I Pay Rapt Attention

Loose thoughts on the “Contemporary Crisis in Publishing/Literacy”

Posted in Uncategorized by Zoelle on October 5, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the future of the book and literacy in the digital age, partially because I’m in a class called “Adventures in Literacy” which talks exclusively about issues in contemporary reading, and partially because it’s been all over the media recently.

Case in point: this Wednesday, I found myself at the Yale Entrepreneurial Society’s annual New York conference, which this year took the form of a panel on the Future of the Media. Unsurprisingly, YES pulled together an impressive panel, including the founding editor of Conde Nast Portfolio magazine, an investor in media and entertainment properties, the CEO of an online content company, and a director of digital strategy at a media consultancy (who only graduated from Yale in ’08!)

Less fortunately, they didn’t really have anything new to say– books will become valued for their materiality (aka, the book will return to being a luxury good, as it was for hundreds of years until the relatively recent advent of the cheap paperback…); newspapers are screwed and need to rethink their business models; no one knows how to get consumers to pay for content now that they’ve been getting it for free for so many years; there are cool flexible screens on the way and that’s how we’ll get our magazine/newspaper content; if you figure out how to monetize content you’ll be very rich; and so on.

[Note: I still think there should be more consideration of a crowd-sourced (in the literal sense of many people participating, not in the searching-for-one-genius-by-advertising-broadly sense) patron model (that is, you pay some small amount to support a writer’s future writing on the basis of the previous work they’ve created, or in other words, many people paying small amounts based on perceived relevance and quality encourage writers to write better and more relevant stuff), but I seem to be the only who thinks that, besides maybe Matt Mason of the Pirate’s Dilemma. Oh well.]

What are we to do with this issue? In many circumstances, the internet is simply a more efficient platform for content delivery, and if the materiality of the text is irrelevant for a particular work (say, a reference text) then there’s no point in wasting the paper or effort to print and use the book version. Then again, from what I’ve been told (and I should probably look this up, but I’ll trust the people on the YES panel for now), the kindle and other digital readers still don’t have hypertext or indexing enabled, which is needlessly frustrating and makes them frankly useless for what I’m talking about.  That’ll change soon, though, or the people behind digital reader products are idiots.

But what about novels and other long-form narratives? Is there something about the technology of the book that imparts a different experience of narrative than a Kindle or mobile device can provide? Which is more important- convenience or the tactile experience?  That seems to be the main question people are asking these days, but I’m not so sure it’s the right one- although convenience seems to be the driving force at first with any new technology, as it becomes “domesticated,” the technology often assumes a different role than it previously did—and often one that subverts the original function as a facilitator of convenience. Just look at how email has evolved: while it was originally viewed and used as a casual means of electronic communication, it has become increasingly formalized, finding widespread use in the business context.

So we’ll see. To those people who keep proclaiming the death of the book, I say this: perhaps we’re seeing the death of traditional publishing, but I don’t think the book itself is dead just yet. It may go the way of vinyl in the face of CDs and mp3s, but I’ve seen no compelling evidence so far to indicate that the technology itself has been completely outdone.