Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Here are two lists I sent in an open letter to Clay Shirky, who is doing the leading-edge thinking about these issues.


1.  The general reading public almost realizes that “publishing” is not the same as “printing.”  All the uncles who got their life story printed by a “vanity press” and boasted that they were “published authors” (though now all the books are under their bed) don’t like to hear this.

2.  Of the many components of publishing, only one can be addressed by “printing” and that’s the creation of an object, usually in multiple copies because that’s the only way all the setup of ink and paper was economically feasible.  But now we can print one copy at a time, replicate it later, or easily re-print it with changes.  If you accept on-line manuscript as a “book,” the content can morph daily, which is GOOD if the content is directions for something that is changing all the time.   And we have audio-publishing as well as ePublishing.

3.  Some of the arts of printing should be done by experts:  pagination, layout, photo resolution, indexing, choice and arrangement of fonts, paper and cover.  These cannot be done by machine, though a computer will help.   One can learn to do them, but it takes time and effort. 

4.  Preparation of actual content (beyond the quality of the writing) also requires some expertise:  the illustrations, graphs, indexing, line-editing for errors, and curation, which historically was done by editors and critics but is now hollow, driven by sales predictions.  If valuable curating had continued in the hands of critics and editors, it would not have been so easily discarded.  Another twist is that now academic presses require authors to pay for the preparation of their own photos and graphs.

5.  If the “book” is an object then it has to be sold like an object: a marketing plan must be devised, a network of salesmen and bookstore destinations must be activated, a catalog, registration with ISBN or wholesaling businesses, blurbs to be collected from someone (who?), an interview schedule set up, shipping, an exciting dust jacket and posters for bookstores. This is the part that makes publishers worthwhile (aside from an advance!) but they just don’t DO it.  And newbie authors don’t think to ask.

6.  Books that are done one-at-a-time (“art books”) or maybe as a set of a dozen, can be very tricksy, origami, hand-painted, pop-up or beautifully leather-bound with gold leaf, and so on.  They cannot be priced like mass-produced books.  They are a different KIND of object.  They are not much affected by this momentous shift.

7.  But remember “Bunny Esmond?”  It was a book that came in the box with a baby blanket and there was a little square of the blanket material glued to the inside of the last page and holes were centered over it so that the illustrations included a place to “pet the bunny” through the holes.  The cost of that book was added to the cost of the blanket.  A book can BE a promotion.

8.  Readers have not made the transition from passive to active.  They still tend to treat the computer as though it were a television screen.  They wait for the outreach via cookies.  Never go past the first five listings on Google.  The bridge is probably computer games which encourage initiative.  Otherwise, people only go seeking when they want to buy something cheap.  
This is a split that has long been in our schools:  most education is something you sit and receive until you reach a fairly high level when you begin to go seeking and then, even higher, synthesizing what you find into something new.  This gap is what tips some people into copying: they are shopping rather than thinking.  “Low synthesis” is more or less aggregating a lot of quotes on the same subject without much challenging them  or “high synthesis” means disassembling the thought systems, analyzing them, and recombining them into something new.  It doesn’t have to be at the university level.

9.  Traditional publishing  de-valued the “old” book.  Publishers want to sell “new” books or at least “new editions.”  When I looked at a new edition of “Rhetorical Grammar” it was heinously expensive.  So I bought a previous edition (only a few years old with basically the same content) for $4.  The computer has made the used book easy to find.   Some fields have not been addressed by any improved new books for fifty or a hundred years.  Luckily, now you are more likely to find those old key books, once you find out what they are.

Because all along old books remained valuable and were wanted by people who could find them, the used book business once depended on networks of “book finders” who used mail and the phone, plus travel.  But now lists can be easily accessed through Abebooks, Alibris, Powells, and so on.  This means that books go to the people who want them and are less likely to be discarded, even ephemera.   My little kitchen-table books about Bob Scriver are out there circulating on Amazon alongside the U of Calgary Press formal and accredited book “Bronze Inside and Out.”

10.  To keep values up, old books (meaning those that didn’t sell out in six months) were pulped.  If you didn’t have the money or didn’t find them during that window, they were gone.    This practice, plus cynicism about the value of Native American Renaissance books limiting the number of copies printed and baffled marketing (never to Indians!)  meant that a lot of books popped up, were praised by white educated people in cities, and quickly died.   Drives me crazy!
Pulping is also a result of property taxes on books in warehouses where large printings must be stored.  Combine this with the practice of letting all bookstores return any books that didn’t sell and Russell Chatham’s boutique publishing business in Bozeman, MT,  was garroted.


