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