My annual visit to the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books last month was as uplifting and thought-provoking as ever. Any celebration of the written word and reading will always be close to my heart, and this may be the one time of year in Southern California where I am happy to see lines of cars backed up into the streets waiting for parking spots. When tremendous crowds of readers and endless booths of authors come out in full force on a sunny L.A. weekend, it just feels good. It also makes me wonder even more what age-old publishing is destined to become as technological change accompanies us deeper into the 21st century.
It really is hard to assess whether this is the best or worst of times for writers — perhaps in the true spirit of Dickens, it is both. While it is heartening to see so many authors in person signing their tried-and-true bound paper volumes, there is little question that electronic publishing continues to shake the traditional publishing industry to its core. Recent contention in pricing models has even brought the Justice Department to bear, arguing there may have been collusion among a number of companies that brought forth an agency publishing model to combat aggressive online discounting in the well-known wholesale-retail model. Setting aside legal resolution of potential antitrust issues, the question in my mind for authors trying to make a living at their craft centers around price elasticity. If lower electronic prices really will mean significantly more unit sales at higher royalty rates for a new wave of authors, the profession of writing can flourish. On the other hand, if the product of writing becomes commoditized to a level where customer expectations of price points descend to micropayments — at the same time market fragmentation approaches chaos with a flood of unrestricted product — too few of these new authors will have the chance to quit their day jobs. There are clearly two sides to this argument, and I am not sure any of us can predict how increased democratization of publishing will resolve itself economically.
Of course lower prices and more abundant offerings mean virtually unlimited choice at potentially impulse price levels for customers, which from the consumer standpoint is hard to contest as a negative. There would seem little doubt this should be the absolute best of times for readers, given the astonishing amount of content so readily available in digital form, so much of it free, even legally so. If the public turnout for events like the L.A. Times Festival of Books reflects continued devotion to the written word in whatever form it is delivered, there is reason to be optimistic — but again, I wonder. Focused reading is challenging in a Twitter world that offers so many distractions and immense pressure on time. A recent study highlighted in a Wall Street Journal column by Melinda Beck (“What Cocktail Parties Teach Us“) adds more fuel to the debate over just how good our brains are at handling distractions while attempting to encode information — in other words, can we really multitask? This is an argument not likely to be resolved anytime soon, but it reinforces the notion that reading requires commitment, and if we allow that commitment to become a luxury, the best of times for readers is not necessarily a given.
An additional question then remains: If there is abundance of content and almost no impediments to publishing for virtually anyone with a keyboard, are we trending toward a more literate global community, or one that is so hard to comprehend it is more overwhelming than instructive? To the extent that the availability of text continues to compound at exponential levels, the expanding online solution I keep encountering is curation. While any magnificent library can be well served by organization and editorial review, I wonder if any attempt to curate the internet however noble can be successful. We know the internet is a place that does not seek to be managed, yet browsing unending digital archives is anything but the pleasant experience we enjoy browsing analog book jackets in a local bookstore. In the same way that good editing can help focus writing, good curation can help direct us to relevant work we might not otherwise discover before we exhaust ourselves digging into rabbit holes. The key to successful curation requires the opening of doors we might not otherwise find, while not closing those we would nonetheless appreciate. Curation is no small trick; it is an evolving art, and as billions more words find their way onto servers, leaving their discovery to search-engine optimization seems too limiting an approach to identifying relevancy.
One of the most interesting panels I attended at this year’s festival was a discussion moderated by L.A. Times Book Critic David Ulin on Narrative in the Digital Age. This panel included editors from great new sites I was delighted to discover like Byliner, The Atavist, and Grantland. These sites celebrate long-form writing, in many cases exploring the notion of stories that are too long for traditional magazine articles but not quite approaching the word count of standalone book manuscripts. Each site offers an entrepreneurial approach to building new businesses where old-school approaches are collapsing, allowing new sources of income for writers who might not attract enough visibility on their own. Whether these new businesses will succeed at scale is anybody’s guess, but the courage to explore real-world transaction models where too many web surfers have come to believe they needn’t have to pay for the time and expertise of an author’s passion is truly admirable.
So many written words, so much opportunity, so little clarity — no writer or reader will be left untouched by the digital shift. At first blush it would seem that removal of barriers to entry in electronic publishing is tantamount to the elimination of constraints on distribution, but as long as visibility remains critical to sampling, that is not necessarily the case. Breaking through the noise in any competitive environment will always be a challenge, and commercial media will continue to walk the line of art and enterprise. It certainly can be argued that the written word is different from other stuff we lend or sell; it is our precious connection to the past and the breadcrumbs we are laying for the future. If you get the chance to visit a book fair or take your kids to one, see if any of these questions catch your fancy. Better yet, just pick up a book and read!