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
  • http://inmydaydreams.com JZ

    It’s an interesting article. Somewhat selfishly, I’m hoping it’s right.

    It fits my biases at any rate. I have a hard time believing traditional publishers are just going to die. It seems more likely to me that they’ll adapt.

    Oddly enough, the picture the article creates reminds me of the open source software model. Specifically, it reminds me of how some companies repackage open source software (freely created and distributed software) and sell it with extensions and/or with a particular configuration. The big difference being that in this case the writers (of the stories) will get paid.

    Well, one hopes.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Funny you mentioned the software analogy – I was just going to mention something similar in my next post.

    I’ll let you in on something, though – the Shelves Project, while still largely in proposal form, aims to get these independent works out to the mainstream … and the mainstream here would be the major publishers looking for the next big thing on the web. The potential value we can create with such an effort should be well worth the time and money I’ll be putting in. =)

  • http://noveloflife.wordpress.com/welcome Chris

    I agree with JZ; this article really provokes an online writer into fantasies about what the future might look like. Whether the particulars will come out exactly how Grossman imagines them or not, he still seems on point with the general outlook.

    And now let me share an experience . . . My girlfriend bought an Iphone the other day and while she was upstairs watching a movie I started using it. I had never used an Iphone before, and never used the Internet on a phone. (Go ahead tell me I’m living in the dark ages). I just never liked the idea of a “small screen”.

    Surprisingly, however, reading on these screens is not too bad. It’s actually fun and even restful to have the little thing in your palm as you lie back on the couch.

    This experience really changes how I look at publishing on the Net. When a large portion of our audience may not even be reading from a conventional computer screen (with the rise of the Kindle and Internet Phones), just think. Reading on the Web can occur anywhere and everywhere and clearly this is already happening to some degree.

    I just have to break out of my conventional ideas that people are reading my novel solely in front of a computer screen or solely in a room by themselves. Hell, they might be in the bus or on a train. With the increase in sales of these devices, I believe online fiction will easily be able to claim more readers.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    That, Chris, seems to be exactly what everyone in the publishing industry is thinking at the moment. And it’s already happened before – I point you to my coverage of handphone novels in Japan. Mindboggling, isn’t it?

  • http://www.virginiaruth.com Virginia Ruth

    Great article! It’s nice to read a balanced view of the whole phenomenon. I’m with probably everybody else here in the “crosses fingers and hopes he’s right” camp.

    For me, one of the funnest parts of contemplating the future of digital fiction (aside from daydreaming the success of my own stories, of course) is speculating on the changes in form and genre that will inevitably take place. A huge growth in serialized fiction is an easy bet, and I think it’s safe to say that both “niche” fiction and fiction that blurs genre lines will grow, but what other changes might we see?

  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    Please save us from a democracy of taste!

    Seen this one yet?


  • http://mortalghost.blogspot.com Lee

    And by the way, I intend to scale Grossman’s peak, but from the internet! (Please, just glance over the bestseller lists from the past fifty years or so! or even the award-winners…) Who wants to join me?

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Sorry for the late reply, Lee. Was stuck offline. The article has a point in arguing that there may now be more people interested in creating rather than consuming … but this ‘democracy of taste’ that I referred wasn’t about that! I was talking about how the current climate of editors publishing only books they think would do well is limiting us to certain brands of books.

    Oh, and by the way, helping writers scale the peak from the Internet is exactly what I think Novelr’s new focus should be. But let’s keep that quiet for a little while, now, eh? ;-)

  • http://poorbob.blogspot.com Bob Collins

    It’s really very simple, from my perspective. Art is dead.

    That isn’t to say it can’t be resurrected. Art can and will be lifted from the grave like a Lazarus at the hands of the Almighty. But it will take someone powerful, god-like. How did impressionism trump academic art? On the shoulders of geniuses.

    Speaking of the visual arts, which I have studied for two decades, there is a pattern that repeats itself every hundred years or so. We’re in that pattern now, at the tail-end, waiting for the greatness to show itself again, ready for the cycle to start anew. Put another way, the art of the 20th Century, whatever the -ism, has been burned up, sapped of all its energy, used, the smoldering remains of a forest after a forest fire.

    But what grows out of that desolate but strangely fertile landscape? New growth, new trees, freshness. New life!

    Take a look at 19th Cen. French art. Neo-Classicism was a great style until it became officially accepted and marketed (for lack of a better word) through official salons and exhibitions to the middle class. I think what the salons were doing then is analogous to what corporations are doing now. Corporate art is, practically by definition, exempt of any value, at least to anyone with real taste in art. Corporate art is singed and burned, it’s for the soulless, for the ignorant, for those that find value in the superficiality rather than value in the inherently valuable; corporate art is the charred remains of redwood trees teetering in burnt-out rows across a scorched earth, the soul obliterated, ready to collapse under the pressure of new life germinating under the bleak surface.

    When content marries new technology, we will see the resurrection we anticipate.