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…
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