December 26th, 2010 11:39 EST
The Conjunction of The Internet and Print on Demand is Revolutionizing Publishing
The Net is a publishing game-changer
In 1998, when snide remarks about e-publishing were de rigueur in publishing circles, The New Yorker`s Talk of the Town section broke ranks and offered a sympathetic profile of Online Originals, the pioneer English e-book press.
A year later, after seeing one of its books nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize, Online Originals published my first novel, Alice Miller`s Room. The publisher, David Gettman, was as courteous and thoughtful an editor as an author could wish; we remain fond correspondents.
Only in the last two years has the smug hostility of conventional publishers abated as they have seen their revenues plummet and have turned to e-books more in desperation than anything else. These gate keepers have for decades deferred to their marketers, but it has little availed them. Their bottom-line corporate masters have insisted on profit margins better suited to cheap gadget-makers in China.
It was unthinkable in 1998 when The New Yorker went out on that limb that major booksellers should set up stalls in their barn-like outlets to sell e-readers, and they probably wouldn`t be doing it today if the e-reader makers had not designed and marketed such intriguing devices and if formatting for a variety of devices had not been brought to the market by entrepreneurs like Smashwords.com.
Amazon`s Kindle reader was the breakthrough product, and soon Barnes & Noble was offering its version, the Nook, and Apple and others were offering attractive and capable tablets and smart phones, all supporting e-books. The e-book market flowered. The industry today eagerly awaits the results of holiday sales of e-readers and books.
As usual, the marketing story has taken precedence over a more significant story, in much the same way the press insists that a new housing bubble could pull us out of a recession without any regard for the larger questions inherent in the idea "how, for example, can a society losing jobs go on beggaring itself for new homes?
The issue being obscured by the market story here is the gate-keeping story. The mainstream publishing industry, which now consists of six big houses in New York, pooh-poohed e-books for reasons that did not readily meet the eye. The industry sold a docile press on the idea that people are so nostalgically attached to the paper book as an object of art that they would never trade it for an on-screen experience. What a bluff "young people are abandoning email in droves for texting!
This treacly argument took hold, not because it was self-evident but because the press itself had a vested interest in the status quo. But the real mainstream motive remained obscure:
- The industry correctly recognized that e-books posed an economic threat because they would presumably be sold at much lower prices than print books. The textbook trade was particularly alarmed, because it maintains a stranglehold on students, charging predatory prices and making unwarranted revisions in order to force-sell new books to a captive market. The trade`s co-conspirator in this tawdry abuse is, of course, academia.
- And the industry also recognized that the e-book threatened its license as gate keeper, because the advent of digital publishing, print-on-demand and e-books would enable hundreds if not thousands of able editors to publish books that the big six marketers had spurned. Worse yet, the judgment of the mainstream industry would be challenged.
But these factors were buried in the market story, just as the bestseller list obscures the fact that it is not a measure of merit, as it is touted by the media, but rather a measure of how much money the publishers choose to spend to promote a book. A less disingenuous press would position the bestseller list on its business pages, not its book pages, which in any case are dwindling by the month.
The cat is not exactly out of the bag, not yet. These issues are only now beginning to be discussed broadly. But the more e-books are sold the more such questions will emerge and the more the publishing environment will change.
This is the culture in which digital publishing ventures like Le Zaporogue (Zap) and many others break ground. They promise diversity, new platforms, new audiences, new aesthetics "and they threaten a sclerotic establishment cheapened by corporate avarice. They pose to mainstream publishing the same challenge the Internet poses to authoritarian government. And they arrive at a juncture where they can no longer be dismissed and derided.
Le Zaporogue, whose current and ninth issue includes some of my poems, is a particularly hospitable venue because I share with its anarchist sentiments a distrust of isms, ideologies and most but not all institutions. My antipathy towards establishments is not unlike that of Albert Camus. It is rooted in strangeness and the plain fact that clubs and societies of their nature create outsiders, and as long as there are outsiders there will be conflict and scapegoating. Our press is both witness to and purveyor of this insider-outsider disorder.
Le Zaporogue, which publishes in French and English, originates in Aarhus, Denmark, where its publisher is a university teacher.
My poems in Zap are A Medieval Prayer, Comfort of Roaches, On Reading CÃ©line`s Au Bord de la Nuit, A Handshake Is a Filthy Thing, Shape Memory, My Last Civilized Moment and That First Kiss. I selected them to affirm Zap`s role at the barricades.
Zap`s mission statement by publisher Sebastien Doubinsky makes a case against the gap between what is considered commercially viable and what ought to be published for its merit or the hell of it:
Les Editions du Zaporogue is a tiny, tiny anarchistic project, aimed at publishing quality texts that can`t find their place in traditional commercial publishing companies. It`s like a presentation window, more than a commercial outlet "hence the nonprofit side of it.
