The Future of Food and Publishing

by Axie Barclay

All this chatter about organic or commercial produce, digital books or hard copy, box stores/online sellers or independent bookstores, small farms or conglomerate… It’s overwhelming noise. The best summary of the publishing industry I’ve heard lately is from Jason Allen Ashlock from the Moveable Type Literary Group. This quote appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest. It applies to agriculture too, in my opinion, but we’ll get to that.
“[On the future of publishing] In a word: coexistence. Cheap digital versions alongside artists and physical editions. Big-box stores alongside independent book shops. Mega-conglomerate publishers alongside niche presses. Big-brand, million-copy bestsellers and 500-copy print runs. All of value to the right customer.”

All of value to the right customer.

As a farmer, this rings very true to me. We forget, as farmers, as writers, that we are producing a product, and the end-goal is to sell that product. As much as we like raising chickens, gardening, calving ornery cows, we are, in the end, doing it to at least break even, at best make money. The best way to sell a product is to a customer. The best way to sell a book is to a reader. The customer, the eater or the reader, must be the right kind of customer. Do they want the million-copy best seller or the rare book of poetry? Do they want to shop at Wal-Mart or the farmer’s market? What value do they place on your eggs? Your words? Big conglomerate corporate farms can produce cheap corn-fed low-quality food to feed mass amounts of people, especially if their customer and their customer’s customer demand low-priced food. Smaller, independent, local farmers can spend more time developing a product of higher quality, at an acceptable cost, if they can connect with the right customer base.

So here’s the thing: we are a nation of underachievers. Our life spans are shorter than that of our grandparents. Our intelligence and attention span is lower than that of our grandparents. Our work ethic, financial acumen, and savvy are all sadly flagging. When did mediocrity become the new cool? What’s wrong with setting the bar a little higher? We bitch and moan about the cost of food and “hard” books, when we have the cheapest food of anywhere in the world (and some of the lowest quality, but that’s another issue) and have, as far as I can tell, some of the most dumbed-down forms of literature ever to exist. I mean compare Harlequin Romance to Lawrence Sterne, Virgil, or Richardson, one is readable to all, the other to hardly any. Both extremes are valuable, if only to create better understanding of the extremes that are available, however, what’s wrong with turning off “Bridezillas” and tackling a page or two of “one of those hard books no one reads”? Where’s the sense of accomplishment, of reading the hard books or harvesting produce out of your own backyard vegetable garden?

Perhaps I’m too critical, too set on hard-copy classic novels and grass-fed beef and pastured eggs. I like a greasy Big Mac as much as the next person. But the keyword of this column is coexistence. My beef and a Big Mac don’t exist on the same market. They don’t compete with one another. Maybe instead of changing the system, and cry “it’s the end of ___ as we know it!” we just need to make room for new rules, allow new games. Coexistence doesn’t mean domination or extinction. It means establishing an equilibrium with one another. Who knows? After while, the new game might become as addicting as alligator hunting.

Axie Barclay is a Michigan writer with a cow-habit. Having discovered the joys and potential for growth in alternative agriculture, she quests ever longer and harder for ways to combine farming and writing into a business. When not milking cows, making disgruntled noises at the latest disgusting thing the heeler dogs dredge up, riding horses, or keeping the fence up around her small beef herd, she’s holed up reading an eclectic array of books or tapping out pages. When not working, she enjoys kicking back with her honey, family, and friends at a bonfire with some beers. Chat her up on Twitter and Facebook, /axieb, or where she delves into literature and agriculture with a relish… and occasionally ketchup. Soon to be homemade.