Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Digital (Publishing) Divide

On Friday, RWA president Diane Pershing responded to Deidre Knight’s post at ESPAN regarding RWA's stance toward digital publishing.

The main reaction I had to Pershing’s post—once I recovered from my initial shock—is that the issue isn’t just about Knight’s views or Pershing’s about digital publishing. It goes deeper. Assuming Pershing’s stance doesn’t simply mask an aversion to erotica/erotic romance that’s been displaced onto digital publishers, the issue points to how we conceptualize the very books we read.

To begin, what does the book package mean? It’s a marketing tool, primarily. It’s meant to manipulate consumers even though we are often complicit in this arrangement. Let me be the first to say that there are certainly some very fine examples of beautiful packaging. But it’s not essential the way imagery is essential to a painting.

A book is about ideas.

Compare this to how music has been packaged. First there were albums. Like books, albums depicted a wide variety of illustrations. One could also peruse liner notes and other tidbits. Technology went on a rampage, however, and albums were then downsized to compact discs. The surface area for the art shrank considerably, and we practically need magnifying glasses for the tiny print!

Now, we have MP3s. Those who still worship vinyl, or who are willing to pay extra for the CD packaging, continue to buy them. But increasingly, consumers demonstrate their demand for just the music and convenience of digital, minus all the whistles and bells of physical media.

In How the Lit Fic Crowd Can Make Digital Publishing Legitimate, Jane of Dear Author observed that “Hardcovers should not impart value of the content.”

I agree, and would add that ultimately, why can’t content be valued over aesthetics, or at the very least, enjoyed purely on its own? Covers are nice but they only enhance a book, not define it. When you listen to a song on an MP3 player, is it really imperative that you have the gatefold LP in front of you? After all, most players offer the cover, albeit digitally.

Additionally, I believe that content should be valued over mode of delivery. As Raelene Gorlinsky of Ellora’s Cave stated in the comments of Pershing’s post:

I have a challenge for RWA: Make “format” of a story irrelevant. A story is a story, whether on paper or an audio book or an ebook, or whatever technology comes along next.

As readers, I think it’s important to evaluate what a book package actually means, especially in light of digital publishing and the changes it promises. Up until recently, the only means of reading a book was in printed form, and this because we simply didn’t have the technology for any other medium. Before there were books, of course, there was oral storytelling. Printed books weren’t invalid just because the medium changed, and neither are ebooks.

Yes, pretty book packages make a neat addition to our collections, and I’m certainly no exception. But I question whether it’s necessary for every single book we read. Why not have a system where the fancy print cover is optional, a premium product, especially if it means more affordable books across the board? And I could certainly do without blatant marketing attempts. We’re supposed to want print books with flashy covers because marketing departments tell us this is so.

Readers don’t have to play that game. (Someday, perhaps publishers will get happy with flashy marketing gimmicks for ebooks—but we still have a choice in the matter.)

Yet for all of its wonders, digital publishing isn’t mainstream and won’t be until the majority of readers believe they will benefit. Pricing e-readers at an attractive, impulse-buy price (under $100), eliminating Digital Rights Management, and streamlining the downloading process are perhaps the three most important elements that will launch a true digital revolution in publishing.

Digital publishing is a business model as valid as any other. Given the challenges of mainstream print publishing, the possibility exists that in the future, there will be more of a pyramid hierarchy in publishing wherein print books are premium products at the peak and digital offerings become the new paperbacks. The base would comprise self-published works. In other words, publishers may release books in digital form first. Not only that, but such a change may usher in an age of zero advances and higher royalties.

At the point when readers buy dedicated devices in droves (as the recent case with the Barnes and Noble ereader illustrated) because the price is right, why wouldn’t publishers chase after the money and save a lot of overhead?

At this Dear Author’s post, which was in response to Pershing’s message, BevBB sums up the point nicely:

We ebook romance readers have probably helped “grow” many of the authors who’ve moved into the print market, doing the scouting for the genre that the industry can’t or won’t do and then to have the writer’s organization say that the most stable companies we buy those books from on a regular basis don’t meet their “standards” and “practices”–

Why do they think I’m spending my money with those e-companies and buying considerably less mass market off the shelf? I really don’t believe it’s only the epublishers that need to change their practices.

So, yeah, I think it does tick me off as a reader. But then as a reader all I can do is speak with my pocketbook anyway.

Science fiction romance is poised to be one of the genres that readers can nurture to popularity based on the “scouting” they do among small presses/epublishers. However, it takes two to tango—readers to read the stories regardless of packaging (when financially & technologically it makes sense to do so) and authors to be informed consumers about publishers whether digital or print.

Joyfully yours,