Time Magazine on the Book Future

Lev Grossman has an article in Time about modern book publishing and the culture around it. He writes:

So if the economic and technological changes of the 18th century gave rise to the modern novel, what’s the 21st century giving us? Well, we’ve gone from industrialized printing to electronic replication so cheap, fast and easy, it greases the skids of literary production to the point of frictionlessness. From a modern capitalist marketplace, we’ve moved to a postmodern, postcapitalist bazaar where money is increasingly optional. And in place of a newly minted literate middle class, we now have a global audience of billions, with a literacy rate of 82% and rising.

Put these pieces together, and the picture begins to resolve itself: more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City’s entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.

Grossman paints far more details into his picture of the book-future (compared to mine), though they’re mostly observations I agree with. Here’s a summary of his points, and my responses to them:

1. The publishing industry isn’t dying, it’s just evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it’s done. This is an interesting departure from the “PRINT IS DEAD!” rubbish we’ve been seeing around in the blogosphere, and I think it’s a fairer take. What we have to keep in mind here is that most people in the book business are now seeing content being created for the sake of content – much of online fiction, for instance, isn’t published for the sake of commercial interests. Grossman also offers some ideas on how this new industry would look like …

2. Old Publishing will live on as a radically altered, symbiotic form – the small, pointy peak of a mighty pyramid. Readers can chose from the top (in his words: ‘carefully selected and edited, and presented in a bespoke, art-directed paper package’), the middle (reasonably good web fiction and self published works) and the bottom (fan fiction and rubbish, etc). Under Grossman’s analogy, we occupy the middle rung of that piramid, and we’ll probably be pushed down a coupla rungs once the publishers move to the digital sphere. 

3. Self-publishing has gone from being the last resort of the desperate and talentless to something more like out-of-town tryouts for theater or the farm system in baseball. I’m expecting the publishers to begin mining the more prominent blooks for future deals, and while it’s already happening (see: Authonomy, David Wellington, Aaron Dunlap), it should accelerate as they acclimatize to the Internet as a fiction medium. A logical progression from this would be a future where writers each hawk their own portfolio of online/self published fiction. This isn’t very different from the past, where a writer would submit to agents their formerly published work (short stories in small magazines, the like) but the only difference now would be the amount of data these publishers would have access to – the numbers of sales, the visitors, the RSS subscriber numbers, etc.

There’s one more point, but it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

In theory, publishers are gatekeepers: they filter literature so that only the best writing gets into print. But Genova and Barry and Suarez got filtered out, initially, which suggests that there are cultural sectors that conventional publishing isn’t serving. We can read in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one–an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too.

There are old reasons for writers to turn to the Internet, reasons that I learned first-hand when I began producing Novelr. The above is one of them. If a new publishing industry accepts that it cannot predict what the masses want, and they change to compensate for a democracy of taste, then perhaps, in time, we will begin to see a far more accepting book-world than the one we’ve taken for granted today.

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Category: Publishing