Friday, January 23, 2009

The Future of Publishing

I've deliberately avoided writing about what is happening to the publishing industry these days. Massive layoffs, hiring freezes, wage freezes, falling printruns, falling advances... The news coming out of New York has been gloomy. Long considered a "recession-proof" industry, publishing is discovering just how vulnerable it is in our modern electronic world.

So what does the future hold? To depress those of us who value fine writing (and a living wage) even more, here's a quote from a recent article in Time--"What Publishing Will Look Like?"--in which Lev Grossman talks about the evolution of publishing and the novel in particular:

"A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever....

"...More books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City's entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.

"We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don't linger on the language; you just click through. We'll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life."

"Cheaper, wilder, trashier"? "More books, written for little or no money"? "More romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative"? All I have to say is, Oh, dear...

9 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

Kind of hard to imagine the narrative speed getting much faster.

Steve Malley said...

My 'wee' comment started to run on a bit. I'll do it as a seperate blog post over at my place.

Short version: it's the best of times, it's the worst of times.

See you there! :)

Barbara Martin said...

I take the article to be one person's opinion, not everyone's opinion. It is an assumption.

There will be readers who want a quality book over an electronic book. I prefer books the regular method: hardcover or paperback. Electronic reading I find is hard on the eyes and the body posture. I do not care to be sitting at my desk for extra hours reading an e-book when I could be in my recliner reading a book.

Steve, I'm on my way over.

Kate S said...

"Cheaper, wilder, trashier"

My kind of place! lol

Seriously, good post.

laughingwolf said...

not for me, thx....

Lisa said...

I think Grossman's way off base. Setting the ebook issue aside completely, he's making a huge (incorrect) leap that just because more books are available to the reading public and in a more democratic fashion that the quality of the books isn't a factor. Like it or not, traditional publishing and brick and mortar bookstores have traditionally served the function of weeding out a great deal of crap -- not that plenty doesn't get through and not that some gems don't get overlooked, but as I see it, that's how it's worked.

What goes away in this equation is the way books get promoted. How does Amazon replicate the front table at Barnes and Noble? How do people decide which books to buy when there are so many available?

I suspect there will be some online platforms -- some that exist now and probably some that don't exist yet -- that will come to replace the book sections in newspapers and the placement in book stores.

I think Grossman is way off base. People who are accustomed to reading books vetted and published by the big (and small) houses aren't going to suddenly start reading crap just because it's free.

Not that I have any strong opinions about his piece. :)

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