When we think of desperate people holding hands on a flaming building and leaping to their death, Americans are not generally thinking of the history of labor unions. But on March 24th, 1911, one couple held hands and lept to their death, to be followed by some 140 others, in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. Bystanders watched helplessly:
Down below on the street, people started to notice the smoke billowing from the 8th floor. One of the bystanders observed a bolt of cloth come flying out the window and hit the pavement. Instinctively, he remarked that Harris was trying to save his best material. As the people on the street moved closer, out flew another bolt. It was then that the realization hit them that it wasn’t bolts of cloth at all but bodies plummeting to the pavement below.
The thousands who watched as the workers jumped flaming to their deaths were instrumental in changing support in favor of labor unions and building codes in New York City. Years before the fire, the women who worked their went on strike to fight for better working conditions, little things like a 52-hour work week and unlocked doors on the factory floor. At the time, the concern about locked doors was that the foreman did so to prevent women from using the bathroom. After a month of striking, the women at the Triangle factory were not able to agree with the bosses on the important sticking points of having a closed shop and collective bargaining. They returned to work, still locked in the building from 7am to 8pm every day.
A bit more about the fire, so that we can appreciate the tragedy that occurred a hundred years ago today:
Within three minutes, the Greene Street stairway became unusable in both directions.Terrified employees crowded onto the single exterior fire escape, a flimsy and poorly-anchored iron structure which may have been broken before the fire. It soon twisted and collapsed from the heat and overload, spilling victims nearly 100 feet (30 m) to their deaths on the concrete pavement below.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “future of publishing.” After all, books have never had as much cash to spare as the recording industry, and look at the mess they’re in. Already it is not so difficult for a self-published manuscript to sell itself on Amazon.com. What will happen when everything goes digital? The suggestion is that there will be an opening of the gates, and the latest best-seller will stand on the same virtual shelf with thirty self-published manuscripts. The optimists claim that this is where the great unpublished books will be discovered and pessimists point to the unleashed masses of poorly thought-out, half-written tomes filled with spelling errors. But it doesn’t matter if fantastic self-published books are available if they’re drowned out by countless other books vying for the consumer’s attention.
Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions.
Chuck says in response, ” that doesn’t sound like what will happen when the FUTURE OF PUBLISHING is made manifest. It sounds like what happens right bloody now.”
As it is, there are about 100,000 brand new titles published and printed every year, and it is fair to say that even the most devoted readers may touch 1/100th of that. That doesn’t take into account the thousands of reprints of absolute classics that exist. I am pretty sure that if I devoted my entire life to reading I would not get through every book on my imaginary wish list before I breathe my last breath. Now imagine compounding this with an onslaught of unpublished manuscripts, from gorgeous to garbage, that would land on the market place if the result of this revolution were a totally leveled playing field. What would happen?
I came across this nice article by Cory Doctorow on Boing Boing wherein he makes some interesting points on how current copyright laws have censored the majority of books.
the legal changes introduced in the years after Fahrenheit 451 did more than just extend terms. Congress eliminated the benign practice of the renewal requirement (which had guaranteed that 85% of works and 93% of books entered the public domain after 28 years because the authors and publishers simply didn’t want or need a second copyright term.) And copyright, which had been an opt-in system (you had to comply with some very minor formalities to get a copyright) became an opt out system (you got a copyright automatically when you “fixed” the work in material form, whether you wanted it or not.) Suddenly the entire world of informal and non commercial culture — from home movies that provide a wonderful lens into the private life of an era, to essays, posters, locally produced teaching materials — was swept into copyright. And kept there for the life of the author plus 70 years. The effects were culturally catastrophic.
This issue brings to mind the hardest part, for me, of working in publishing—seeing how many books are destroyed and being powerless to stop it. You would think that out-of-print books are worth more, since the moment it is declared out of print it is limited edition, i.e. those that exist now may be the only copies left in the world. The book industry in the only one where retailers are allowed to return the product if it doesn’t sell. But if they hold onto the book after it is out of print, the publisher will refuse the returns. Thus as soon as a book has been declared out-of-print book sellers nationwide box up every last company and return them to the publisher, who, having nowhere to sell them, has them demolished.
Naturally, you are wondering why they don’t just donante the books to libraries or other book-hungry institutions. The problem is again returns: they assume that a certain percentage of these would find their way back to the bookstores, who will return it for full price. On each of these books the publisher, author and distributor are then paying the bookstore for the book and making zero profit—a risk they’re not willing to take.
So every time a book goes out of print, it is also removed from the shelves and incinerated. Yay, capitalism!
Funny how capitalism ruins things, even when they set out to do something swell. The Treasure Island Music Festival is a fine example. Not that the fest was ruined as a whole, but their efforts at environmentalism left the stale taste of unfiltered Oakland water in my mouth. They made big efforts to make the show green. Instead of trash bins, you had landfill, recycling and compost bins, with tips on what goes where. Kudos for that. But in other respects their need to be profitable got in the way of their stewardship to mama earth.
Firstly, I was irritated by their transit plan. There was no parking on Treasure Island. Instead one was supposed to take a free shuttle from the ATT Center. The problem with that is that the ATT Center is not on BART. Anyone (such as myself) who doesn’t live in San Francisco is expected to take a one hour BART ride to the city, catch a short cab ride to the shuttle and then shuttle back over the bridge I just came from. So I’m expected to commit to a trip that would likely take upwards of two hours for a destination that is twelve minutes drive from my house? No thanks. I suppose the folks planning the event live in the city and don’t think much of us “bridge and tunnel” types. Their site offered no advice as to how to get there if you weren’t coming from the city. We took a taxi there and hopped on the all-nighter bus to get ho me. Apparently some others had the same idea because the taxi stand had more people waiting than you can fit into your average Mission dive bar. The festival bragged about having zero-emissions buses but when someone who BARTs and bikes to get around has to take a cab just to get to your show, you’ve erred on the green master-plan somewhere.
But this is an understandable problem, considering they are dealing with an island in the middle of the Bay. Their plan to get rid of bottled water on the other hand offered far more reason for me to make my indignant face. A big part of their green plan was not selling bottled water at the festival. We were encouraged to bring our own sealed bottles into the site. I suppose this was to keep people from smuggling liquor in and out of the premises, otherwise I can’t imagine why I couldn’t bring an unsealed, empty bottle and refill it there. So instead of using a container I already had at home, I bought water to take into the fest. It defeats the point of not selling bottled water if I have to buy bottled water at CVS. Then when we get inside, we check out the “refilling stations.” Here they are charging three dollars to refill your water bottle or one dollar to refill the metal canisters they are selling at the festival. These little mementos cost fifteen bucks. So folks who didn’t bring their own water are encouraged to shell down a wad of cash to buy a metal water bottle that they probably don’t need and likely won’t keep after the festival so they can
use less plastic for the next two days. What a blow to consumerism!
OK, I’m through kvetching. The Treasure Island Music Festival is still the coolest music fest I’ve ever been to.