Digital Fiction 3.0: Everybody panic! NOW!

Now I think about it, her statement was rich with a delicious deadpan humour. Propped up in bed, reading by the glow of a twelve-inch PowerBook, my wife gave the idea all the gravitas of a shopping list. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘apparently book publishing has died.’

‘Really?’ I said, looking up from my crisp new paperback edition of Catch-22. ‘Again?’

What else could I say? What could be more appropriate? By the time my first short story appeared in a small-circulation literary journal, the publishing industry was already locked into a histrionic lurch from crisis to crisis, fuelled by corporate money and Luddite dread of what ‘killer application’ will finally lay the book, and industry’s existing edifice, to eternal rest.

Bob Miller, of boutique digital publisher HarperStudio, claimed in 2008, ‘We’re going to fix publishing’. This, of course, implies that publishing, in its traditional guise, is broken.

The image of a beleaguered industry staggering into oblivion is one perpetuated by its media coverage. From corporate and mid-level publishers to large bookshop chains such as Borders, the consistent message is one of crisis. Only Amazon.com, buoyant and energetic, bucks the trend, arousing only suspicion and fear among its rivals, both current and potential. Many in the rest of the industry seem to regard Amazon.com as something like the Blob, an entity that will continue mindlessly consuming publishing unless it can be stopped.

Authors are frequently paid obscene advances for works that all too often prove of questionable quality. The industry that cut its teeth on the philosophy of taking many small gambles, after a long period of consolidation and corporatisation, has found itself constantly chasing the next blockbuster, taking larger and larger gambles with fewer available resources.

Authors have described a pervasive low morale pervasive among editing staff in publishers throughout the United States. Writers seeking entry into book publishing feel the brunt of this morale via apologetic, and sometimes candid, rejection notes from editors.

The pervasive fear extends all the way to Oprah. Serious column inches have been devoted to the fear that Oprah will ‘soon’ go off air, cutting publishing houses loose into a red wilderness.

Much of this handwringing seems to emerge from publishers, critics, and other self-appointed keepers-of-the-flame, especially those from the large, corporate end of town. Rarely does anyone hear from the two parties at the centre of book and reading culture: authors and readers.

Fear of electronic publishing replacing printed paper as the preferred option to read, for example, Moby Dick is merely another panic point for a hungry media circling what they believe to be a dying industry.

Proulx’s observation of e-book readers, though astute and wonderfully pithy, is couched within an impassioned defence of the book, as if the printed word were under attack.

Really? Consider the following headlines for stories on digital publishing and their published dates in relation to Proulx’s 1994 defence:

  • E-Books: An idea whose time hasn’t come (Kirkpatrick, 2002)
  • An idea whose time has come back (Glazer, 2004)
  • An e-book reader that may just catch on (Pogue, 2007)

Doom mongers seem to crave a ‘killer device’ that upends the traditional publishing model and decimates the book market, possibly in the same way that a bored emergency doctor might crave a high-speed collision. But does anyone seriously believe that one single whizz bang digital gadget will one day consign paper to the past? Is the book nothing more than an old-fashioned ‘format’ like the compact disc or the jpeg file?

People really do like paper. We’ve had paper a long time, far longer than we’ve had either recorded music or photography (both still and motion). Printed text on paper is an ingenious and remarkably hardy means of preserving ideas and stories.

The critical word here is ‘preserving’.

In entertainment, the media that have most willingly gone digital are relatively recent creations. Newspapers, soon to become the latest casualty to the digital world, are a creation of the Nineteenth Century. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, acknowledges his own company’s device is no book killer: ‘Anything that lasts 500 years is not easily improved upon.’ In fact, the modern book dates much further to Roman times, when the codex superceded the scroll in what may have been the first format war. This may provide part of the reason why books have proved the form of entertainment most resistant to digitisation. The problem lies not because a lack of technology (books were in fact the first technology declared doomed by the digital revolution, as Proulx’s 1994 defence shows), but rather because of a lack of uptake or even interest in readers. Books are ingrained in our culture in a way celluloid or vinyl could never hope to match.

