We have Blurb Mobile, Cowbird, Broadcastr, Slideshare — storytelling tools built by digital designers for creative expression. And yet, we craft our compositions first for the page. Perhaps this is correct. Perhaps these tools are meant to augment, not replace, writing, to extend the way we craft and shape our texts. Something similar has happened in publishing. Print books are alive and well, in spite of the headlines, but the way we make them is a long way from Gutenberg, his printing press, and moveable type.
In 2010, Polity Books published professor John B. Thompson’s 432-page volume, Merchants of Culture, a landmark study detailing the state of trade publishing in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Thompson describes the rise of megastore booksellers like Amazon, Costco (yes, Costco), and Barnes & Noble, the prevalence of serial bestsellers on publishing frontlists, the changing role of the literary agent and editor, and the challenges of small press publishing. He also examines the disruptions digital technology has wrought on the publishing paradigm. Some of this is familiar — ebooks, ereaders, E Ink — and some of it is so much a part of the the publishing workflow that it has been rendered invisible. From word processing to email to desktop book design, publishing long ago left behind the workflow of the Sixteenth Century typesetter. Thompson writes:
“The digital revolution is alive and well in the book publishing industry; it’s just not exactly the kind of revolution that the early proponents of ebooks had in mind. They thought that ‘revolution’ must mean ‘revolution in product’: that is, the book as a physical object will disappear and be replaced by immaterial informational content that can be bought and sold without the material wrapping of the print-on-paper book. […] But this is a grossly oversimplified and superficial view of the complex ways in which technological change actually happens in creative industries like publishing. A revolution has taken place, but it is a revolution in the process rather than a revolution in the product. The final product may look exactly the same, but the process by which it is produced is fundamentally different. This is what I call ‘the hidden revolution’. If in the future the print-on-paper book begins to change in some significant way, even perhaps being replaced to some extent by books that are sold as digital files and read on reading devices of some kind, then this evolution of the book will be based on a revolution in the process that has already taken place.” (Source: Merchants of Culture by Johnson B. Thompson, pp. 320-1)
Is there also an revolution in the way writers compose their texts? At this year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Chicago, author and media critic Jane Friedman led a panel discussion called The Tech-Empowered Writer. In a related blog post she writes:
“Traditional authorship focuses on the traditional publication of books or articles, with everything else viewed as ancillary. This is very narrow or limited thinking when considering how many ways a message or story can be spread in today’s tech-driven world. [...] The future of reading does not equal the future of print. Don’t limit yourself to books/articles/text. Consider how you can offer diverse experiences.” (Source:The Tech-Empowered Writer (AWP Panel Resources))
She goes on to list some of these. From online communities to websites and blogs to mobile and tablet applications, she suggests writers are specially equipped to use ubiquitous technology as the basis for engaging reading experiences. Like Thompson, Friedman doesn’t dispute the power of words — these, she implies, are crucial — but she does encourage writers to find new outlets for literary expression. I wonder, can the lineage of literary criticism, from Plato to Wordsworth to Jarrell, help us imagine new ways to bring the work around the words to life?