The Future of Publishing, Reading (and Discussing)

This weekend, merrily geeking out on my latest issue of Wired magazine,
I stumbled across an essay by Clive Thompson which was, interestingly
enough, of the same topic of a panel on which I recently spoke at
Printers Row Lit Fest. It's a topic that abounds lately, the future of
the book, the reader and the book industry, as it was also the subject of a discussion I recently
attended at the Chicago Cultural Center
between Aleksander Hemon and
Jacob Weisberg.

I found myself agreeing with much of what Weisberg put forth in the
discussion and admired his refusal, in essence, to indulge those fearful
of the technologically unknown and for his enthusiasm and eagerness to
understand the implications of the technology which already exists.
Later, I found myself echoing many of his points into the discussion at
Printers Row, though it seemed we were just getting the dog on the
leash, so to speak, when our discussion time slot came to an abrupt end and so I was very
pleased to see Thompson's essay in Wired, as it brings to light many of
the points which so desperately need to be made, yet it was the
succinctness of his essay which both makes his point strong and clear,
yet manages to do so in perhaps one of the more accessible-to-most ways
in recent memory. And, because our industry has changed so much and continues to change whether we like it or not, it's occurring to me lately that both greater multi-stance collaboration as well as brevity on the topic just might pave a smoother road ahead.

"When McKenzie Wark wrote Gamer Theory-- and analysis of why people
enjoy playing videogames-- Harvard University Press published it as a
convention hardcover." Thompson begins and goes on to describe the
author's next move of placing the manuscript online via CommentPress,
which "blew the book open into a series of conversations; every
paragraph could spawn its own discussion forum for readers."

He continues: "Books are the last bastion of the old business model....
advocates have generally refused to put books online for fear the
content will be Napsterized. And you cna understand their terror,
because th publishing industry is in big financial trouble, rife with
layoffs and restructurings. Literary pundits are fretting: Can books
survive in this Facebooked, ADD multichannel universe? To which I
reply: Sure they can. But only if publishers adopt Wark's perspective
and provide new ways for people to encounter the written word."

And finally, he leads out later in the article with mention of the
implications of the future of margin marking's electronic equivalent and book
recommendation in the digital era: "This would massively improve what
bibliophiles call book discovery. You're far more likely to hear about
a book if a friend has highlighted a couple brilliant sentences in a
Facebook update-- and if you hear about it, you're far more likely to
buy it in print. Yes, in print: The few authors who have experimented
with giving away digital copies... have found that they ended up
selling more print copies because their books are discovered by more

Thompson ends by closing the loop and adding that books need not be
social, need not be anything but a chief pleasure of "mental solitude",
yet to take them digital will surely unlock the value of their

It isn't that the landscape is changing, it is that it both has
changed and continues to change. And there is a subtle difference there
which requires an entirely different attitude from us, particularly
inside the industry. And while we can't see the future while we're
right here watching it continue to unfold around us, and we can only
guess how things might play out on our new terrain, it still seems
to be that little progress on the matter is made when the conversations
are over-complicated, or worse yet, when they are only held with the
like-minded and in break-out sessions between more public
conversations. For it is exactly these more public conversations which
need to go there the most if we hope to disarm any sort of fear and anxiety around it all. Discussions centered around fearfulness and casting bets into a grim, nostalgic, not-what-it-used-to-be future will only serve to spawn further (and increasingly grim) conversation, where conversation that is clear, concise and constructive is surely one of the only ways to set the stage to prevail.  

For it is exactly in misplacing of this conversation as private where
it should be more public
that we continue to not-discuss where we ought
collaborate, and continue to weave a strange veil of fear around the
topic which, to the uninitiated, can be off-putting, and which,
frankly, is more stifling to the growth of the changing book industry
than the usual often-faux scapegoats of age, generation or purism could ever be.


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  • Agreed, I think the more public discussion and general collaboration on this the better. I'd be surprised if the "general public" even had a notion that there is a "crisis" as some have put it.

    Obviously, I think that the proliferation of these "on-demand" types of reading technologies will only play into the need-it-now mentality we've all become accustomed to and only stand to increase the amount of reading the sometimes ADD public will do.

    Obviously I'm a technology whore - but you can't beat a quiet night at home with the warmth of a book.

  • Better technology should lead to more people wanting content. Just as the TV did not destroy the movie industry, and the VCR did not destroy TV, there will always be books. If anything, people will demand more and "better" content. The Kindle does nothing to enhance the activity of reading, it just makes it easier to store and BUY content.

    In fact, reading this excellent installment of Subtext makes me want to go buy that issue of Wired.

  • Scott and Jason, thank you both for your excellent comments.

    And, Jason, you should *totally* pick up the June issue of Wired.

  • I definitely agree with Scott and Jason, Amy. However, I couldn't help but think of all the people who won't share your thoughts or our responses because they don't use technology and so are kept out of these kinds of "public" conversations and collaborations. I know a great many "literary" individuals who just can't bring themselves to take the technology plunge. They see it as some kind of betrayal of ideals....*sigh*

  • Thank you for commenting.

    Indeed, and I'm glad, to that very point, that such conversations are occurring certainly online, but in fact also in the printed pages of magazines such a Wired, and on in-person discussion panels. I think the change we've seen and that which we continue to see, has very much to do with an increase in our accessibility options, not only to literature, but to the surrounding conversations.

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