1.  New media leaves print behind, leaves solid object existence behind, and possibly even leaves language behind, going to a new way of communicating (think of sign language) by the flow and juxtaposition of images and music.  This terrifies the traditional print author and even the publishers because they just don’t have the expertise.  They try to buy it, which means another layer of copyright and editing expertise.   Or they assume they must assemble it from copyrighted materials.  Cinematheque generates their own images or uses Creative Commons.  So far no composers have shown up, but good old Foley sound effects work.  Barrus uses a layered image technique that’s highly suggestive and ambiguous, dreamlike.  Every kid has an iPod and a Flip vid camera.

2.  Kids today, esp. underground street kids, easily communicate among countries through visual/sound media without print or sometimes with print.   Some learned by running porn shows online. This is far more true of European, Asian and African countries.  Tech-hip practically from birth,  they CAN author expressions/narratives without any print at all, or with print reduced to icon-status, like stop signs or advertising.  In fact, communication (publishing) will be far more like advertising and that expertise can be very deep and useful.  It’s not all scam and spin.  (See the movie “Art & Copy.”)  At seventy I’m being crowded to learn iMovie and I CAN!

3.  What modern kids DON’T normally have is life-experience.  They tend to be urban, to stay in one social class, to pick up most of their info from television -- though now not even that because they seem to have migrated from sit-com to song-vid.  Their world is iPodized.  They don’t know about options, strategies.  But again, they learn through vid games.  And Barrus’ theory is travel.  He had a kid who was mute -- too traumatized to talk.  He packed the two of them off to Australia where the sight of kangaroos shocked the boy back into speech.   He was filming:  “Faster!  Closer!”

4. Shirky: “ There are revolutions in which people’s principal skill is not being afraid of what they don’t understand. These people do well in revolutionary times.”   That’s us: Barrus and Scriver, two renegades with backgrounds that relate as Venn diagrams.  Barrus running his Cinematheque school for at risk boys; Scriver out here on the prairie living off SS and friendships with the Blackfeet.  We’ve been in and out of the fire all our lives in every kind of place.

5.  Maybe the university is no longer relevant for many people, though it has become the new standard.  The real energy may be at the level of the local community college, which used to be strictly hands-on stuff, but now is often a people re-cycler, a transitioner, a now-that-you’re-grown-up locus.

6.  Shirky: “Look at the difference between how a library shelves books, how serious fiction as a category exists in bookstores but not in libraries.”  The line was always blurry -- it is a marketing line, not a morality line.  One of the most tenacious and devious ethical errors (they teach this is at the U of Chicago Div School) is assuming that whatever “is” then “ought to be.”  The status quo as the rule of thumb. But for Barrus’ underground and for my rez friends, transition is all there is, the only way to survive.

7.  What brings the “revolution” home to us is the fact that we’re disenfranchised people now displacing the Ivy League educated, net-worked, prosperous, access-to-money people who previously controlled publishing.  The irony is that their resistance almost forces us into New Mixed Media.  The other factor (much more underground) is that they are so structured and confined by their own lives that they go “slumming” in our milieu and almost accidentally teach us how to challenge them.


Richard S. Wheeler said...

Only Russell Chatham's Clark City Press wasn't. It's coming back, in the hands of a former Knopf editor with an established house, which will sell the titles on their artistic and typographic and interior virtues.

Art Durkee said...

There's always room for the small press edition, the art book, the finely-made Book As Art Object. Rather akin to sculpture in its making and selling, actually.

Shirky: “Look at the difference between how a library shelves books, how serious fiction as a category exists in bookstores but not in libraries.”

I'm constantly getting into trouble by arguing with literary types that "genre" books are not only as well written as literary fiction but often much better. This is particularly true for certain authors saw as Raymond Chandler, John D. McDonald, Kate Wilhelm, Robert Silverberg, or Samuel R. Delany, all of whom are better literary stylists and more inventive writers than most literary "high art" fiction published now. I got into another round of that battle today, actually. The point is, good writing is good writing, period. It doesn't matter if it's "genre" or "literary," because those are largely imaginary distinctions.

So you're right to point out that marketing often becomes moralizing. I saw that when I was working in book publishing, on occasion. A certain kind of snobbery about matters.