In a recent post we examined and debated the potential effects that the Net is having on reading, thinking, and forms of literacy. Shifting from the cognitive effects of digital culture, this post will explore material aspects of electronic transformations. The discussion will consider the effects that digital culture is exercising on certain facets of the publishing industry—particularly reviewing and book promotion/publicity. A follow-up post later this week will explore what the release of Google editions portends for publishers, readers, and the state of e-books.
Book Expo America, the foremost trade event for the North American book industry, offers an annual window on developments and trends in publishing. Although focusing on book culture at large, the publishing industry’s bent toward conservatism in certain aspects of its practices has parallels with a similar tendency in academia. Such parallels are worth keeping in mind as we consider the discussion that ensued at the following BEA 2010 panel.
The 2010 BEA panel, The Next Decade in Book Culture: Effects of E-Book Reading Devices, offered insights about the business of books that extend beyond the subject matter intimated by the panel’s title. While not signaled by the title, the panel’s key focus was on reviewing, not surprising given that the National Book Circle sponsored the session. Participating on the panel were Carolyn Kellogg (book blogger, The Los Angeles Times), Denise Oswald (editorial director, Soft Skull Press), Nicholas Latimer (director of publicity, Knopf) and Ed Nawotka (founder and editor-in-chief, PublishingPerspectives.com), and Kate Travers (marketing and media consultant).
The opening question by moderator John Reed (books editor, Brooklyn Rail) asked about the general mood at this year’s event and the response was telling:
there’s a lot less angst out there today than there has been in several years … and that’s very encouraging. … People…are starting come to terms with the digital question and find answers that fit their own publishing models…the whole idea that publishing will fall into a digital sinkhole…has not come to pass and they are recognizing that rather than a sinkhole, it offers a portal.
This move from publishers’ conceiving digital culture as a sinkhole to portal is promising and should encourage initiatives in efforts to connect books and readers. That such changes are still in the developmental stages were evident, however, from the ensuing discussion about reviewing. Although economically highly desirable, PDF galleys have not yet caught on among critics. One reason offered was the need for better technology that would cut down on the time involved in downloading, and others noted issues related to reading files on one’s phone and other devices and the inability to manipulate the screen and e-texts in the same ways that reviewers manipulate the page and print formats. A general sense emerged that resistance would fade as advances were made coincided with the recognition of the convenience that PDFs galleys were already providing in certain situation. Economics are often necessitating small presses to rely on electronic galleys,, and reviewers are often willing to accept this format. While none felt that PDF galleys presented any new security concerns, all understandably rejected the usefulness of email blasts to deliver unsolicited copies.
Among the most interesting remarks were those addressing the changing nature of reviews. A query about the fate of the long review today spurred several reflections. Noting the tendency toward shorter reviewers, one panelist remarked that many don’t have the patience today for reading lengthy reviews online. This trend to the shorter review, given the lack of constraints on length that the Web offers, is somewhat ironic. Other panelists rightly noted that if we consider the comments that frequently accompany online reviews, then the long review is very much alive albeit transformed. Such collaboratively produced reviews both signal and participate in the more conversational bent our culture has taken. Moreover, just as the digital world is affording new opportunities for authors and, in turn, for the production of works that harness the capabilities of the electronic medium, so too is this environment presenting potentially exciting yet still untapped opportunities for transforming the review. As an example, one panelist mentioned the review work of Ward Sutton for Barnes & Noble online. The collaborative readings found on The Long Eighteenth Century and this blog arguably offer reviews adapted to take advantage of the online environment. By offering review discussions of that unfold at the chapter level of a given title, with each chapter being reviewed by a different scholar, and by featuring additional commentary by other scholars and often the author, too, these collaborative readings are reinventing the review in fruitful ways. At the onset of the discussion, one panelist mentioned the review essays that The New York Review of Books has embraced as a case of the persistence of the long review. Adapting this review form for the online world also seems to invite some intriguing possibilities for reinventing the review. For example, it might be interesting to take the chapter model and adapt it to reviewing the introductions and conclusions of multiple titles—if not hosting a successive series of collaborative readings that taken collectively add up to a review of current work in a given area. The latter possibility, however, would seem to require a sufficient number of willing participants.
The panel also raised a number of other interesting topics ranging from the growing presence of non-professional reviewers to questions about images and other forms of multimedia in e-books. The participants appeared to be in agreement that aspects of traditional bookmaking—attention to paper, type, and even deckle-edges—would still have a place in publishing. And several noted that in considering book production, each title should receive individual attention in terms of whether it and its projected audience made it more or less suited for issuing in print, e-format, or both. In discussing how books are advertised, one participant noted that the challenges affecting placement as our culture shifts from one that “browses” to one in which users “target” their media. Given Nick Carr’s comments about the Web’s encouragement of endless browsing, the choice of language here was striking.
As the panel noted, the publishing industry and book culture are very much in flux today. The relative slowness with which the publishing industry has responded to the digital developments has its own manifestations in the scholarly world. An October 1988 article, “The Electronic Journal” written by Daniel Eisenberg and appearing in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing is telling in its predictions and concerns. Advocating the benefits of electronic publication (including CD-Rom databases of say all the full texts of books in Wing), Eisenberg discusses what the shift to this publication will entail. Interestingly, while he suggests that such a shift will cause little disruption to the academic reward system of tenure, promotion, and the like, the acceptance of electronic projects, articles, and books seems to be far slower than he foretells. Yet, his remarks that “the most serious problem concerning electronic publication is less obvious: the absence from the system of those who cannot afford to participate in it” (55) were prophetic. The lack of access to commercial databases is no longer an obscure problem, yet it still remains arguably the most serious. As for the reward system, its continued heavy investment in print hinders many from becoming more involved in harnessing the capabilities of digital culture to adapt and create new forms of scholarship.