Books in the Age of Digital Reproduction

What is the future of the printed novel?

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Nowadays it’s difficult to survive an undergraduate education in the humanities without coming across Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Harvard University Press has released a new book on Benjamin, in case we are in danger of forgetting all those elevated, multisyllabic germanic thoughts we should be thinking when we look at, say, a coffee table art book or a poster of a painting by Klimt, Da Vinci, or Munch.

What is strange is that all this renewed focus upon mechanical reproduction, upon visual art, has not led to a wider-in-scope discussion of the even more radical effects of the electronic distribution and reproduction of images, texts, novels, and poetry. Thanks to products like Kindle, and features like Whispersync, almost any book can be delivered electronically—any work of literature you want, landing in the palm of your hand in seconds with a single mouse-click.

This new speed of distribution will affect literature. Literature will be returned to its disembodied origins in the oral culture superseded by papyrus, parchment, and printing presses. This transition from page to screen will bring changes both positive (such as innovation in form) and negative (disruption of economic modes of sustaining literature). So I would like to examine both sides of the debate—pointing out new ways writers can take advantage of the digital, and dissecting the various ways that publishers can weather these changes.

As I mentioned, when words leave behind the physical (book) and become electronic, they return to the incorporeal state in which literature was born, the world of storytelling, song singing and recitation of verses. The benefits in this case lean heavily toward poetry. Not only are most poems short enough to be read on screen without much eyestrain, but voice recordings of them can be shared alongside the text. Penn Sound and Harvard’s own Woodberry Poetry Room are leaders in the distribution of recorded poetry. Web-based literary journals like The Claudius App take even greater advantage of the digital space to transform the very ways in which readers interact with text, bringing to the fore the principle of random access as a challenge to the often linear accessibility of print on the page.

Barriers to publication fall away, too. A quick search of Amazon’s kindle store will show a surfeit of self-published e-books on offer for, sometimes, under $2. Any writer is free to publish what he’s written by e-book, on a blog, or by tweeting installments. The Pulitzer Prize winning author Jennifer Egan published her story  “Black Box” as a series of tweets, and thereafter in The New Yorker. It’s clear, then, that these alternative modes of distribution are having a powerful effect, influencing the style and output of even those authors for whom traditional publishing is an option.

However, the consequence of this more egalitarian access to book production and distribution is that traditional publishing industries must now compete for readers, must contend with rivals whose costs are minimal: no ink, no paper, no advertisements, no overhead—just a cut of total sales given to website selling the e-book. An analysis of the differences between the e-book markets in the US and in the UK seems to confirm the common sense insight that greater competition among not only publishers but e-book distributers serves to deflate the average price of an e-book (in the US around $7, in the UK, around £1).

There have been some novel approaches to counteract the market forces that seem to bring the business of producing and selling books to a level of little to no profitability. An Italian reality TV show called “Masterpiece" takes the stance of the spectacle—it turns the process of bringing a book from draft to final product into the stuff of high (melo)drama. By televising a contest of novelists seeking publication, the publishers of the book can be assured of maximal exposure, the best kind of advertising, which is the ad that appears not to be an ad.

In more of a public-sector minded move, the Norwegian government purchases 1000 copies of each high quality new title; this guaranteed sale of books helps keep small publishers in a small country in business. Books also are exempted from the value-added tax, which helps to incentivize purchases. These strategies make sense for a small country seeking to preserve its literary culture (and distribute it all online through its national library).

Obviously such strategies are not ideal for the American market, or for the English language, which is in no danger of being eclipsed on the global stage. However, it’s important to consider how to engage with readers through television as Italy does; it’s important to value small publishers as Norway does. Perhaps the most successful strategy will be to double down on the book as an object. A final case to consider—that of Visual Editions, a publisher in London specializing in highly stylized and graphically beautiful volumes. We cannot, as of yet, electronically reproduce the beauty of books of such craftsmanship. It might be the best place to begin, to invest energy and creativity into the book as an object of artistry.

Michael T. Feehly ’14 is a Scandinavian studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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