Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Future of Publishing

There is an explosion in articles bemoaning the death of newspapers and publishing in general. The problem is that they see a change in distribution channels and ones that they, the owners of the current channels, have not adapted to.

Yet there are two issues here that must be understood.

First, the classic McLuhan dicta that the medium is the message is truer now than ever before. Namely the media will determine what is knowledge and an extension what is truth.

Second, "ownership" or monetization of the new distribution channels will and is disruptive and in fact is just starting, in essence it is disruptive.

Let us look at two examples of the past. First Homeric literature was an oral tradition, when one reads Homer in classic Greek, yes the only way to do so, one sees and hears a lyric and memorizable tale of glory and heroism. It literally sings itself to the listener. Second, when one looks at Thomas Paine and his writings, one sees an author who paid for his own writings to see the light of day and who never received a penny for his efforts, and in fact gave anything he received to the new States which were formed. Paine may have had his quirks but he was a true hero of the Revolution and one of the founders who articulated what we came to see as the basis of our country, albeit forgotten by some over time.

Thus the two classics, Homer and Paine, were tellers of great tales and moral acts. In contrast the bemoaners of the current change are those who have benefited financially yet are stuck in the past and will for the most part see their own demise.

In an article in the New York Review of Books states:

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends. Meanwhile, for quite different reasons, the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on edge, suffering from a gambler's unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don't recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good. The crisis of confidence reflects these intersecting shocks, an overspecialized marketplace dominated by high-risk ephemera and a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg's German city of Mainz six centuries ago.

As one who has over 8,000 books, most of which I have actually read, with annotations, and as one who has given away most likely twice that number over the years, I am a lover of the physical book. But also as one who has been there at the beginning of the change and having moved very comfortably with it, frankly I could not do what I do without the electronic media and of course Google, I can on the one hand appreciate the sentiment of loss and also desire more rapid progress towards the future. My first books were published, my recent ones are on line in draft form, and are downloaded frequently.

The author in TNYRB states:

In preliterate cultures, the great sagas and epics were necessarily communal creations committed to tribal memory and chanted under priestly supervision over generations. With the invention of the alphabet, authors no longer depended on communal memory but stored their work on stone, papyrus, or paper. In modern times, communal projects are limited mainly to complex reference works, of which Wikipedia is an example. Though social networking will not produce another Dickens or Melville, the Web is already a powerful resource for writers, providing conveniently online a great variety of updated reference materials, dictionaries, journals, and so on instantly and everywhere, available by subscription or, like Google search and Wikipedia, free. Most time-sensitive reference materials need never again be printed and bound.

This reiterates what I have said above. The web has as a vice the creation of false truth. For now anyone can publish what they think is true, just look at blogs, yet the natural conflict that exists allows for all sides to be seen. All too often however those who migrate to politically closed thought groups stay in them and are reinforced. However there is nothing new there. For when there were more than a dozen newspapers daily in New York, those of a similar mind migrated to the paper which reinforced their positions. The old NY Post was almost a Communist paper!

Epstein finally states:

The most radical of these fantasies posits that the contents of the digital cloud will merge or be merged—will "mash up"—to form a single, communal, autonomous intelligence, an all-encompassing, single book or collective brain that reproduces electronically on a universal scale the synergies that occur spontaneously within individual minds. To scorn a bold new hypothesis—the roundness of the earth, its rotation around the sun—is always a risk but here the risk is minimal. The nihilism—the casual contempt for texts—implicit in this ugly fantasy is nevertheless disturbing as evidence of cultural impoverishment, more offensive than but not unrelated to the assumption of e-book maximalists that authors who spend months and years at their desks will not demand physical copies as evidence of their labors and hope for posterity.

The assumption of a mashed intelligence is Asimovian in its view. I would argue that for those of us who create new ideas, we use all media, and paper is still there. We find articles and information, compile it, print the ones we need to mull over, and then convert it to a digital form. I have not written a document by hand since 1981, when I got my first IBM PC from the Boca Raton factory. And I have almost all of those digital documents, 30 years worth of written documents, now all indexable by Google Desktop! I could not live or create without it.

Thus the digital world has created a new and expansive environment for the creation of knowledge. You can always print it out, you can read it on line, but most importantly you can always find it! The knowledge created now can be spread more rapidly, and found more readily, and in a sense defines our new evolving culture across national boundaries. In a way it is an amalgam of Homer and Paine, lyrical and free!