Publishing in the 21st Century

On Tuesday, October 7, I was among a far-too-small audience for “Books — Before and Beyond: Publishing in the 21st Century,” a program co-hosted by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and by Mystery Writers of America. The discussion featured Robert Rosenwald and Barbara Peters, owners of The Poisoned Pen, both a bookshop and a publishing house in Scottsdale, Arizona. The discussion offered a provocative look at what Peters called “the current revolution in the publishing industry” — a revolution that she likened to Gutenberg coming in to announce that he’d invented the printing press.

Noting that we were in “the throes of a new book technology,” Peters talked about how books take three forms — the ideal form in the author’s head, the actual book as a published product, and the book as experienced and interpreted by each individual reader — and she argued that the digital age allows books to be published which open up even more dramatically a reader’s potential interactions and interpretations; by way of example, she pointed to The 39 Clues, a series of books with significant online components, and even to the online fantasy game World of Warcraft.

Traditional fiction, she suggested, may increasingly become a niche market — clinging to the idea of a single author constructing a usually linear presentation of events — while elsewhere the delineation between writer and reader would potentially continue to break down.

Rosenwald took the argument further, examining how the internet and digital media have had an even greater impact on forms beyond narrative fiction. No longer, he said, is it a question of whether we’ll read on a screen but how we will read on that screen, and he suggested that in the future, publishers would need to think less in terms of products than of projects — define themselves less as publishing companies than as media companies.  

Rosenwald pointed to two important online publications which fueled his own views of the changes already in store for publishers: Bob Stein’s “Unified Field Theory of Publishing in the Networked Era,” posted at The Institute for the Future of the Book, and Sara Lloyd’s “Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century,” originally published in Library Trends but reprinted at The Digitalist.

Provocative ideas throughout the discussion — and many good links above.

— Art Taylor


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0 thoughts on “Publishing in the 21st Century

  1. Kyle

    I forgot to respond to Brando’s comment. Somehow this feels very different, what’s happening. It’s more than just marketing: a fundamental change in how we read and interact with language seems to be taking place. There’s a great article in, I think, The Atlantic. The author talks about how we’re reading no longer for depth but rather just skimming the surface, because that’s how we read the internet. We hop around, lose focus and interest, and move on to the next thing. And as far as interactive texts, so much of what we DO is interactive online. It’s not just the niche beast of hypertext poetry. This is EVERYthing we do online; social networking is changing the way we communicate.

    Umberto Eco is an aging part of the literary establish that knows nothing but books in their paper form. As such he’s not exactly a good authority on what’s coming in the future; he’s looking into the past, I think. He can make fun all he wants, but it doesn’t really address the changes we’re seeing. Our, or the future’s, “reading experience” may be much different than Eco’s.

  2. Kyle

    Yeah, I was there and really found this a fascinating event. Not sure if I’ve formulated the thoughts in my head yet, so I won’t say anything more than that I’m going to check out the links above and follow the developments.

  3. Brando

    Interesting. I had just attended a lecture by Umberto Eco in which he argued directly against that idea (of the interactive reader). In effect, he said, Yeah, that’s great, it’s like a improvisational jam session–creative, sure–but it misses something fundamental in the reader’s experience. Ontologically, the feeling of fate, the immutability of plot (if only the character knew what the reader knew!), in essence, the *catharsis* which drives our best reading experiences. As for the 39 Clues … I can’t *help* but see it solely as a marketing gimmick. Which, of course, is what the publishing industry wants.

    By the way, anyone know whatever happened to hypertext poetry?

    Yeah, I thought so.