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Publishing: The Revolutionary Future

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Tom Avelar/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Steve Jobs discussing the iBooks application for the Apple iPad at its debut in San Francisco, January 27, 2010

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends. Meanwhile, for quite different reasons, the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on edge, suffering from a gambler’s unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don’t recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good. The crisis of confidence reflects these intersecting shocks, an overspecialized marketplace dominated by high-risk ephemera and a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg’s German city of Mainz six centuries ago.

Though Gutenberg’s invention made possible our modern world with all its wonders and woes, no one, much less Gutenberg himself, could have foreseen that his press would have this effect. And no one today can foresee except in broad and sketchy outline the far greater impact that digitization will have on our own future. With the earth trembling beneath them, it is no wonder that publishers with one foot in the crumbling past and the other seeking solid ground in an uncertain future hesitate to seize the opportunity that digitization offers them to restore, expand, and promote their backlists to a decentralized, worldwide marketplace. New technologies, however, do not await permission. They are, to use Schumpeter’s overused term, disruptive, as nonnegotiable as earthquakes.

Gutenberg’s technology was the sine qua non for the rebirth of the West, as if literacy, scientific method, and constitutional government had been implicit all along, awaiting only Gutenberg to throw the switch. Within fifty years presses were operating from one end of Europe to the other, halting only at the borders of Islam, which shunned the press. Perhaps from the same fear of disruptive literacy that alarmed Islam, China ignored a phonetic transcription of its ideographs, attributed to a Korean emperor, that might have permitted the use of movable type.

The resistance today by publishers to the onrushing digital future does not arise from fear of disruptive literacy, but from the understandable fear of their own obsolescence and the complexity of the digital transformation that awaits them, one in which much of their traditional infrastructure and perhaps they too will be redundant. Karl Marx wrote of the revolutions of 1848 in his Communist Manifesto that all that is solid melts into air. His vision of a workers’ paradise was of course wrong by 180 degrees, the triumph of wish over experience. What melted soon solidified as industrial capitalism, a paradise for some at the expense of the many. But Marx’s potent image fits the publishing industry today as its capital-intensive infrastructure—presses, warehouses stacked with fully returnable physical inventory, its retail market constrained by costly real estate—faces dissolution within a vast cloud in which all the world’s books will eventually reside as digital files to be downloaded instantly title by title wherever on earth connectivity exists, and printed and bound on demand at point of sale one copy at a time by the Espresso Book Machine1 as library-quality paperbacks, or transmitted to electronic reading devices including Kindles, Sony Readers, and their multiuse successors, among them most recently Apple’s iPad. The unprecedented ability of this technology to offer a vast new multilingual marketplace a practically limitless choice of titles will displace the Gutenberg system with or without the cooperation of its current executives.

Digitization makes possible a world in which anyone can claim to be a publisher and anyone can call him- or herself an author. In this world the traditional filters will have melted into air and only the ultimate filter—the human inability to read what is unreadable—will remain to winnow what is worth keeping in a virtual marketplace where Keats’s nightingale shares electronic space with Aunt Mary’s haikus. That the contents of the world’s libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age.

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.

In preliterate cultures, the great sagas and epics were necessarily communal creations committed to tribal memory and chanted under priestly supervision over generations. With the invention of the alphabet, authors no longer depended on communal memory but stored their work on stone, papyrus, or paper. In modern times, communal projects are limited mainly to complex reference works, of which Wikipedia is an example. Though social networking will not produce another Dickens or Melville, the Web is already a powerful resource for writers, providing conveniently online a great variety of updated reference materials, dictionaries, journals, and so on instantly and everywhere, available by subscription or, like Google search and Wikipedia, free. Most time-sensitive reference materials need never again be printed and bound.

Informed critical writing of high quality on general subjects will be as rare and as necessary as ever and will survive as it always has in print and online for discriminating readers. Works of genius will emerge from parts of the world where books have barely penetrated before, as such works after Gutenberg emerged unbidden from the dark and silent corners of Europe. Gutenberg’s press, however, did not give Europe, with its tight cultural boundaries, a common tongue. Digitization may produce a somewhat different outcome by giving worldwide exposure to essential scientific and literary texts in major languages: Rome redux, while translators will still find plenty of work.

The cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal, requiring only the upkeep of the editorial group and its immediate support services but without the expense of traditional distribution facilities and multilayered management. Small publishers already rely as needed upon such external services as business management, legal, accounting, design, copyediting, publicity, and so on, while the Internet will supply viral publicity opportunities of which YouTube and Facebook are forerunners. Funding for authors’ advances may be provided by external investors hoping for a profit, as is done for films and plays. The devolution from complex, centralized management to semi-autonomous editorial units is already evident within the conglomerates (for example, Nan A. Talese at Random House and Jonathan Karp at Hachette), a tendency that will strengthen as the parent companies fade. As conglomerates resist the exorbitant demands of best-selling authors whose books predictably dominate best-seller lists, these authors, with the help of agents and business managers, will become their own publishers, retaining all net proceeds from digital as well as traditional sales. With the Espresso Book Machine, enterprising retail booksellers may become publishers themselves, like their eighteenth-century forebears.

Traditional territorial rights will become superfluous and a worldwide, uniform copyright convention will be essential. Protecting content from unauthorized file sharers will remain a vexing problem that raises serious questions about the viability of authorship, for without protection authors will starve and civilization will decline, a prospect recognized by the United States Constitution, which calls for copyright to sustain writers not primarily as a matter of equity but for the greater good of public enlightenment.

Some musicians make up for lost royalties by giving concerts, selling T-shirts, or accompanying commercials. For authors there is no equivalent solution. Refinements of today’s digital rights management software, designed to block file sharing, will be an ongoing contest with file sharers who evade payment for themselves and their friends, often in the perverse belief that “content wants to be free”—much as antiviral software is engaged in a continuing contest with hackers. Unauthorized file sharing will be a problem but not in my opinion a serious one, perhaps at the level that libraries and individual readers have always shared books with others.

These and other solutions will emerge opportunistically in response to need, as such solutions usually have. It is futile at this early stage, however, to anticipate the new publishing landscape in detail or to specify the rate of evolution, which will be sporadic and complex, or the future role of traditional publishers as digitization advances along a ragged and diverse front, while publishers, writers, and readers adapt accordingly. Timing will be apparent only in retrospect.

So far I have attempted to foresee the digital future in instrumental terms. There is also a moral dimension, for we are a troublesome species with a long history of self-destruction. The industry that Gutenberg launched eventually made possible wide distribution of Montaigne, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, to say nothing of Babar the Elephant and The Cat in the Hat. But his technology also gave us The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Mein Kampf, and the nonsense that turned Pol Pot in Paris from a mere fool into a mass murderer. Digitization will amplify our better nature but also its diabolic opposite. Censorship is not the answer to these evils.

Digital content is fragile. The secure retention, therefore, of physical books safe from electronic meddlers, predators, and the hazards of electronic storage is essential. Amazon’s recent arbitrary deletion of Orwell’s 1984 at its publisher’s request from Kindle users who had downloaded it suggests the ease with which files can be deleted without warning or permission, an inescapable hazard of electronic distribution.2 In Denmark music downloaded by subscription self-destructs when the subscription expires. So does my annual subscription to the online Oxford English Dictionary unless I renew it. Much other reference material that is usually time-sensitive and for that reason need never be printed and bound is already sold by renewable subscription. If I were a publisher today I would consider a renewable rental model for all e-book downloads—the “lending library” technique of the Depression era—that more accurately reflects the conditional relationship, enforced by digital rights management software, between content provider and end user.

I would like to add a few words about the evolution of my own interest in digitization. From the beginning of my career I have been obsessed with the preservation and distribution of backlist—the previously published books, still in print, that are the indispensable component of a publisher’s stability and in the aggregate the repository of civilizations. In this sense, it is fair to say that book publishing is more than a business. Without the contents of our libraries—our collective backlist, our cultural memory—our civilization would collapse.