"Happiness Is a Rumour" is already out, presented on the Internet, through the lulu.com printer page. People can either download the PDF of the book for free, or order it by paying only for the print.
"The only thing I hope is that through the Myspace and Facebook networks, plus hearsay and eventually press articles, "Les Editions du Zaporogue" become a little bit known as a strange project with high quality literature... That`s my ambition, at least, but I don`t know how long it will take, nor if it will ever lift off the ground... As it doesn`t cost me any money (only time), I can hold the fort for a while... for culture`s sake."
Here then is the alien idea that something ought to be published because a society deserves it, because it might shed some light or raise some questions "not merely because it might make somebody rich.
There is nothing new in this idealistic impulse to redress the dumb-down effect of publishing as mass market commerce. Sylvia Beach, an American bookstore owner in Paris, risked her life savings to publish James Joyce`s Ulysses, becoming a memorable literary hero in the process. Today Dan Cafaro, the publisher of Atticus Books in Kensington, Maryland, runs a bookstore and small press with similar heroism and dedication;. And there are many others, including Sebastien Doubinsky and my friend Brent Robison, who has made great personal sacrifices through his publishing ventures "Bliss Plot Press and Prima Materia, a journal " to bring unknown writers to light.
But today`s scene differs sharply from the circumstances faced by Sylvia Beach. She had little money to advertise Ulysses, depending instead on word of mouth through her book store and its many friends. Until now books have had three months at most to make a mark before dropping out of sight and being remaindered. Now the Internet gives them what Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, has called The Long Tail.
The term refers to the exponential effect of marketing books on the worldwide web, engaging in dialogue about them, mentioning them over and over again in social network settings, making videos about them, keeping their flame alive by "flogging" them on the web, renewing interest when marketers would have glommed on to the next prospect at the drop of a hat.
The long tail, aided by print-on-demand publishing, conspires to give books a better shot at acquiring a readership than they would have had in the hands of traditional business models. By printing small numbers of books on demand publishers can keep a book in print indefinitely. Just as important, the long tail whip-lashes the popular notion that sales have something to do with quality. A book does not deserve to see the light of day merely because it possesses ephemeral marketability; a cadre of admirers today may ultimately result in a crowd tomorrow. Not all great books were popular when they were published, as the history of the New Testament affirms. Today`s establishment may provide tomorrow`s puzzlement and even derision.
An almost magical case in point here is that of thirty-six-year-old McPherson & Company of Kingston, New York. Publisher Bruce McPherson`s faith in Jaimy Gordon`s Lord of Misrule was vindicated recently when this work of literary fiction won the National Book Award. Here was a small press struggling to bring a publisher`s personal vision to an audience against huge odds, unable to countenance big print runs and hefty advertising budgets and yet doing what it could year after year to uphold worthiness over salability. No small press in the world will fail to take notice of this triumph of idealism in the face of grinding commercialism.
But more than technology is at work. Mainstream presses have been known to renege on their stated advertising budgets for a book. And the idealism of editors is readily countermanded by the marketing imperative. The idea of standing by a book come hell and high water has become quaint, except among people like McPherson, Doubinsky, Cafaro, Robison and their growing number of peers.
Doubinsky refers to "the small clearing in which all free culture lovers, readers, poets, writers, outlaws like to meet, around the small campfire provided by Les Editions du Zaporogue. Privacy Type: Open: All content is public."
This statement reflects Zap`s anarchist leaning, but it also bears an outlaw zing. There is something of the Jameses and Daltons and Youngers hitting the railroads and banks in this small-press movement. Theirs is not merely a joust with the heavy armor and entitlements of great lords, it is also a joust with the mainstream media and its frowsty contentions that all that deserves to be published is in fact eventually published and that work that is not given attention in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker and other establishmentarian venues falls short of some merit test.
There is no question that if Zap, Atticus, McPherson, Bliss Plot and countless other small presses brought to the table the advertising budget of a Big Six publisher, their books would get commensurate attention, but this recognition enjoys the life of mice skittering under the table because of our helplessness in the face of it. When you hear discussions about net neutrality remember this, because the gate keepers are not happy about the long tail. They like what they can control "the long tail is a dragon`s tail " and they will bribe every willing politician, meaning most of them, to acquire the power to regulate access to the Internet.
What I am doing here, discussing the mice under the table, the unmentionable, is what the gate keepers would like us to regard as a kind of soup stain or fart at the altar rail. But whose altar rail? Theirs?
Djelloul Marbrook is a retired newspaperman. His second book of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, will be published by Deerbrook Editions on December 20, 2010. His first book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. It won the International Book Award in 2010. His novella, Artemisia`s Wolf, will be published by Prakash Books of India in December. His novella, Saraceno, was recently published as an e-book. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal LattÃ© first prize in fiction in 2008. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.
Del`s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com