Article by Jason Epstein on ebooks – Publishing: the revolutionary future

jason epstien.jpgWhy is that interesting? Because Epstein launched the trade paperback format in the US in 1952 and he has won most of the prestigious awards in the book industry. Here’s the first paragraph:

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends. Meanwhile, for quite different reasons, 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. The crisis of confidence reflects these intersecting shocks, an overspecialized marketplace dominated by high-risk ephemera and a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg’s German city of Mainz six centuries ago.

(via Resource Shelf)

10 Comments on Article by Jason Epstein on ebooks – Publishing: the revolutionary future

  1. Bravo.

    There is practically nothing in this entire treatise that I would change or take issue with. Epstein lays out the future of digital books excellently, though without going into any details as to how it will be accomplished… suffice to say, the transition will be disruptive, surprising, unexpected and unpredictable, but will lead to a future we can all understand and appreciate. In short, the way we have dealt with all transitions to new media and conventions.

    One point: He does repeatedly mention that digitalization is fragile… but I’d suggest that is mainly because we are so new to this convention that the proper means of archiving our digital material has not been developed and put into use. This, too, will come, and his need for physical books to “backup” our digital texts will not be as necessary as he expects.

  2. I hope he will be right on the `anywhere on earth’ part. For now practice beats the technical possibilities.

  3. …although I agreed with what the author had to say, one comment ticked me off;

    “Some musicians make up for lost royalties by giving concerts, selling T-shirts, or accompanying commercials. For authors there is no equivalent solution.”

    …so if there is no “equivalent” solution, how about coming up with a “different” solution…perhaps one that is even BETTER!…some of these guys sound so pathetic!…is our creativity so dissipated that we can’t come up with alternate ways of funneling appropriate rewards to deserving authors?

  4. In fairness, he *did* suggest a number of possible alternatives for rewarding authors, and it’s perfectly fair to say that right now there’s no equivalent to selling T-shirts or concert tickets.

    Rather than getting pissed off, why not channel that energy into coming up with something yourself, rather than wasting it on being angry at him?

  5. Another approach, most obvious and promising, is to contend and illustrate the interdependence of print and screen reading. We intuitively know the screen attributes of self-indexing, live search and discovery and the print attributes of self-authentication, back-up and mastering. Print also fairs well in exclusive attributes of legibility, navigation and persistence yet concedes others such as finger moves for touch screen navigation.

    The point being that Epstein could better invest in the logics of interdependence of print and screen and perhaps project the real revolution of print and screen as a single, composite text delivery system.

    That said, we can counter list attributes exclusive to either print or screen books. Print attributes of fixity, mechanical navigation, materiality and persistent re-access across time all pair nicely with screen attributes of live content, automated search, cloud repository and electronic delivery. Another great pair of print and screen attributes is revealed by the self-authenticating nature of the print book contrasted with the self-indexing nature of the screen book. The print book carries with it layers of physical evidence, overt content and bibliographic codes that reveal the source and intent of its production. Screen books have layers of codes quite different. In addition to enabling alphabetic screen display these codes also enable indexing of elements of content and electronically speed delivery of keyword search and discovery across collections of books.

  6. I’m not sure I agree with Epstein that the shift to digital publishing will be “a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than…Gutenberg’s.” Certainly in terms of the effect on the vast majority of society it will be much smaller. There are certain small segments of society (publishers, authors) that will probably see large changes, but there won’t be the kind of broad changes that Gutenberg’s press caused. Really, his whole article has the sort of hyperboloical feel that one sees a lot in the techno-geek community; I think that that detracts strongly from it. It’s more of a manifesto than an analysis.

    As for the alleged “fixity” of print that Gary Frost talks about: if my house burned down today, I’d lose every paper book in it. Yet I’d still have copies of every e-book I own.

  7. …oops, Curt, a misread (my fault) I meant assured unmodified persistence of content. As when you open the jar 16 centuries later and read Gnostic gospel with the eerie assurance that this is really from late Antiquity.

    I work a bit in library disasters and I can tell you that paper is more robust than analog or digital magnetic media and computer media. The delivery devices are also delicate.

    Otherwise I really agree with your assessment of the drone of laundry lists such as apparent in the Epstein and I also agree that our media transitions are less important than, say, those of the 19th century.

  8. Ah, Gary, you’re an archivist! Or at least you understand that world. So then we’re talking on a completely different level.

    Having lived through the floppy-disk format wars of the late ’70s and early 80s, I understand the problems with electronic media. (Though those issues were eventually solved, albeit by pretty much every floppy disk becoming unreadable.)

    Paper (or, even better, parchment) has very long-lasting characteristics under certain conditions. Yet there are others (err, like, being present in the Library of Alexandria) where physical materials of any kind don’t seem to do so well at all.

    The wonderful thing about a number of electronic formats is the ease of making copies. This is what you need to take advantage of if you’re going to make something last via electronic means. You must, absolutely must, read it, and rewrite it, and convert it when necessary, on a continual basis. As with a shark: you keep moving, or you die. But if you can set up a system to do that, there’s no reason that the work should not survive anything short of the extinction of the entire human race.

    Though keep in mind, I’m not saying that doing things that well is so easy to achieve….

  9. Paper (or, even better, parchment) has very long-lasting characteristics under certain conditions.

    People often forget that, compared to the amount of ancient information that was committed to paper, the amount of paper-based information that has survived that time is incredibly small, an order of a percent or two of the total… because those certain conditions are met by very few places on this planet. Imagine how much has been lost.

    We have a much better potential to save information in an electronic age, thanks to the incredible ease of backups and archiving. But we do need to take further steps to make those backup and archiving processes more standardized and ubiquitous, and make our long-term storage more hardy.

  10. I fully agree with Epstein’s overall perspective on the vast changes that are and will take place both in publishing and our culture. We can only speculate on many of them at this early stage.

    I’m puzzled by Epstein’s comment that “fiction is almost never collaborative.” When was it ever? I can’t think of a single book of fiction or poetry, of the first order, in any culture, that was “collaborative.” What would it be? Maybe some of the old early epics, Gilgamesh, as he alludes to, very rare. Otherwise, a contradiction in terms…

    Despite that caveat, I think it’s fair to say Epstein has his finger of the pulse of the Post-Gutenberg revolution more than anyone else, though I think he’s undervaluing ebooks, though it’s understandable, since he’s placed all his chips on the Espresso Book Machine.

    I should state I’m slightly biased since have three books available through his Espresso Book Machine.

    My own attempts to understand these transformations, as both a writer and publisher, can be found on my website, if interested:

    Publishing in the Post-Gutenberg Age
    http://www.fglaysher.com/Post_Gutenberg_Publishing.html

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