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From Distribution to Attention
March 3, 2010 4:11 PM   Subscribe

In Publishing: The Revolutionary Future, Jason Epstein posits "The resistance today by publishers to the onrushing digital future does not arise from fear of disruptive literacy, but from the understandable fear of their own obsolescence and the complexity of the digital transformation that awaits them... The unprecedented ability of this technology to offer a vast new multilingual marketplace a practically limitless choice of titles will displace the Gutenberg system with or without the cooperation of its current executives."

So what happens as information evolves? In Streams of Content, Limited Attention, Danah Boyd believes, "With the barriers to distribution collapsing, what matters is not the act of distribution, but the act of consumption. Thus, the power is no longer in the hands of those who control the channels of distribution, but those who control the limited resource of attention."

"The key is not going to be to create distinct destinations organized around topics, but to find ways in which content can be surfaced in context, regardless of where it resides."
posted by netbros (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
And still, I will likely print this out in order to read it.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:41 PM on March 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Project Gutenberg, Google Books and Internet Archive have totally decimated the public domain publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World Classics. Can you even find them in bookstores anymore?
posted by stbalbach at 4:44 PM on March 3, 2010


Was reading that last night in the tub (yay physical formats!). Maybe it was the hot water, but I was disappointed.

Pedantic I know, but isn't this sentence malformed somehow?

"This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends."

That may have gotten me off on the wrong foot, but I wasn't as engaged in the article as I expected from the NYRB on the subject. Ah, now I remember - this is insanely wrong, I think:

"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"

Really? The advent of Kindle and Espresso printers is order of magnitudes bigger than the fucking printing press!? Come on. I found the article a little breathless and self serving for my tastes. I'd expect to see this in Wired perhaps, but I expect more from the NY Review.
posted by freebird at 4:48 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


And still, I will likely print this out in order to read it.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 4:41 PM on March 3 [+] [!]

Eponysterical
posted by peacheater at 4:51 PM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


stbalbach: Certainly in the UK you can find both of those classics publishers - people still really like reading physical books here, plus you can normally find deals to buy the books for £3 each or so. Of course, this could change very quickly if people take to eBook readers.

freebird: The NYRB has been going downhill lately when it comes to eBooks - their writers on the subject tend to be very distinguished people from the publishing world, but with no idea about the internet.

Possibly the worst section in Epstein's article is this:

"That the contents of the world's libraries will eventually be accessed practically anywhere at the click of a mouse is not an unmixed blessing. Another click might obliterate these same contents and bring civilization to an end: an overwhelming argument, if one is needed, for physical books in the digital age."

Oh my god, I just deleted the internet!

(I've written more about Epstein's bizarre ideas on my blog as well)
posted by adrianhon at 4:55 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Project Gutenberg, Google Books and Internet Archive have totally decimated the public domain publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World Classics. Can you even find them in bookstores anymore?

This is not true b/c classics like Catcher in the Rye, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Their Eyes Were Watching God are still assigned in classrooms, and thus continue to sell surprisingly well. Indeed, I think far more damage to these kinds of backlist sales is done through the secondhand book market. In general, I think the demise of the print book has been much exaggerated: books are not nearly the endangered species they are often made out to be.

Also, related: Publishing will always need its gatekeepers
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 5:05 PM on March 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


In general, I think the demise of the print book has been much exaggerated: books are not nearly the endangered species they are often made out to be.

It's companies that make reference materials that need to go digital. I work for a publishing company that produces such materials and our president keeps reminding us how Encyclopedia Britannica, behemoth that it was in print, is now a dinosaur. But even then, we're trying to phase out print, to get our customers to switch to our online products, and you wouldn't believe how slowly that's happening. Linus does not want to let go of the blanket.
posted by orange swan at 5:38 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


stbalbach: My local Barnes and Noble not only carries Penguin classics, it also has a classics brand of its own. I use ebooks when I have to, but there is something very satisfying about having a physical copy of Paradise Lost to scribble all over.

