Friday, April 2, 2010

The End of the World as We Know it

Tomorrow the ipad will be released and the world as we know it will end.

Or something like that.

Lisa Peet’s Like Fire blog featured, a few days ago, this clever little film by UK publisher Dorling Kindersley about the future of publishing. It is both a creative use of word play and also a reminder not to fall into the trap of thinking that one person’s world view is the only world view:

As a reader, I am concerned with the current upheavals in the publishing industry.  Not as concerned as publishing companies are, of course.  Or authors, possibly. But I am concerned.  My concern is, of course, all about me.  I’m concerned that, during this current period of chaos, two things will happen that will affect me negatively: (1) big publishing houses will narrow the type of books that they choose to publish and they won’t be the type of books I want to read, and (2) the smaller publishing houses won’t have access to the capital necessary for them to take advantage of this opportunity and fill the void.

Yes, people living through the chaos of revolutions tend to be a bit selfish.  

Clay Shirky likes to compare the time we are living in to the period right after the invention of the printing press.  I think this is supposed to make us feel better.  See?  The printing press was a GOOD thing and eventually we all liked the world it created!

We all know the printing press was revolutionary but, as Shirky often points out, it produced a lot of chaos before it produced the modern publishing world.  During the early chaotic period no one knew which changes were going to end up being the important changes:   

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

(As a side note, when I listed books that had been influential in my life in a previous blog post, I considered listing Shirky’s Here Comes Everyone because I’ve been thinking about it nonstop since I read it more than a year ago.)

I think it is important to remember that the digitalization of publishing isn’t the problem here.  The problem is that the modern publishing industry was designed around printing press technology and will either have to adapt to digital technology or die.  But the modern publishing industry didn’t spring whole cloth from the head of Zeus (or Gutenberg).  It rose from the ashes of the previous publishing industry.  As Shirky points out in his book, the original publishing industry was designed around a model with a limited amount of content that was laboriously copied by hand by monks in cells.   The printing press killed off the illuminated manuscript industry.  A lot of monks had to find something else to do. 

You’ll notice that I don’t worry so much about content producers in this upheaval.  Perhaps that is unfair.  But I have this idea that people who write are compelled  to write.  Sure it would be nice if they had the luxury of writing as a full time job.  But, as a reader, I know that isn’t necessary for creating great literature.   See Kafka.  See Dorothy L. Sayers.   

And there will always be content consumers out there: they aren’t disappearing in this digital age  (as that video was meant to point out).  The question is how to link the producers with the consumers.  The publishers have provided that link for a very long time; they are the middlemen.  I don’t minimize the necessity of middlemen, in any flow chart showing how product gets from producer to consumer there are steps and someone has to be responsible for those steps.  We don’t, for instance, all live in a climate or location where we can live wholly off the land.  And even if we did get all of our food and clothing needs from our own land, does that mean we still wouldn’t want, say,  a better, more reliable, source of power than our old water mill?    

In this digital age, the flow chart is being redrawn.  But I have no doubt there will be a flow chart.  In this age of author blogs and social networking, where we can read the thoughts of authors about the process of writing, the one thing most of them agree on is the need for good editors.  In this age of digital information overload, content producers still need some form of marketing and advertising advice to get the news out to possible content consumers that Hey!  You should really read MY content!    It will still probably be helpful for a content producer who wants to be read by a wider group of people to have their work aggregated with other content producers and marketed together in a bookstore that might be tangible or might be virtual. 

There will still be a flow chart.   But it will be a different flow chart and the costs for each module may be born by different players than they are now.

So I know that it will all eventually work out in the end. I don’t think we’re looking toward Armageddon.  But we are looking toward a changed world,  So I’m still, selfishly, worried about whether it will be a world that will work for me. 

In the meantime, I don’t see any reason why I need an ipad. 

But I want one.