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The Demise of Publishing

A long and thought-provoking piece by Steve Wasserman at The Nation on the demise of publishing at the hands of Amazon. There are many causes for concern about the business model of writing that he chronicles. But ultimately I’m not sure he’s right on either count. Here’s Wasserman:

Not very long ago it was thought no one would read a book on a computer screen. That assumption is now demonstrably wrong. Today, whether writers will continue to publish the old-fashioned way or go over to direct online publishing is an open question. How it will be answered is at the heart of the struggle taking place between Amazon and traditional publishers.

I think the important point here is the subtle shift that takes place in the argument, from the question of epublishing to publisherless publishing. This is a debate that has been going on for a very long time. In the eighteenth-century, as publishers, then called booksellers, were making enormous profits off the labor of writers, there were a number of notable attempts to bypass them. The most famous case in Germany was Georg Friedrich Klopstock, then the language’s most renowned poet (and still very much worth reading), who tried to go to direct publishing. Long story short: it failed.

Time and again, at times of technological change people have questioned the value that publishers, booksellers, and editors add. Like real estate agents or stock brokers, we are always scratching our heads as to their contribution: tell me again why it is they get a cut?

In terms of publishing, from my point of view it’s relatively straightforward: we keep relying on them because they add value. The question is: do we value the value they add?

Here’s what I mean: when you write a book it goes through a number of stages and a number of different people are involved in the process. Managing editor, copyeditor, book designer, printer (or now also coder), marketing expert, sales rep, and then all the people who interface with the public, from librarians to booksellers. Each of those people exert some influence on the book, both its content, its meaning, and its place within the culture. The dream of direct publishing, by contrast, is the dream of a form of literary communion — from me to you, dear reader, and no one else. It is the dream of bypassing all these external influences, to communicate with the fewest possible interruptions. As Percy Shelley remarked at the turn of the nineteenth century, “When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.”

The history of print is anti-Shelleyean. It is littered with the growth of mediators and institutions. Their role has been to make writing more reliable, more common, more durable, and, yes, more selective (mediators mediate the more there is to mediate — say that 10x fast). The history of print has depended on the belief that the more people were involved in a process the better the chances were that it would last and that it would be interpretable by a greater number of people. That is the rub: not just dissemination over time, but across space, too.

The history of digital communication by contrast has largely been defined by this tradition’s inversion: less reliable, less common, and less durable. Online writing is more fractured and harder to maintain. For many, this is not a bad thing. It opens the market of writing up to more voices — witness the burgeoning industry of amateur film critics, to take but one example, and you see what I mean (or compare the language found in books with periodicals and then with online comment sections to see a different meaning of the term “fractious”). The other advantage of online writing — that it expires more quickly — also serves a purpose. Remember Nietzsche’s warning about the necessity of forgetting as a condition of cultural vitality.

So the dream of direct publishing, of just posting it online without all these mediators, is really a referendum on the value of the kind of writing that “publishing” as an industry has invested in — stable, error-reduced (sadly never error-free), deeply archivable, and ultimately, filtered. Maybe we don’t want that kind of writing anymore or maybe we don’t feel like it’s worth paying for.

Or maybe the stakes today are not that of demise/survival or Amazon/not-Amazon, but new ways of mediating writing to readers. That doesn’t mean we don’t need publishers, just new ways of thinking about the kinds of value they add for readers and the place of computation within those practices. How might we rethink the error-reduction, the selectivity, and the durability of publishing according to new digital platforms rather than printed ones like the warehouse, the library, or the single human editor ?

Seems like a great opportunity to me.