Thursday, March 08, 2007

Another County Heard From

After my lengthy post on the future of publishing last night, I was interested to see an article in the March 9th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. The article, titled "The Prestigious Inconvenience of Print," was written by Edward Tenner, an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University, and can be found here.

Dr. Tenner says: As a former acquisition editor at a publishing house, I can testify that impatient critics of the printed book are getting it wrong. Conventional print publishing is a daunting business. No matter what an organization's size, it faces challenges unknown to wikians and bloggers. A printed book, as one production editor point out to me, is really a machine with a half-million parts, any one of which can go wrong.

Tenner claims that one of the advantages print books have over print-on-demand (I think he means self-publishing) is that "somebody thought enough of this writing" to print it. He extends this argument further by saying that the very "inconvenience" of paper somehow imbues it with significance. The fact that a lover buys a paper greeting card and mails it makes it more significant than an e-card.

He then expands that argument by saying that e-mail messages are not taken as seriously as written messages.

And he says: In sum, just as luxury watches remain in demand while most people carry cellphones that give the time with virtually observatory-standard accuracy, the Web will never destroy older media because their technical difficulties and risks help create glamour and interest.

Reading Tenner's article, I imagined a dyspeptic monk around the year 1500, grousing about the fact that the printing press was replacing illuminated manuscripts. I can just imagine him saying, "You can't be serious about replacing all this beautiful artwork with THAT."

I think the point that a lot of people are missing is that READING is not ever going to go away. People continued to read--in fact, MORE of them began reading when the printing press made books widely available. The medium through which books are delivered is not as important as the fact that information/data/
entertainment will continue to be delivered.

Oral tradition was replaced by cave writing which was replaced by scrolls which were replaced by books and newspapers which are now becoming part of an array of delivery mediums: cell phones, e-readers, audiotapes, Mp3 players, computers. The list will continue to grow. That's not a bad thing. It's just different.

And, yes, I love getting a sweet or mushy greeting card in the mail. They are keepsakes, not to be compared with a book. That claim by Tenner just felt specious to me.

I enjoyed the article, but had a sense of a man trying to hold back a tide. I don't mean that books will go away. However, I do think that they will become more and more expensive. In another two lifetimes, I expect that they will be collectors' items to be enjoyed by the rich. If nothing else, the green movement to protect the environment will have an impact on the price of books and paper.

And for those of you who are inclined to say, "Well, I want to read books, not a computer screen . . . fine. This is about more choice, not less. Continue reading books if that's what you like. My choice depends on what I'm doing. If I'm driving, I like audiobooks, if I'm in the mood to read a novella, my computer screen is just fine and the rest of the time I read books. Those choices don't say anything about me beyond the fact that I'm practical . . . and that I love to read.

All this smug pomposity over books should be reserved for the content, not the medium.

Just one writer's opinion . . .

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