I recently wrote a couple of pieces for The Book Shed and for the Small Press Underground Networking Community (or SPUNC to you and me). I've only just noticed that both of them contain the word 'dead' in their titles. What's interesting about that is that I submitted both pieces untitled. The titles were chosen by the published blog editors. Does that mean anything? Probably not, except that any mention of dead things in discussion of digital publishing will likely make the headline.
So the first piece was for The Book Shed, which is a UK-based blog so a bit of discussion around what's happening on this side of the English-speaking market world was in order. So in bumbles the Minister for Small Business:
Everyone tells me the book is dead. I’d love to declare the death of premature declarations of death. But, sadly, I cannot.
In this line of work, it is sometimes difficult to avoid grand sweeping pronouncements. I understand that. When someone asks you a question on book futures and the truth takes twenty minutes just to get a sense of the industry’s complexity, it’s tempting to dismiss them with the equivalent of “Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own”, just so you can get to lunch on time.
“Look, the book’s dead, alright? Where are those sandwiches?”
Though expedient, such statements are, of course, completely ridiculous (except the bit about the sandwiches). After all, the book has been in its death throes since the nineteenth century. The latest high profile talker to succumb to the ridiculous isAustralian Commonwealth Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry.
"I think in five years, other than a few specialty bookshops in capital cities, you will not see a book store. They will cease to exist."
Call me cynical (please do), but I thought politicians weren’t supposed to say what they think. Independent booksellers account for up to 20% of the Australian trade, a much higher percentage than most other English language markets, and so represent a significant achievement for small business in this country. I guess we should just consider ourselves lucky Mr Sherry is not Minister for Health.
Zing! I wanted to continue with an imagined conversation with Nick Sherry, Minister for Health...
Minister: Why are we spending money on these people? It's not like they're still alive.
Aide: But they are alive. They're walking around, working, even paying taxes.
Minister: You can't fool me. I know dead.
But it was starting to turn into a pale mirror image of Monty Python's parrot sketch.
The second piece for SPUNC was on why those lovely scallywags called literary journals should not fear pixels, but instead use them to broaden their audience and influence.
She adjusted her glasses and took a deep breath as silence descended on the room. Her eyes were red, but dry, her chest swelled and her jaw set: bring it on. When she spoke, her voice was cracking but not cracked. She talked about her love of the printed page, of the bound volume. She pointed to many examples of print culture declining in the news world—closure of news rooms, consolidation of mastheads, low revenues. She talked of print being under attack, and of its advocates being proudly out of step with the zeitgeist. She talked of being in the minority and of being right.
‘If you’re here to convince us to go digital, you can get the hell out.’
She didn’t say that directly to me, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t squirm.
The occasion was a gathering of small publishers and the speaker in question published and produced a small literary journal. As a writer with many contributions to small literary journals over the years, I felt strange and uncomfortable to be considered, even briefly, an antagonist to the little magazine. Really, I am heartened to hear that small publishers have no intention of walking away from their print editions, but I hope the speaker in question was kidding with all that digital stuff.
Though tempting, wholesale comparison with other industries are rarely of much use in divining the future of publishing. Even between forms of publishing, such comparisons are awkward and ill fitting.
Newspapers were always in the business of selling advertising. I assume, technically, they still are. They don’t compete for eyeballs with books or literary journals. Increasingly, they compete now with news aggregators, friend recommendations, RSS feeds, and user-generated content, all of it fuelled by the free exchange of information established in the world wide web’s DNA (and by the news’s own cut-and-paste advertising-funded approach to the web for the last fifteen years). Newspapers traditionally had to be both comprehensive and timely, two things the ubiquitous and space-generous world wide web does far more efficiently and often for free. That’s not to say newspapers have no place, but they have had to scramble to define what the printed edition brings to the table that a digital edition cannot. I’m still not sure they’ve solved that particular problem, especially when we see paywalls going up around the world.
And it’s not like the advent of digital is anything new for journal publishers. I loved publishers who insisted (in recent years on their web sites no less) that submissions were sent in hard copy only until they realised they actually wanted to publish the piece. Then the writer received a polite email requesting a Word document. Most new journals and a few older ones have now dispensed even with that, preferring email or web uploads for their submissions process. Today’s aspiring writers will never know the uniquely pitying smiles of post office workers recognising the signs of a serial submitter.
Oh those pitying smiles of the lovely people at Red Hill post office. One of them once wished me luck. Sadly, I can't remember if it made any difference.
Speaking of literary journals, another non-fiction piece of mine is set to be published in the next (Septemeber) edition of Meanjin. More on that soon.