Over summer I became a little obsessed with the Prelingers of the Prelinger Library in San Francisco after reading two articles in Contents magazine: one, an interview with the Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger about their self-created archive, The Library as a Map; and Rick Prelinger’s evolving manifesto on re-use, On the Virtues of Preexisting Material.
What I really enjoy about what they’re saying and writing is a recognition of the power of digital and the enduring yet changing quality of physical. It’s an awareness that’s growing in another world I’m interested in too, publishing.
In the library, we’ve discovered that print has become a privileged medium whose allure seems to grow greater as books recede from the everyday sphere. So while the world enacts the end of print and the onset of bit-based book simulations, it simultaneously celebrates print as a special kind of experience. (Megan Shaw Prelinger in ‘The Library as a Map’.)
That special experience has taken generations to evolve but it feels like it’s only recently that digital designers and producers have recognized it and started using its lessons on the visual web. Small type and tight layout are gone in favor of large easy-reading faces, generous leading, white space and margins, resembling more and more a printed page.
Edges and canons
I’ve come across a couple of other overlapping ideas from print recently thanks to Craig Mod and Aaron Straup Cope. Craig Mod talks about the ‘edges’ that a book provides a reader; it’s contained, you know where you are in it and your place’s relationship to the beginning and end.
Not dissimilarly, Aaron Straup Cope in conversation during last year’s NDF talked about the ‘canon’ in the Western canon sense: “denotes a body of books and, more broadly, music and art that have been the most important and influential in shaping Western culture. As such, it includes the ‘greatest works of artistic merit.’”
Physicality is central to creating a canon: it’s constrained, by a book that can only fit the names of so many great writers, musicians and artists, to a library that can only fit so many great and canonical works. In effect it’s the edges that define the canon.
In a digital world then we experience the freedom to move beyond the canon but perhaps also lose the boundaries that give structure and process to reading and thinking.
Commerce and crowds
Back to summer, and the Summer 2012 issue of New Zealand Books (vol. 22, no. 4, issue 100) featured four comment pieces about digital publishing. It felt like a good number for a country that hasn’t yet embraced ebooks to the extent in the US. Not all were in favour; Guy Somerset and Jenny Nicholls were unimpressed. But Julia Marshall from Gecko Press and epublisher Penelope Todd were more pragmatic, positive even.
Gecko Press produce beautiful books, artefacts, but Marshall believes digital is capable of producing artefacts, at least in the made-by-hand sense: “we are aiming for simple but elegant productions – the same aims as with our printed books.” (‘Matters of form’.)
Penelope Todd, in ‘What we make of it’, picks up on the artefact too, comparing physical and digital books to cars and horses: “Perhaps the ebook will prove to be the motorcar of the future – freeing the book to become the horse, a coveted object of beauty…”. But it’s her suggestion that digital is a proving ground for new publishing that’s interesting:
I see digital publishing as an ongoing experiment that nonetheless offers a viable life for an author’s work. I can also be seen as a holding or testing pen for the growing body of good writing deemed too financially risky to publish in hard copy. Work that makes its mark in e-book format should be the very work that publishers turn into finely produced hard copy… with lasting value conferred on works that make it into covers.
She’s suggesting, effectively, that commerce and sales generate one of the most accurate pictures of what’s popular – it’s what the crowd will pay for. By taking what the crowd wants and turning it from digital to physical, will we then see a new crowd-sourced canon?
It’s thinking like that though that gives me some hope for publishing, some hope that publishers are seeing ways of using a new digital ecosystem to continue producing beautiful books, physical and digital. It’s a sign of digital learning from physical and physical learning from digital.
Rights and wrongs
Both of my sons are devoted DVD watchers. Broadcast TV is pretty much off their radar. It always amuses me to watch my two-year-old stare blankly at the screen as the copyright notices at the start of his DVDs roll slowly by. Clearly he’s not reading it; neither am I.
Meanwhile, my seven-year-old recently discovered the joy of Gangnam Style thanks to this rendition by Pocoyo.
Gangnam Style has become almost a poster child for a copyright free world with headlines like Gangnam Style Shows What Can Happen When You Don’t Lean On Copyright and Google: Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ Has Earned $8 Million On YouTube Alone. Maybe it’s an extreme example, but it points to a world that’s dramatically different to the world that’s given rise – relatively recently – to multi-national publishing.
It’s not a world that gives many publishers much comfort. The Publishers Association (NZ) put out a news release in December that argued strongly for maintaining the status quo around all rights issues. There are a lot of arguments contained in that short piece, and as it summarizes various talks by Auckland University Press’s Sam Elworthy, it’s hard to gauge the balance in the original talks. But what it does argue for is the continuation of rules and processes that were established in a pre-digital age to protect works in what is now a very digital age.
Elworthy makes a lot of fair points. Selling rights into different territories, for example, makes sense for taking advantage of local knowledge, and yes, a work like the Princeton Companion to Mathematics takes years and a huge investment for a publisher to produce. Similarly, he notes that in producing a 1200 page anthology of New Zealand literature, he couldn’t find many authors willing to share their content for free.
But how much sense do territorial rights make when you consider that digital has no edges and knows no territories? Perhaps a tome-like companion is no longer the right medium for popularizing and informing people about mathematics, when much of the research is probably largely publicly funded in any case. And isn’t it to be expected that a publisher will never find people willing to share their content for free in a project that’s clearly commercial? What this really makes me wonder is whether the business model needs protecting or if it’s just too busted to bother? Do publishers risk becoming obsolete if they stick with existing business models?
We’ve all heard it before: there’s a fundamental change underway, a paradigm shift. We know this don’t we? Or do we? Rick Prelinger in ‘Preexisitng Material’ is especially concerned that traditional archives don’t:
If archives don’t open their doors, and if they don’t find ways to act like cultural producers and push their holdings out to the public for people to experience and work with, they face a very uncertain future. In fact, they face obsolescence.
Younger people, who form the vast majority of mediamakers, have already given up on legacy archives. They know they can’t get material from old-school repositories, and have routed around them. They’ll get sounds and images from filesharing sites and YouTube, regardless of who thinks they own them. Do copyright maximalists really think they’re going to retrain an entire generation to ask permission?
Archives and publishers are facing surprisingly similar challenges; they’re both facing obsolescence if they don’t recognize changes that are being driven by a generation of expectation.
I’m not offering answers for either archivists or publishers; I can’t begin to say I have a full understanding of either’s position. I’m not an archivist, and while I’ve worked for commercial publishers in the past, I don’t any longer. I probably occupy an uneasy space between the two of them, working as I do for a digital publisher that draws heavily on archives and other cultural collections but that is part of a government department and so avoids the financial pressures of a commercial publisher.
But it’s not hard to see the changes that will affect them both. Changes in a world that sees copying and re-using, being global and being immediate as normal and right. Neither archives nor publishers can expect to retrain those growing up in this world or undo the expectations that are shaping it. What they have to do is find the models that will sustain them into the future.