Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Making the Case for Technology: A Younger Generation’s Perspective on the Present Publishing Predicament

by JK Evanczuk

One of the most fascinating things about the technological revolution sweeping over the publishing industry is not the products of the revolution itself—that is, digital readers, hybrid books, and the evolution of the Internet—but rather all the speculation that all this new technology has inspired. I don’t think there’s ever been a revolution before with so much real-time commentary.

I can’t count how many articles I’ve read decrying technology—online articles, mind you, and let’s not ignore the irony inherent in that. People aren’t reading anymore, they say. They’re too busy playing digital Scrabble or Tweeting about what they ate for breakfast. It’s the end for the publishing industry! We’re doomed! And all the doomsaying is to be expected, of course, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned during this technological revolution, it’s that People Don’t Like Change. Furthermore, people are reacting to incomplete information, and making wild conjecture based on a digital-literary climate that hasn’t been seen through yet.

That said, let me make some wild conjecture of my own.

The way I see it, technology is a wonderful, wonderful thing for literature. Thanks to the Internet we can discover new books and publishers and discuss our favorite stories with interesting people outside our own literary circles, whom we’ve perhaps never met in person. Thanks to the Kindle and the iPhone we can take our favorite books with us—we can take entire libraries with us—and even download new novels on-the-go. Technology makes it exceedingly easy to discover and enjoy literature.

I understand why technology is causing such a mighty ruckus right now—why mess around with something so ancient and sacred as the printed word?—but I think what all the hubbub ultimately comes down to is this: are people still reading? And they are, more than ever before. Emerging technological formats and shifting consumer preferences are forcing publishers to restructure their operations accordingly, but that’s all it is. Restructuring. Which is markedly different than “the end of publishing.”

Like the music and movie industries are currently re-examining their operations in the face of new formats and digital piracy, the publishing industry will have to take a good hard look at itself and figure out how to make itself sustainable, whether that’s by charging higher prices for e-books or with less conventional methods, such as including advertisements in their books or turning their authors into rock stars and charging fans steep prices to see them on tour, stadium-style.

These ideas might seem a little outlandish, sure. But then again, maybe that’s what we need, because the old methods aren’t working anymore. The publishing industry isn’t what it used to be. But I don’t think that’s anything to worry about, in the long-term anyway. Things change. That’s the way of the world. The only difference about what’s happening now is that the change in question is big and abrupt, and because of that People Don’t Like It.

While I’m just beginning the heyday of my own generation and therefore cannot personally attest to the struggles of the publishing industry during earlier generations, as far as I can tell literature has always had to contend with The Next Big Thing. First it was the radio, then the film, then television. Now it’s technology, manifest in a medley of forms. But literature prevailed then. It will prevail now.
JK Evanczuk is the founter of LitDrift, a blog about storytelling in the 21st century.

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