On the e-revolution

Book publishing is in trouble.

We are, obviously, on the infant’s cusp of the e-revolution, so much of the change is in the future awaiting our arrival rather than lying in the past for critical evaluation and review. Nonetheless, the wave can be seen. For bibliophiles this future will be seen as depressing in the highest, because the printed page and the quiet bookstore may be a thing of the past. But this is an aesthetic concern, with little-to-no regard for the well-being of our race and our international society.

Today we stand, according to Jason Epstein, in his Book Business, “at the edge of a vast transformation, one that promises much opportunity for innovation: much trial, much error, much improvement,” (2). This transformation rises from “new technologies whose cultural influence” will likely be “no less revolutionary than the introduction of movable type,” (3).

Those who lament the birth pangs of this new world—those who love and cling to printed books—are no less the victims of reification than the scholarly elites who, no doubt, wished for Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the onset of movable type to fail.

“Why, the value of scrolls and parchments will become diluted,” they probably said.

“The populace will be so inundated with options, possibilities, differing opinions and perspectives that they will soon be unable to discern truth from falsehood.”

“The art of writing upon a scroll ensures quality and truth; the ease of movable type will allow any trash to be thrown together, slapped onto pages and distributed with no thought as to the cultural ramifications.”

Better all around, therefore, to leave information in the hands of the elites, the powerful, the principalities and powers, since they are the discerning ones who can safely and accurately control and communicate reality to the general population. These excuses, it must be noted, are precisely what we hear today about the e-revolution. And after the digital publishing age, when the next revolutionary development turns up, the same set of excuses will be heard by the developed powers in e-books.

There have always been among the conservative ranks (no matter what it is they are trying to conserve) to cling to the past, good or bad, without regard for the benefits of what is coming. There has always been the claim to safety and assurance if mankind but allow the managing overclass to rule and to patrol the borders.

Those who resist, even if only in their hearts, the wave of the future in books must take into consideration that the printed page, despite its familiarity and comfort and the ready access we all enjoy, is still a limiting medium. Only those, after all, with access to the bookstore can acquire a book, and that only if you have access to the funds necessary to buy them. This immediately excludes some, mostly of minority ethnicities and nationalities in the developing world, who do not possess the power to get by the gatekeepers.

The e-revolution promises to take information even further from the control of the elites, those gatekeepers, and improve the lives of all involved. In this digital future readers “in Ulan Bator, Samoa, and Nome will have the same access to books as readers in Berkeley and Cambridge.” Indeed, no book “need ever go out of print,” and readers will no more be “frustrated by the mandated turnover requirements of bookstore chains,” (29).

It may not even be so bad for the printed and bound page as many naysayers think. Epstein proposes the mass production of print-on-demand machines that would create a hybrid readership, allowing those who want printed books to do so, very much like pharmaceutical counters; place the prescription order and they tell you it will be ready in a few hours. Such Print-on-demand machines are already available and used in many publishing warehouses, but “less expensive versions” are being developed that could be placed in “public libraries, in schools and universities, and perhaps even in post offices and other convenient places—Kinko’s and Staples, for example: in effect, ATM machines for books.” He goes so far as to predict that these devices will in the future “be common household items, like fax machines today,” (29).

The economic upshot is that the cost of books will drop radically, given that the books no longer need to be printed, packed, shipped, stocked, and marked up by bookstores and thus will “not figure in their price.” The impact of these devices in “thousands of locations” will mean that virtually everyone will have access to “potentially limitless virtual inventories, catalogued, responsibly annotated, and searchable electronically,” (30). Just as the printing press encouraged and expanded the reach of learning, so the new technology “will have an even greater effect, narrowing the notorious gap between the educated rich and the unlettered poor and distributing the benefits” of knowledge all over the earth (31). For the religious, Epstein writes, the emergence of the e-revolution on the scene “just as the publishing industry has fallen into terminal decrepitude is providential, one might even say miraculous.” Indeed, the “timely arrival” of the internet “may replace the watch found in the desert as evidence of a divine maker’s intricate design,.” (32).

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