Gleick on publishing

December 9, 2008

Hmm … where to start? I know, how about the beginning? James Gleick tackles the challenges facing the publishing industry and offers some helpful thoughts for writers in these developing and often depressing times:

The gloom that has fallen over the book publishing industry is different from the mood in, say, home building. At least people know we’ll always need houses.

And now comes the news, as book sales plummet amid the onslaught of digital media, that authors, publishers and Google have reached a historic agreement to allow the scanning and digitizing of something very much like All the World’s Books. So here is the long dreamed-of universal library, its contents available (more or less) to every computer screen anywhere. Are you happy now? Maybe not, if your business has been the marketing, distributing or archiving of books.

One could imagine the book, venerable as it is, just vanishing into the ether. It melts into all the other information species searchable through Google’s most democratic of engines: the Web pages, the blogs, the organs of printed and broadcast news, the general chatter. (Thanks for everything, Gutenberg, and now goodbye.)

Ouch. But don’t be discouraged. Gleick notes that he doesn’t see things in the same terms, and even suggests that “we’ve reached a shining moment for this ancient technology”.

Part of the challenge seems to be in how one views books, and Gleick, a respected journalist and author who sits on the board of the Authors’ Guild, seems to strive for an ideally tailored outlook. The book is perfect, “a tool ideally suited to its task”. Nail guns have not eliminated the need for hammers; bicycles thrive in a society addicted to automobiles. The future looks better for the book, as he sees it, than for the vinyl record.

There are, naturally, certain kinds of books living on borrowed time. Encyclopedias, dictionaries, and telephone books, to name a few. And while some of the SCWC community may well end up contributing to encyclopedias, few if any of us are aspiring to write a new dictionary or phone book. To the other, my condolences for those who might already work in these sectors and are left wondering just how long their jobs will last.

And perhaps it seems counterintuitive, but the present digitization of books is not something he sees as a necessarily threatening. He played a role advocating for writers in hammering out an agreement with Google books, and notes that many titles are returning to the commercial sphere long after they have fallen out of print. Of the general situation, he notes,

This means a new beginning — a vast trove of books restored to the marketplace. It also means that much of the book world is being upended before our eyes: the business of publishing, selling and distributing books; the role of libraries and bookstores; all uses of books for research, consultation, information storage; everything, in fact, but the plain act of reading a book from start to finish.

And while booksellers have been battered by a growing list of thuggish challenges ranging from the transformation of the publishing industry in the digital age to our growing economic woes, there are upsides. “Now,” Gleick points out, “even modest titles have been granted a gift of unlimited longevity.”

Indeed, he maintains a stalwart optimism:

Go back to an old-fashioned idea: that a book, printed in ink on durable paper, acid-free for longevity, is a thing of beauty. Make it as well as you can. People want to cherish it.

And, in a way, this answers certain vague questions that have been dancing around as unshaped shadows of thought. I have wondered what the new face of the market suggests about my literary ambitions, and while those answers are not by any means definitive, the outlook is not, if Gleick is correct, nearly as gloomy as I would have presumed.



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