The traditions of serious publishing are imperiled by the emergence of new technologies that more easily, inexpensively—and at global scale—produce books of all kinds.
Academic and scholarly writers inside and outside of the academy face the vexing problem of abandoning traditional platforms for book publishing that have served their interests and embracing new forms of publishing that undermine the unity of the book.
The central question is: how will traditional books co-evolve with the new forms of books—purely digital or print-digital hybrids—in which text is unstable, merged with other media types, and increasingly ephemeral?
The traditional book is unlikely to vanish—never mind the forces of creative destruction at play in the publishing world—because copyright and intellectual property law privilege the book over other kinds of published artifacts (most dramatically, the “newspaper” article). Path dependence is a powerful ally to book traditionalists. Retro-book advocates benefit from a powerful nexus of institutions—universities, foundations, libraries and even book sellers—that will continue to support and enhance the traditional book.
The role of Kindle, the leading e-book seller, chiefly serves to reinforce the hegemony of the traditional book. The entire thrust of Amazon’s “innovation” around the Kindle is to improve and enhance the direct analog-to-digital transfer. The Kindle strives to replicate, not undermine or revolutionize, the traditional experience of book reading. Amazon’s reward for assuming the retro posture is market dominance. The market leader in e-books is curiously reinforcing the hegemonic position of the traditional bounded, print-on-paper book.
Scholars and serious thinkers face, perhaps improbably, the paradoxical situation that creative destruction and technological change are opening multiple pathways for publishing their work, in a real sense providing them with the best of both worlds: lower barriers to reaching readers through traditional book publishing and new hybrid forms of (multimedia) books that expand and redefine the notion of what a book is and can be.
We book authors of all stripes now exist in the best of all possible worlds—on the production side. The reader, for whom we care deeply, is more estranged from us than ever before. Therein lies the riddle of the author’s existence—and the reason why, bluntly, we authors are profoundly anxious, destabilized, and in fear of our inevitable doom.