Amazon—
these companies are eroding the institutions that protect
democracy, and creating conditions among the citizenry
that actually make good democratic decisions less likely. But
I’m ultimately hopeful that we’ll see some sort of reversal. In
the book I have an analogy to food. What makes me optimistic is that 50 years after we got fat from processed food
and TV dinners, we’ve started to awaken to the problems
there. My hope is that something similar occurs with the
stuff we ingest with our minds. And I think with the outcome of the last election, a lot of people are starting to
rethink the power of these large tech companies. If you look
back at some of the 19th-century monopolies, they had
incredible power and prestige, but the backlash against
them came very quickly. Perhaps, we’re in an analogous
place, and what looks like immovable power now may actually be quite vulnerable.
Your book features a chapter on authorship. At a
time when we are seeing more avenues for authors
to get published, especially in terms of the ability
to self-publish books, how do you see authorship
I look at what happened to the publishing business over my
career. The ;rst book advance I got was paid out in thirds.
And over time as I’ve had different deals, the advances get
chopped up into ever-smaller parcels. I think what’s happening with book advances is something that most of the world
just doesn’t fully appreciate. Especially when it comes to non;ction, because writing a book of investigative journalism is
an expensive endeavor, and the system works best if you
have publishers making bets on authors. Self-publishing is
;ne. But in a world of self-publishing, where everything is
about what you get on the back end, there’s a serious disincentive from embarking on really important, vital projects.
The last chapter of your book is called “The
Paper Rebellion.” There are lots of opinions as
to why print book sales are ticking back up.
What’s your theory?
At one point, as you remember, people expected all these
new digital devices would displace paper. But that hasn’t
happened, and there are many reasons why—publishers, for
example, have been quite serious about preserving the value
of the books they sell, and I think that’s laudable. But I also
think there is an almost subconscious gravitation back to
paper that stems from our exhaustion with screens. I think
people have this innate sense that they need a break—that
they need to tend to themselves, and their minds, and that
they actually need some privacy, some moments where they
know they are not being tracked. Because it’s in those
moments that we’re able to think more freely, and more
deeply. And there’s really no better way to do that except for
the time we spend with words on paper. ;