I did use Project Gutenberg yesterday - I needed a copy of Sylvie and Bruno and the library was closed. But, and this is where the internet really has changed publishing, as I was reading the book in one tab, I ordered it from amazon in the other.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:14 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


The advent of Espresso Printers is interesting. I had expected something like them to emerge, but not to see wide-scale use for several years.

Anyway, given the slowness, expense, and inconvenience of shipping and, on the other hand, the ease of printing a pretty softcover, conventional printing and publishing is definitely going to be under siege.
posted by darth_tedious at 7:27 PM on March 3, 2010


Linus does not want to let go of the blanket.

And why does Linus have to let go of the blanket/book? I don't enjoy the internet. I'm spiritually enslaved by it. Like you. Books are my last link to reality. I dream of the day I can smash this machine, and return full time to the happy land of books. I've actually set a date for giving up the internet for good.
posted by Faze at 7:39 PM on March 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


In the meanwhile, the moment I can go all digital with my cumbersome books, and be able to easily search them, and clip text from them, and can have 30,000 on my computer for reference, I will. I probably read an entire books' worth of text online every day anyway. I'm forever baffled by people who claim to prefer to read a book, and yet are making those complaints online. Obviously, you don't exclusively prefer printed text.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:11 PM on March 3, 2010


Look, some books are frankly disposable. Life is short and, honestly, I don't anticipate that I'll ever get around to wanting to read Craig Ferguson's autobiography again, even though it's honestly pretty good. BUT, some books, such as technical reference works or hard to find historic curiosities, are keepers. I'm happy to buy disposable stuff for whatever my current e-reader happens to be but I'm uncomfortable doing that for stuff I'm pretty sure I'll want to have handy in 20 or 30 years.

Somewhere around here I've got one or two books on floppy diskette that I bought in hypercard format. (Remember those?) Good luck reading that, unless you've got an ancient Macintosh sitting around. Conversely, sitting on my desk right now, is a 300 year old book. Different tools for different jobs, eh?
posted by LastOfHisKind at 10:32 PM on March 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Project Gutenberg, Google Books and Internet Archive have totally decimated the public domain publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World Classics. Can you even find them in bookstores anymore?

Sure, and they (or Norton) are required on most college and high school reading lists, for excellent reasons. Have a look at the textual history of, say, Frankenstein , to see why (hint: it's not just to get students to buy editions made by academics - putting together a reputable edition is real work). Project Gutenberg's texts are inadequate, although I find their searchability useful - after which I go to Google Books or a physical format.

Penguin and Oxford Classics were forced to get their act together by the emergence of Wordsworth Classics and other cheap paperback editions in the early nineties. The books improved considerably, both in their physical quality and their editing, and the price dropped.

Editions aren't particularly big earners for academic presses: Oxford don't do nearly as many as they used to, but Cambridge are doing large new series of Woolf, Austen, Richardson, Jonson and Swift. None of those authors are in copyright, but the value added by an authoritative (but never definitive) text and thoughtful annotation is still worth something, and will hopefully continue to be so in a digital environment.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:21 AM on March 4, 2010


Your culture will be metabolised.
posted by Joe Chip at 4:02 AM on March 4, 2010


And one day our ovens will assemble delicious, fully cooked meals out of raw molecules!

Online media are good for certain functions. Deadtree publishing is good for other functions. I imagine this will settle out naturally. We didn't stop speaking to one another in person when the telephone was invented.
posted by Miko at 6:08 AM on March 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Project Gutenberg, Google Books and Internet Archive have totally decimated the public domain publishers like Penguin Classics, Oxford World Classics. Can you even find them in bookstores anymore?

Another vote for "uh, yes, most certainly." There is as ever a big gap between the speculations and dreams of the technofuturists and the reality of actual daily existence.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:33 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


The advent of Kindle and Espresso printers is order of magnitudes bigger than the fucking printing press!? Come on.

