As somebody who enjoys reading a good book, but who also spends a vast amount of time online, I'm interested in the debate over whether or not Google (or anybody else) should be allowed to scan all of the world's books and make them searchable online. Recently, there were two opinion pieces written in the New York Times about the subject, one by Kevin Kelly
, 'Senior Maverick' at Wired
and the other by iconic American author John Updike
. Both address a possible scenario where the printed book disappears in favor of the digital. For Kelly, this will mark the end of the economy of printed copies. For Updike, it will destroy literature as we know it. In my opinion, neither viewpoint is entirely correct.
Kelly's article, called 'Scan This Book!
' expounds on the virtues and benefits of a 'universal' online library in which all books - all writings, in fact - are digitized and archived online so that their texts can be made searchable, linked, tagged, and . . . well you get the gist. The article is good, though kind of long-winded. Ironically, the full text can no longer be viewed by the general public on the NY Times Web site, though I was able to find a special URL (above) to the full text version from Kelly's Web site. If we didn't have that, though, we could, if we were so inclined, pay NY Times for a full copy
In his article, Kelly paints a very different picture of the 'economy of publishing' from the one we have now. He envisions a true democratization of the written word, one where ideas and texts are freely available to everybody, regardless of physical location or income. Instead of the hard copy becoming the thing of value, Kelly writes, "Now relationships, links, connection and sharing are." He goes on to say, "Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer and engage." I think he's right on target here. One of the frustrations I have with reading anything offline anymore, including novels, is the fact that I cannot link directly to a passage and comment on it. Sure, I can cite the passage and then link to the book on Amazon, but this won't provide people with the surrounding context for whatever remark I have. For me, there is, increasingly, value in being able to access things online, comment on them, and link to them.
Kelly goes on to say that we are beginning to see a new business model for publishing, where "Authors and artists can make . . . their living selling aspects of their works other than inexpensive copies of them." What he's referring to are things like public speaking engagements or advertising on blogs. Certainly, if an author is popular enough and had the blogging skills, he could probably draw a decent income off of Google Ad revenue. The point is that there are many ways, aside from the copy itself, that an author can make money. These offer him more ways to 'profit' from his work, or simply from his 'celebrity' (if he is so inclined).
But I'd have to disagree with Kelly's suggestion that the value of the 'copy' could be supplanted altogether. I think there will still be value in a 'hard copy,' not just because it serves as an 'artifact' but because text is still easier to read on paper. The difference between selling 'copies' today and selling 'copies' in the future is that the author will have greater control over those copies, and will see a greater percentage of sales. 'On demand' publishing will reduce overhead and cost of copies to the end user, but shouldn't necessarily decrease the amount an author could earn per copy, as less will go to the hands of others. The trend is already happening. The real democratization of the written word lies in the power of the author to publish his own work and do his own grassroots marketing.
In Updike's article
(currently still live), he finds many things wrong with the digitizing of books, including, as the title indicates, "The End of Authorship." The article is filled with alarmist rhetoric not unlike the kind of talk made by the music recording industry over digital file swapping: In my day, we didn't have any stinking 'Internets.' And we liked it! (Because we made money that way.)
Sorry, I don't mean to show disrespect. I mean this is, after all John Updike we're talking about, creator of Rabbit Angstrom, and one of The Important Writers of our time. Personally, I like his writing (I love the story Gesturing
.) But he just misses the point. To say that he doesn't 'get it' is, I suppose, a bit of a cheap shot. After all, the man has made his living selling books the old-fashioned way. It's something that has worked for him, and for many others like him. But that's why I think publishing Updike's response to Kelly's article was kind of an odd choice for the NY Times: these two guys are not speaking the same language.
Updike's main point seems to be that the move away from the printed word is a move away from intimacy:
In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another - of, in short, accountability and intimacy?
The Internet inhibiting
communication from one person to another? I don't know, Mr. Updike. I'm confused.
Lack of accountability? Do you mean lack of linking
? Of identifying sources? Again, I'm lost. What Internet are you talking about here?
Has any other medium fostered so many one-to-one (and one-to-many, and many-to-many) discussions, debates, conferences? Has any other medium offered individuals the ability to personally communicate with one-another with such ease? People have the ability to interact with media in ways they never could when it was being force-fed to them by media giants telling them what was good, what they should be watching, reading, or listening to. Today, the people are deciding what is good. Via YouTube, via podcasts, and via blogs. Of course, perceptions can still be manipulated, but in general I think people will develop a much greater resistance.
But according to Updike, "content on the Internet is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile." Granted, there is a good deal of shit out there. I'll give you that. But there's also some great stuff. And isn't having the freedom to find both and make your own judgments about it great? I'd say that sort of personal choice spells more intimacy
I do agree with Updike when he says that, "[t]he printed, bound and paid-for book was - still is, for the moment - more exacting, more demanding, of its producer and consumer both." The bound book is
more demanding, both in terms of time and economy, on the part of the writer and the reader. Because of this, people who read books are, increasingly, more selective in what they buy. And here's one of the great things about where publishing seems to be heading: instead of people being swayed to purchase books based on marketing and propaganda, they could be turned on to books through their own reading, or by receiving recommendations from people they trust. The merit of a book, or a CD, or a movie, is becoming less about which press published it, which label recorded it, or which studio filmed it. (And how many marketing dollars those agencies put behind it.) Instead, and here's a shocking concept, merit is beginning to be based on whether or not average people like
something. Plain and simple. If a book takes off, it will do so from word-of-mouth, where 'word-of-mouth' has truly global proportions. Grassroots marketing will be King. Already, Amazon is giving its top-rated amateur reviewers advance copies of books. Power is being taken away from the traditional 'great' review sources - like the NY Times, for example.
But not only is the way literature marketed and sold going to change. Writing itself is going to change, has got to change
, if it is going to spread. Just as 'the novel' of today is not 'the novel' of the 17th century, we will discover a new definition of 'the novel' one that integrates other forms of media, perhaps, or one where the reader takes a more interactive roll. And the authors who are able to invent this new way of writing are going to be the ones who are remembered (even if they aren't compensated well for it). What I found most disappointing about Updike's article was that he almost seemed more concerned with the economy and status of literature than about innovation and expression.
The debate over the scanning of books will ultimately quiet down. Books will be scanned. Period. It will be a non-issue. Eventually people won't want it any other way. But to say the economy of 'copies' will disappear with it, or because of it, is silly. I don't think we have to worry too much about Kelly's dream or Updike's nightmare. A new economy will emerge for the printed copy, one that is more efficient, more targeted, perhaps better, but most certainly different
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