Will Digital Publishing End the Author as We Know It?

An eminent editor fears solitary authors may go the way of the dodo

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UPDATE, 5:11 PM: Michael Kinsley gives a jocular take on the costs digital publishing could help reduce at The Atlantic. A sample: "$2.00 to cover wild overpayments to 15-minute celebrities or Washington bigshots for books that will never earn back their huge advances but the cost has to be amortized somehow."

While journalists look for the silver lining in plummeting newspaper circulation, Jason Epstein anticipates a more wretched victim of the "publishing revolution": the author. In a sprawling New York Review of Books article, Epstein lays out his vision for the publishing industry in a digital world. He envisions perks for budding digital publishers, and problems for would-be authors. One downside of digitization, he argues, is that it forces the private creative process to adapt to a world of increasingly public content:

The difficult, solitary work of literary creation, however, demands rare individual talent and in fiction is almost never collaborative. Social networking may expose readers to this or that book but violates the solitude required to create artificial worlds with real people in them.

More importantly, perhaps, is the threat file-sharing poses to individual authors:

Protecting content from unauthorized file sharers will remain a vexing problem that raises serious questions about the viability of authorship, for without protection authors will starve and civilization will decline, a prospect recognized by the United States Constitution, which calls for copyright to sustain writers not primarily as a matter of equity but for the greater good of public enlightenment.

Some musicians make up for lost royalties by giving concerts, selling T-shirts, or accompanying commercials. For authors there is no equivalent solution.

Journalists have mixed reactions to Epstein's appraisal of a world yet to come:

  • A Lack Of Book Revenues Doesn't Spell The End, notes Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress, anticipating that an organic solution will arise naturally: "Obviously, if you couldn’t make money selling books it’s not that people would write books full-time and starve to death. Nor is it that nobody would write books. Instead, an even larger share of books would be written by people with jobs at universities or other non-profit organizations (this blog is free to read!) or grants of some kind."
  • Publishing Will Always Need Gatekeepers, argues Rob McCrum at The Guardian. The literary journalist, after lauding Epstein's poetic analysis, is sure that the structural transformation of the publishing industry will not erode the author's solitary cocoon of creativity: "Epstein is, I think, right to note that, long before and long after Gutenberg, literary form has been typically conservative. The act of reading is a reflective and solitary pursuit that abhors distraction. The act of writing is also a lonely business: it takes place in small rooms, in solitude, and (typically) in silence ... It's hard, if not impossible, to imagine a radical new literary paradigm that might change that. For the moment, writers still need intermediaries: the job description will change, but the function remains broadly the same."
  • The Medium Won't Dilute The Message, or Its Longevity  Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis counters Epstein's assertion that digitization will render content "fragile," diminishing the perpetuity of an author's work:
It’s true that digital media deteriorate, and at rates and under conditions we still don't understand, but steps can be taken and are being taken to keep those media constantly updated. And books are damaged, lost, or destroyed as well.
It’s interesting to think about what would happen if certain sources of information we rely on were somehow to disappear, wholly and instantaneously. Losing Wikipedia wouldn't be a big deal, since by design its information comes from other sources, most of which are online elsewhere. Losing the books that Google has scanned would be more problematic, but there are many other sources of digitized texts. We need to be good custodians of all the information we have gathered, but with proper care, I don't think that digital media are any more fragile than any other kind.
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