By the mid-Eighties I had become aware of the serious erosion of publishers’ backlists as shoals of slow-moving but still viable titles were dropped every month. There were two reasons for this: a change in the tax law that no longer permitted existing unsold inventory to be written off as an expense; but more important, the disappearance as Americans left the cities for the suburbs of hundreds of well-stocked, independent, city-based bookstores, and their replacement by chain outlets in suburban malls that were paying the same rent as the shoe store next door for the same minimal space and requiring the same rapid turnover.

This demographic shift turned the book business upside down as retailers, unable to stock deep backlist, now demanded high turnover, often of ephemeral titles. Best-selling authors whose loyalty to their publishers had previously been the norm were now chips in a high-stakes casino: a boon for authors and agents with their nonrecoverable overguarantees and a nightmare for publishers who bear all the risk and are lucky if they break even. Meanwhile, backlist continued to decline. The smaller houses, unable to take these risks, merged with the larger ones, and the larger ones eventually fell into the arms of today’s conglomerates.

To offset the decline of backlist I launched in the mid-Eighties the Reader’s Catalog, an independent bookstore in catalog form from which readers could order 40,000 backlist titles by telephone. The Internet existed but had not yet been commercialized. The Reader’s Catalog was an instant success, confirming my belief in a strong worldwide market for backlist titles. But I had underestimated the cost of handling individual orders and concluded, with my backers, that if we continued our losses would become intolerable. The Internet was now available commercially. Amazon bravely took advantage of it and in the beginning suffered the losses that I feared. But by this time I had begun to hear of digitization and its buzzword, disintermediation, which meant that publishers could now look forward to marketing a practically limitless backlist without physical inventory, shipping expense, or unsold copies returned for credit. Customers would pay in advance for their purchases. This meant that even Amazon’s automated shipping facilities would eventually be bypassed by electronic inventory. This was twenty-five years ago. Today digitization is replacing physical publishing much as I had imagined it would.

Relatively inexpensive multipurpose devices fitted with reading applications will widen the market for e-books and may encourage new literary forms, such as Japan’s cell-phone novels. Newborn revolutions often encourage utopian fantasies until the exigencies of human nature reassert themselves. Though bloggers anticipate a diversity of communal projects and new kinds of expression, literary form has been remarkably conservative throughout its long history while the act of reading abhors distraction, such as the Web-based enhancements—musical accompaniment, animation, critical commentary, and other metadata—that some prophets of the digital age foresee as profitable sidelines for content providers.

The most radical of these fantasies posits that the contents of the digital cloud will merge or be merged—will “mash up”—to form a single, communal, autonomous intelligence, an all-encompassing, single book or collective brain that reproduces electronically on a universal scale the synergies that occur spontaneously within individual minds. To scorn a bold new hypothesis—the roundness of the earth, its rotation around the sun—is always a risk but here the risk is minimal. The nihilism—the casual contempt for texts—implicit in this ugly fantasy is nevertheless disturbing as evidence of cultural impoverishment,3 more offensive than but not unrelated to the assumption of e-book maximalists that authors who spend months and years at their desks will not demand physical copies as evidence of their labors and hope for posterity.

The huge, worldwide market for digital content, however, is not a fantasy. It will be very large, very diverse, and very surprising: its cultural impact cannot be imagined. E-books will be a significant factor in this uncertain future, but actual books printed and bound will continue to be the irreplaceable repository of our collective wisdom.

I must declare my bias. My rooms are piled from floor to ceiling with books so that I have to think twice about where to put another one. If by some unimaginable accident all these books were to melt into air leaving my shelves bare with only a memorial list of digital files left behind I would want to melt as well for books are my life. I mention this so that you will know the prejudice with which I celebrate the inevitability of digitization as an unimaginably powerful, but infinitely fragile, enhancement of the worldwide literacy on which we all—readers and nonreaders—depend.

  1. 1

    A project that I helped found.

  2. 2

    See also Amazon’s more recent attempt to block sales of books by a major publisher because of a pricing dispute.

  3. 3

    For a critical account of this view, see Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010), pp. 26, 46.

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