December 4, 2008
Publish Without Perishing?
My colleague Sally Craft recently spotted two very different perspectives on the future of book publishing that are worth reading and pondering together.
The first, "How to Publish Without Perishing," from a guest columnist, author James Gleick, was posted at the New York Times.
The second, "To Publish Without Perishing," is from a guest blogger, NYU college professor Clay Shirky. This response to Gleick's piece was posted at BoingBoing.com.
So I want to believe Gleick. But should I? You tell me.
Posted by Andy Le Peau
at December 4, 2008 8:24 AM
Andy, thanks for posing the question in the form of two posts worth reading.
Sadly, Clay's perspective is egocentric, short-sighted, logically-flawed.
Logically flawed: "Thanks to digital data, there is a fateful choice to be made between serving lovers of the text and lovers of the page." Nice example of false dichotomy. Bad reading of Gleick's words, as he didn't say publisher had to choose between the two. They can do both.
Short-sighted. Gleick's mention of the bicycle is appropriate, as those of us who for nearly two decades have been hearing of the book's pending extinction can attest. Has Clay lived long enough or broadly enough to be able to speak credibly about longevity? His writing would indicate he hasn't.
Ego-centric. Clay mentions the unsearch-ability factor of hardcopies. Valid point...from the perspective of someone who reads the way he describes his own reading. But invalid point, considering that many others read for reasons beyond his.
In contrast, here's a description of my own reading:
I recently discovered the convenience of e-books. For a graduate studies research project, I needed a certain book. The hardcopy version was checked out; so, I had to go with the dreaded e-book from the vapid e-library. (I office one stair flight above a university library. It's like being Belle after the Beast gave her a library!) But after checking out the e-book, I discovered the highlight, copy-paste, auto-reference-page-creation, bookshelf features, and was delighted! But that was for research, as are the online news sources I read, the yellow pages, etc. If I'm grazing or cherry picking, digital is convenient. I even like the Google books option...but as a research option to help me find a book I want to buy. But when I want a meal--a communion with a book--hardcopy will be my choice. Am I ego-centric? I don't think so.
This past July, I crossed paths with an attorney on Mackinac Island who had the NYT and a current book on a Kindle--the first time I'd seen one. "Okay," I said, "I can see how this would be valid." ...for the short term, for traveling convenience.
But upon returning to the comforts of home, I'd opt for the hardcopy. As did his wife, even while on vacation. I met these people because I saw her reading in the Grand Hotel parlor where a friend and I had "high tea." (The price was high, that's for sure.) "May I ask what you're reading?" She gladly told me about her book on how people don't think logically these days. Later, when we again crossed paths, she told me more about her book and introduced me and my friends to her husband who had the Kindle. She too found it to have benefits but preferred her hardcopy book.
My friends(a limnology professor and his wife) also found the Kindle interesting and usable...for travel and research. But they haven't bought one, nor asked me if the books I recommend come in Kindle format. In fact, since that moment of show-and-tell conversation, we've never said another word about the Kindle, although we still talk about books.
Yes, the publishing industry will have to adjust to the digital world, and it has. No, the traditional book will not die.
The orthodox book will be like orthodox liturgy. Always there, ever-ripe for rediscovery.
Well, we all want what we want, right?
I think the authors of both articles try a bit too hard to justify philosophically, historically and culturally what are really just preferences--their own and those of the "tribes" to which they belong.
Instead I think a publisher (or any other creator of goods) who figures out what we want and how to give it to us is going to be successful--in terms of both dollars and mission.
The real dilemma for publishers is that we want it all.
Yes, we want it all indeed. Choosing priorities with limited resources is tough. What will readers want and how will they want it? That's the art of publishing, isn't it?