Monday, December 08, 2014

The Ephemeral Character of 21st-Century Publishing

No stopping: Not so long ago, books had a permanent quality about them. It was built into the beast. You had to print more than you needed, almost always, and you wouldn't go back to the printer until you needed more, almost never. Revisions, big or small, were too expensive. You lived with the odd mistake and went onto the next project.

Not so anymore. Books seem no more permanent than magazines, even newspapers, used to be. Newspapers themselves are in the process of going digital, which means they no longer have even the overnight "permanence" that they used to have. Photos have become ephemeral, taken on smart phones and posted on Snapchat for seconds, less record of an event than syllables in a jabbering conversation.

In any case, technology has made books easy to change, so much so that author-publishers have no idea where to stop. Publishing appears to be about constant changesconstant improvement for those who enjoy the process, constant correction for those who don't. Doesn't matter. Nowadays, it is hard to stop.

I'm going to suggest three approaches.
  • The first is to lean into the ephemeral world. If books are ephemeral today, so be it. Do them and move on. G.K. Chesterton might have had this wisdom in mind when he said that "anything worth doing is worth doing badly." His many fans have a tendency to turn this quote into a sort of high-minded spirituality, something to do with the spirit of play, but it probably originated from a more practical place. At various points in his career, he worked as a journalist and had firm deadlines. In this world, you do the best you can in the time allotted, and you hand in what you have. If you don't, you won't get published. If you don't often enough, you get fired. So ... do it, and don't look back.
  • The second is to lean away from the ephemeral world. Books—at least the printed kind—are still the medium of permanence. While ebooks go into the digital ether, the printed book goes on the shelf. You can pick it up, hold it in your hand, sniff the pages. Scrapbookers of the world, unite! Your one-offs are more likely to get passed on to the next generation—and the next, and the next—than a digital book that is likely to become obsolete as the technology changes. (Think of all the Super 8 family film that you can't view any more, the old audio on wire recorders that you can't hear any more, and the computer files on 8-inch disks that you can't read any more.) And then realize that if you don't get your book printed, you won't have anything to show for your work. 
  • The third is to find the creative synthesis between the ephemeral and the permanent world. For that, you need only to look at story, which can pass from medium to medium into memory and has the capacity to survive changes in technology.
Remember the story.The Publishing Pro.

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