Monday, February 22, 2010

One possible look to the future

We'd be remiss here at SotB if we did not point our readers to this article from the New York Review of Books by Jason Epstein, a publishing veteran who, among other things, started Anchor Books. In the article in question from the March 11th NYRB, Epstein lays out what "the revolutionary future" in publishing may look like, and it's quite a fascinating, certainly informed vision he offers. His understanding of the way in which we publish and offer books is beyond reproach; his vision here, however, is open for comment, as far as I can tell, and not pitch perfect.

Epstein offers some great quotes (which is how, incidentally, I found the article, thanks to Shelf Awareness). As many great writers, he has a way of summarizing big ideas with a relatively small number of well chosen words. For example, he explains how "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." Here Epstein puts his finger on just the precipice on which our book publishing world teeters. I don't quite get, though, why he then has to throw Marx under the bus.

He uses Marx's solid-melting-into-air concept for a more literal point - books melting into air insofar as they go digital and are available in "clouds." But in fact, I found myself scribbling "LABOR" in the margins of this article. (Oops... I've just revealed that yes, I found it online and printed it out, perhaps losing any credibility here!) Ah, the joys publishers will experience when they rid themselves "of their otiose infrastructure," Epstein notes. LABOR?! In the future, publishers can enter the fray with "only the upkeep of the editorial group and its immediate support services but without the expense of traditional distribution facilities and multilayered management." LABOR?! I'm just skeptical of any vision based entirely on intellectual and technological concepts that denies the need for any non-skilled labor. It seems somehow unrealistic to me, and perhaps cruel. Can't we build a system where a variety of skills come to the table to make this reading thing work? When people talk about the grand digital future, there seems to be a palpable excitement at dumping warehouses and printing machines, without any sense of the humans who work there. I don't think we should hold onto a broken system, but let's include these issues as we discuss the future. I understand the need to reduce certain costs, but how severely must we reduce employment?

I just don't want publishing to become even MORE of a rich person's game than it already is.

I'm also skeptical of how much Epstein's vision relies on the Espresso Book Machine. Follow that first footnote in the article, folks: he "helped found" this project, so there is a degree of self interest.

One idea jumped out at me and got me quite excited, and I'd like to think through the idea more in the coming weeks. As Epstein notes,

If I were a publisher today I would consider a renewable rental model for all e-book downloads—the "lending library" technique of the Depression era—that more accurately reflects the conditional relationship, enforced by digital rights management software, between content provider and end user.

Book rentals modeled too closely on Netflix seem a bit silly to me, but thinking digitally does make me kind of intrigued...

So read and comment, here or there. Epstein's article is certainly informed, bringing decades of experience into the discussion. I'll be curious to continue hearing how it's being received.

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