I think their claim is not necessarily outrageous, but it's too early to say.

With the movable-type printing press, we have several hundred years of context in which to view and appreciate the changes it wrought. With digital publishing -- depending on what date you want to choose for its invention -- we have at best a couple of decades, and maybe less than that.

Gutenberg's movable-type system was put into use in 1454, although he as well as many others had been working on the idea for some time. The Kindle, if we count it as the first really successful e-reader and associated electronic content library (which is arguable, maybe the Sony Reader was first, but it didn't gain much traction), came out in 2007, again although many others have been working on the concept basically since the invention of computers.

In 1457, Gutenberg's press might not have seemed like an earth-shaking idea. It'd be hard to fault anyone for being a bit skeptical, given the extremely large amount of capital investment required to set up a movable-type printing press (as opposed to just hiring a scribe on a time and materials basis), and limited literacy at the time. And really, what did the press do? It made books cheaper. It didn't invent books; they had been around for a long time -- it just made them cheaper. Meh.

And someone in 1457 might have been right to not get too excited, depending on how old they were: it took a long time for the changes to trickle down to average folks. Gutenberg's first books (the famous bibles) were sold at still-staggering prices. A first-run Gutenberg Bible, purchased in 1455, would have set you back three years pay if you were an average clerical worker. (Early adopters always get screwed.)

It took 150 years, into the early 17th century, for newspapers to come about, and a further century or so for presses to become fully mechanized and capable of mass-producing books and broadsheet papers cheaply. But a lot of credit due really to these later developments gets given to Gutenberg, even though Gutenberg's actual books had a lot more in common with hand-copied monastery artifacts than modern dime-store novels.

I'm not trying to tear down Gutenberg, just saying that we almost certainly tend to overestimate the significance of his invention (out of all the other developments that gave us modern, cheap books), while ongoing developments are hard to gauge the importance of.

Based simply on the amount by which the marginal cost of producing a new copy has been decreased, computers and the Internet have had a far greater effect than Gutenberg. Twentieth-century "machine age" books were cheap, yes, but now they cost almost nothing (and probably 'nothing' if you take as sunk the costs of infrastructure) to reproduce once digitized.

The long-term consequences of taking the marginal cost of production of a book from some fraction of an average worker's labor-hour (the 20th century cost) to something that approaches or equals zero (the 21st century cost), is quite possibly likely to cause more disruption and greater changes, in the long run, than taking the price from ten years of pay (or whatever a hand-copied book would have theoretically cost) to three years of it.

Epstein does say some stuff that's groan-worthy (accidentally deleting the Internet? really?), but I'm not sure that claim is necessarily worth it, although I agree it might be a bit self-congratulatingly premature.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:23 AM on March 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


The advent of Kindle and Espresso printers is order of magnitudes bigger than the fucking printing press!?

Spoken like someone who never wrote a paper before the Internet.
posted by DU at 8:29 AM on March 4, 2010


It took 150 years, into the early 17th century, for newspapers to come about, and a further century or so for presses to become fully mechanized and capable of mass-producing books and broadsheet papers cheaply.

This is the truth. I'd go further, and say it wasn't until the steam press (around 1830) that the Gutenbergian press realized its potential.. Not leaving out the important innovations of the iron press circa 1800, and (most often neglected) the very gradual decrease in the price of paper, not really addressed until the invention of wove paper in the later 18th and wood-pulp papers in the later 19th. Paper is really, really expensive stuff in the 15-18th centuries: much more so than any other of the press' inputs.

Don't forget that Gutenberg himself went bankrupt (we think). The printing-press only realized its potential with more advanced credit arrangements; a larger literate population; decent roads etc. etc..

Point is that this is a complex (and ongoing) 'revolution.' Unfortunately, it's become, like, OMG GUTENBURG!!! wheeled in to express some notional technological singularity.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 9:26 AM on March 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


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