Sunday, December 2, 2012

E-publishing and the Old Guard

I've listened with interest to the debate surrounding e-publishing.  Many traditional publishers and literary critics mourn what they sometimes call the "death" of the traditional print book. They frequently look upon e-published books as the bastard sister that has stabbed her more sophisticated and desirable sibling in the back, even stealing her boyfriend.  Another scenario:  According to traditionalists, the paper novel is the $5,000 a night professional while the e-book is a pay-by-the-hour working girl, standing on the corner flashing her coarser wares.

What many people don't seem to realize is that writing and the production of artistry through writing have evolved throughout the ages.  Change is nothing new.  The earliest people wrote crudely upon cave walls, communicating their thoughts to those no more advanced than they--but maybe in their times, they were very advanced.  When we discovered how to place the written word onto paper tablets many years later, human beings' ability to disseminate their thoughts was still sorely limited.  We hear much about Medieval monks copying by hand biblical stories as well as documents relevant to their culture, but those who could benefit from such writing were a limited few--other religious and the wealthy, who could afford such masterpieces.  Johann Gutenberg's perfection of the printing press  revolutionized the publishing industry, making books more accessible to millions.  The Protestant Reformation made reading and writing essential to biblical study.  Books, however, were still costly luxuries for the few.

The book continues to evolve as does what fascinates readers.  In modern times, we've seen hardback books and softback books. The price of both has risen substantially over the years. Critics have bemoaned that people "no longer read."    Readership has declined, but many people still do read.  They simply cannot afford to buy a luxury purchase. Many have flocked to libraries instead.  Let's look at how expensive books are.  My high school paper copy of Pride and Prejudice was $.50. Such a book would now be at least $5.  Hardbacks around the same period were $8-12.  Now, those books are $25-30.  Many people want to read, but the books are not affordable. What we enjoy to read has also changed, but change is nothing new in the literary world.  For example, I looked at a textbook of poetry  produced circa 1932.  Several poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge's son Hartley are in the volume but not one of Coleridge's master works.  Yet, only a few years later, Coleridge's poems are in texts but none of Hartley's.  My point is that what is considered important literature shifts with community tastes. Critics said that children no longer read and certainly wouldn't read a huge book.  A British woman named J. K. Rowling proved them wrong.  Still others said even adults didn't have the patience with big books or complex plots, but a Swede named Stieg Larsson made us care about a girl with a dragon tattoo.

How does that link to e-publishing?  Tastes evolve and so does the technology through which we produce books.  The technological revolution, as well as ecological concerns about tree conservation, have led to changes in how we read books.  In the West, we are fast-moving societies.  We travel and sometimes even take mass transit while we work  or play.  For that reason, many people love their e-readers.  They can carry a small device that easily fits into a purse or briefcase.  They can go on vacation and take several books.  With the birth of technology, authors can now reach a generation of young people reared on technology.  Technology also has opened up new avenues for authors.  Traditional publishing is highly competitive and somewhat closed.  Many people are now publishing their own books through avenues like Amazon.  I'm not saying everyone should publish a book.  Some people can't write, but some people are very good writers. They have self-published or sought out e-publishers, many of whom are more open about accepting promising authors.  Where many traditional houses only take "established" authors or "slam dunk" books, e-publishers are often more open and willing to take a risk on someone who is up and coming.  And while not everyone publishing is great, many new authors are very talented.  Their work is well-written and researched.

I am not saying that print publishing is dead.  I also like print books, but I don't think that traditional publishing can ignore the impact of technology.  Even print authors now host blogs and have Facebook pages.  Promoting oneself is essential, and the means of promotion cannot only be through print media. I think print publishing and e-publishing can grow together in healthy respect.  Long live writing! Long live the written word!

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