When we want to relax with a novel, as a rule, we prefer a book. Recreational reading is a tactile and physical act. The display of colourful spines on a bookshelf is a trophy cabinet, designed to parade its owner’s intellect and taste.

We tend to fetish books, and for good reason. The book is an incredibly efficient and inexpensive way to educate and amuse and for storytellers to reach an audience untroubled by time or place.

But that’s not the whole story.

Many people read text every day, both on screen and on paper. But not all text holds the same inherent value. While readers may wish to keep some texts, maybe for future reference, maybe to display as a trophy, or maybe for purely emotional reasons. Much more text, though, is disposable: reference texts, web sites, news articles, menus, and, yes, even fiction.

Self-appointed defenders of the book tend to overlook that much of what is published every day is not Moby Dick, or even Oscar And Lucinda. A publisher’s current list looks more like: The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life or Dewey: A Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched The World. Though such books are big business, commanding seven-figure advances, they are unlikely to become the culture-defining tomes that demand preservation for generations to come.

At least I hope they won’t.

Most books published today are consumables, much like newspapers: we read them once (if they’re good) and toss them aside. And such disposable text is ideally suited to digital reading, as the average newspaper, now caught in a terminal torpor, will readily testify.

A commercial advantage of the electronic book over the electronic newspaper is that readers appear far more open to the idea of paying for an e-book download than subscribing to news ‘content’ online.

Books can be one-off references in much the same way academic publishing relies on electronic texts to reach libraries and scholars. Digital consumption has begun swallowing the education and scholarly publishing industry in much the same way newspapers are fast becoming the slow moving print versions of their web sites.

The Kindle and other e-book readers acknowledge that, for all the talk of the book’s eternal preservation of vital texts, most of the books produced today are disposable products to be consumed and forgotten.

The other reality book defenders tend to gloss over is that computers and digital technology have already transformed book publishing. The same technology behind e-readers has already revolutionised the process of creating books, from the word processor to digital printing methods. I am always amused when book and journal publishers insist that all unsolicited submissions arrive on paper in an envelope only to request, on acceptance of a piece, the same story emailed as a word processor document.

Recognising this, some journals and independent publishers are increasingly eschewing paper-based submissions, whether to save time, money, or the planet. Even some large publishers are moving away from distributing printed manuscripts in favour of (egad!) e-book readers. Novels are now assessed, edited, designed, and laid out on a computer and returned to the author as a proof via email.

Only at the final stage, delivery to readers, does the story return to ink on paper via a digital printing press.

And all this technology is corralled into the creation of 200-odd bound sheaves of new-fashioned ink-on-paper.

And that’s just the beginning of the strange journey. As much as twenty-five per cent of those bound sheaves are headed only for the pulping machine. At a recent discussion between writers and publishers, participants estimated that as much as seventy per cent of all books published in Australia fail to earn back the advance paid to the author.

Publishers use digital technology to improve efficiency and save money in the production of books, and yet seem to undo that hard work in the product itself.

The discrepancy has not gone unnoticed. Independent publishers in the United States are experimenting with cheaper mass print runs as either print-on-demand softcovers or electronic texts, while simultaneously creating smaller runs of lavishly designed hardcovers for the smaller, cashed-up market of collectors and book lovers.

This is a significant development, taking its cue from developments in the music industry. After years of resistance, the music industry has finally realised that formats such as digital download, compact disc, and vinyl can not only coexist, but thrive.

The lesson for publishers large and small is to seek opportunities and provide texts in whatever format readers desire, whether analogue or digital. Some relaxation exercises may come in handy too. Reducing any new reading technology as a book-killer to be feared and derided does a disservice to the industry and insults the intelligence of both writers and readers. It’s also bad for business. Canny publishers and authors may begin to take a leading role in creating the future of reading technology. Why should we—the people intimately involved in publishing—allow technology and web companies like Sony and Amazon dictate the terms of how we read in the future?

Digital Fiction 4.0: The bottom line to come...

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Proof that I like books as much as digital fiction.