‘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. 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.
Literary journals are in an entirely different place; two of their primary challenges are visibility and access. The low circulation and high cover price necessary to survive a print world keeps a lot of journals from reaching a wider audience. Print places limits on the volume of work that can reach the page, meaning many journals must reluctantly turn away good writing. But the limited space available in print editions can spill over onto pixelated pages. Publishers who embrace digital publishing have access to a larger canvas for work beyond what goes into print editions. Once this may have been considered inferior to print, but that attitude is changing.
In this environment, the print edition, rather than being replaced, becomes a regular focus for a continuous stream of work: a snapshot of the best work a community of writers, editors, and readers has produced in any given time. Pixels complement dead trees wonderfully.
And that’s what really bothers me about this particular journal publisher’s tirade: that an embrace of print necessarily means a rejection of digital. I honestly thought we were past that. A print-published author—especially an emerging one—that fails to engage with an audience via whatever tools are available is one that wilfully dances with obscurity. I suspect the same can be said of small publishers, both of periodicals and books.
And I would have told her as much at the time, had it not been a ridiculously inappropriate forum to do so. After all, I was outnumbered in there.
This is an excerpt of a piece Simon recently published at the SPUNC Blog. Full text is available from http://spunc.com.au/splog/post/simon-groth-on-why-pixels-complement-dead-trees/