The positive digital future of books and publishing

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Victoria at Shakespeare and CompanyLast week I spent an evening in Paris with Ingrid and daughter Victoria – and we were especially pleased to be able to browse Shakespeare and Company, a longstanding cultural institution in Rue de la Bûcherie, on the Left Bank. Shakespeare and Company was opened by George Whitman in 1951, focusing on English language books. It is more than a bookstore, as apparently 50,000 writers have stayed at George’s home by the Seine, including people such as Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin and Alan Ginsberg. The store also runs frequent festivals and other literary events. George, at 95 years old, has recently retired. It serves as both a bookstore and a reading library, specializing in English-language literature. The bookstore also houses young writers, known as “tumbleweeds,” who earn their keep by working in the shop for a couple of hours each day.

Shakespeare and Company is a unique space; books old and new, places to study and write – and even a polite exhortation to sit down to use a rather antique (but fully functional) typewriter to put down your latest ideas. Our other most favourite bookstore is  Strand Books, on Broadway, New York, with their 18 miles of books … completely different in scale, but it obviously has some of the same ambiance and highly knowledgeable staff.

Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter now runs the store, and has modernized it, installing a computerized inventory system for the store’s 28,000 new titles (though not the used and antiquarian books). The store also now carries a range of French novels in translation, and has cut back on the “tourist stuff” (i.e. guidebooks). She’s quoted as saying “There’s such a special feeling there, I didn’t want to change it too much. I just wanted to improve it.”

In any event, our family’s love of books and reading is a longstanding thing, and we have embraced the digital era – with Sony Readers most of the time. We are now awaiting the iPad as I’m sure that will be the next generation for us … Yet, I still buy books, as somehow the physical feel is for me an integral part of the literary experience. So, it was with interest that I read today this brilliant article called “Publishing: the Revolutionary Future“.

It was written by Jason Epstein, and published in The New York Review of Books. Here are the opening paragraphs:

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends. Meanwhile, for quite different reasons, the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on edge, suffering from a gambler’s unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don’t recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good. The crisis of confidence reflects these intersecting shocks, an overspecialized marketplace dominated by high-risk ephemera and a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg’s German city of Mainz six centuries ago.

Though Gutenberg’s invention made possible our modern world with all its wonders and woes, no one, much less Gutenberg himself, could have foreseen that his press would have this effect. And no one today can foresee except in broad and sketchy outline the far greater impact that digitization will have on our own future. With the earth trembling beneath them, it is no wonder that publishers with one foot in the crumbling past and the other seeking solid ground in an uncertain future hesitate to seize the opportunity that digitization offers them to restore, expand, and promote their backlists to a decentralized, worldwide marketplace. New technologies, however, do not await permission. They are, to use Schumpeter’s overused term, disruptive, as nonnegotiable as earthquakes.

Gutenberg’s technology was the sine qua non for the rebirth of the West, as if literacy, scientific method, and constitutional government had been implicit all along, awaiting only Gutenberg to throw the switch. Within fifty years presses were operating from one end of Europe to the other, halting only at the borders of Islam, which shunned the press. Perhaps from the same fear of disruptive literacy that alarmed Islam, China ignored a phonetic transcription of its ideographs, attributed to a Korean emperor, that might have permitted the use of movable type.

The resistance today by publishers to the onrushing digital future does not arise from fear of disruptive literacy, but from the understandable fear of their own obsolescence and the complexity of the digital transformation that awaits them, one in which much of their traditional infrastructure and perhaps they too will be redundant. Karl Marx wrote of the revolutions of 1848 in his Communist Manifesto that all that is solid melts into air. His vision of a workers’ paradise was of course wrong by 180 degrees, the triumph of wish over experience. What melted soon solidified as industrial capitalism, a paradise for some at the expense of the many. But Marx’s potent image fits the publishing industry today as its capital-intensive infrastructure—presses, warehouses stacked with fully returnable physical inventory, its retail market constrained by costly real estate—faces dissolution within a vast cloud in which all the world’s books will eventually reside as digital files to be downloaded instantly title by title wherever on earth connectivity exists, and printed and bound on demand at point of sale one copy at a time by the Espresso Book Machine[1] as library-quality paperbacks, or transmitted to electronic reading devices including Kindles, Sony Readers, and their multiuse successors, among them most recently Apple’s iPad.Steve Jobs and the iPad The unprecedented ability of this technology to offer a vast new multilingual marketplace a practically limitless choice of titles will displace the Gutenberg system with or without the cooperation of its current executives.

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus. That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

Amid the literary chaos of the digital future, readers will be guided by the imprints of reputable publishers, distinguishable within a worldwide, multilingual directory, a function that Google seems poised to dominate—one hopes with the cooperation of great national and university libraries and their skilled bibliographers, under revised world copyright standards in keeping with the reach of the World Wide Web. Titles will also be posted on authors’ and publishers’ own Web sites and on reliable Web sites of special interest where biographies of Napoleon or manuals of dog training will be evaluated by competent critics and downloaded directly from author or publisher to end user while software distributes the purchase price appropriately, bypassing traditional formulas. With inventory expense, shipping, and returns eliminated, readers will pay less, authors will earn more, and book publishers, rid of their otiose infrastructure, will survive and may prosper.

This future is a predictable inference from digitization in its current stage of development in the United States, its details widely discussed in the blogosphere by partisans of various outcomes, including the utopian fantasy that in the digital future content will be free of charge and authors will not have to eat.

Digitization will encourage an unprecedented diversity of new specialized content in many languages. The more adaptable of today’s general publishers will survive the redundancy of their traditional infrastructure but digitization has already begun to spawn specialized publishers occupying a variety of niches staffed by small groups of like-minded editors, perhaps not in the same office or even the same country, much as software firms themselves are decentralized with staff in California collaborating online with colleagues in Bangalore and Barcelona.

The difficult, solitary work of literary creation, however, demands rare individual talent and in fiction is almost never collaborative. Social networking may expose readers to this or that book but violates the solitude required to create artificial worlds with real people in them. Until it is ready to be shown to a trusted friend or editor, a writer’s work in progress is intensely private. Dickens and Melville wrote in solitude on paper with pens; except for their use of typewriters and computers so have the hundreds of authors I have worked with over many years.

Read the rest of this fascinating article here. It is interesting that Epstein takes note of Jaron Lanier’s concerns about cultural impoverishment as a result of thoughtless development and spread of technologies. But, whilst he declares his own love of the physical book, he not only accepts but celebrates the positive implications, still not yet fully knowable, of the digitization process.

I find Epstein’s argument (and passion) compelling. I just hope that the literary world continues to embrace digitization without making us all suffer the sometimes painful and argumentative birth of digital music.