Publishing: The Revolutionary Future

JobsipadJason Epstein in the NYRB:

Amid the literary chaos of the digital future, readers will be guided by the imprints of reputable publishers, distinguishable within a worldwide, multilingual directory, a function that Google seems poised to dominate—one hopes with the cooperation of great national and university libraries and their skilled bibliographers, under revised world copyright standards in keeping with the reach of the World Wide Web. Titles will also be posted on authors' and publishers' own Web sites and on reliable Web sites of special interest where biographies of Napoleon or manuals of dog training will be evaluated by competent critics and downloaded directly from author or publisher to end user while software distributes the purchase price appropriately, bypassing traditional formulas. With inventory expense, shipping, and returns eliminated, readers will pay less, authors will earn more, and book publishers, rid of their otiose infrastructure, will survive and may prosper.

This future is a predictable inference from digitization in its current stage of development in the United States, its details widely discussed in the blogosphere by partisans of various outcomes, including the utopian fantasy that in the digital future content will be free of charge and authors will not have to eat.

Digitization will encourage an unprecedented diversity of new specialized content in many languages. The more adaptable of today's general publishers will survive the redundancy of their traditional infrastructure but digitization has already begun to spawn specialized publishers occupying a variety of niches staffed by small groups of like-minded editors, perhaps not in the same office or even the same country, much as software firms themselves are decentralized with staff in California collaborating online with colleagues in Bangalore and Barcelona.

The difficult, solitary work of literary creation, however, demands rare individual talent and in fiction is almost never collaborative. Social networking may expose readers to this or that book but violates the solitude required to create artificial worlds with real people in them. Until it is ready to be shown to a trusted friend or editor, a writer's work in progress is intensely private. Dickens and Melville wrote in solitude on paper with pens; except for their use of typewriters and computers so have the hundreds of authors I have worked with over many years.