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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Traditional To Online Publishing: Why Is the Transition So Gradual?

Forging onward to where no one had gone before, the second decade of the 21st century just catching its breath, the internet in 2011 was already generating the seeds that would subtly yet dramatically revolutionize the world of publishing. Even with traditional publishing houses already making plans to get into digital format as part of an envisioned hybrid market, the alternative of "blogging a book" (by subscription, or profiting off email lists or links to one's "real" books or services) could be expected to reduce manuscript submissions.  Additionally, the higher royalty percentages proffered by digital publishing companies that minimize costs by adapting the old "vanity press" model (without charging authors) could be expected to take a big bite out of the editorial and proof-reading model of the traditional publishing houses. To be sure, even just from their initial adaptations to broaden out to the digital format, such houses were not necessarily expected to become extinct as a species. Nevertheless, the future of publishing could already be seen as happening on the web. The enigma here pertains to why the economic slope toward easier (i.e., sans gatekeepers) and more lucrative publishing has been so sticky.
The juxtaposition of very different technologies illustrates the tectonic shift underway. Image Source: Alphapublication.com
Undoubtedly, some people found the unfathomable possibilities glimpsed from the internet to be all too alluring. Meanwhile, others held on for dear life to the melting icebergs of traditional publishing as though out of some instinctual reflex hardwired into the human genome. Viewing the shift as a Hegelian leap forward historically in the unfolding spirit of freedom already from the vantage-point of 2013, I found myself mystified as to the sheer gradualness of the massive shift. Inertia? Fear of the unknown? Stifling incomprehension of things very different? Whereas global warming had seemed to hit its threshold rather quickly and the internet was travelling at a rapid velocity through change—perhaps even warping the time-space dimensions in its universe—I found myself wondering when the threshold point of water pouring in would finally sink the vaunted publishing houses that seemed only to be fortifying themselves by closing doors more on passengers deemed marginal (profitwise).
I don’t believe the nature of the holdup is merely the refusal of the status quo to give into new theories, as described in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Rather, I think the answer goes back to the staying power, evolutionarily speaking, of tens of thousands of years when homo sapiens lived and passed on genes in a steady-state environment without the artifices of complex societies.  Simply put, just as global warming in the Artic was surpassing the adaptive ability of some northern ecosystems already in 2013, the pace of qualitative change in publishing opportunities was travelling past the speed of the human cognitive-neurological capacity of sense-making, not to mention comprehension and responding to the new stimuli.

Like dinosaurs, traditional publishers could only feel their moorings loosening and wonder what hidden force was causing the tremor. Indeed, the very ground underneath was already slowly moving, with much more kinetic energy to come. Like rats on the Titanic just after the shutter from impact, writers with the least to lose were beginning to sniff around the novel ebook alternative, barely able to make out the foggy shape ahead of an industry without traditional publishers, or at least without their annoying yet presumably necessary gate-keeping function. Vintage labels being required for tenure, young scholars teaching at academic institutions could not very well follow the rats. Meanwhile, tenured scholars were generally too accustomed to their well-worn ways to grasp the potential in publishing online, whether essays (or even chapters in-process) on a blog or entire ebooks linked to a blog and Facebook. With Google getting into the knowledge dissemination “business” and non-profits like Coursera providing free online courses taught by scholars at some of the best universities around, the internet platforms were poised to offer those scholars with some academic freedom and freedom of mind various means to revolutionize not only publishing scholarship, but also doing research and teaching. As in the case of the traditional publishers, the “rub” lies in the capacity of the human mind to move from a long-standing paradigm to think along a new line based in assumptions that would have seemed nonsensical ten or so years earlier.
Attached to the industrial framework undergirding the status quo in the modern world that was slowly giving way to another (post-modernity?), traditional publishers reacted by instinct to the sense that the tide was beginning to go out. Specifically, the reactive, knee-jerk strategy hounded costs by letting marginally-profitable authors go in order to prop up profits. It does not necessarily follow that the resulting level of quality would be higher.
By 2013, being published online was a formidable alternative to submitting a manuscript to an editor. That some well-established authors had already taken the plunge, even walking from their long-established publishers out onto clear ice with little way of ascertaining its thickness gave the up-and-coming writers enough confidence that they, too, could venture out on the ice without falling through.
Whereas the world of traditional publishing was built around scarcity, which could be controlled in order to gain pricing power, the internet platforms thrive in the midst of abundance. Whereas traditional editors are oriented to controlling the content that gets through, the tech mentality is geared to easing the way to publishing so as to maximize content. Whereas traditional publishing depends on mass production of content that can fetch a good price—the manufacturing model of the industrial revolution being still the immediate context—online media companies view themselves as providing services while the users contribute the content.
I suspect, however, that the scarcity-abundance dichotomy is overdrawn. Eddies of original content online may in fact be able to capture revenue, assuming that particular users do not “steal” the content by posting it on alternative sites open to the public. Although illegal in terms of copyright law (unless the author allows for duplication or reposting), “stealing” does not seem to quite fit the world of the internet where information is so freely available. Indeed, copyright law itself may turn into a leaky sieve that must inevitably give way on the internet. As in the case of laws forbidding pot, any presumed sense of control may finally be deemed illusory. Assuming sufficient enforcement of copyright law and the existence of writing that is well-crafted, unique, and of value to readers, the internet may turn out to be a spectrum of information ranging from free to highly monetized. Blogs that are essentially diaries will probably remain open-access, whereas on the other extreme ebooks will be priced sufficiently that writers can make a living from them (perhaps by building a large readership up first through a cost-leadership strategy).
Even for a given contributor of content, the spectrum may apply. Established scholars, for example, might sell an ebook for a decent price to recoup all the work that went into the research and writing. The same scholar might embed lecture videos in free blog posts that together make up a “book” or “course” that serves as a vehicle by which to bring certain ideas to as many minds as possible. Just as there are pitfalls in “stealing” suddenly not making sense, the potential for leaps in creativity  can be glimpsed just from the sudden obsolescence of  “book” and “course” in figuring out just what something never before seen online is.  “For this world in its present form is passing away.”[1]
According to Michael Wolff, traditional publishers focus “on what ought, or what ought not, to be said.” They hold the cards—the control—and they relish it. Like horses with blinders on, they “can only look on in wonder and stupefaction” at what blogging and ebook platforms have been doing.[2] Particularly baffling, attempts to control scarcity in the midst of abundance in order to gain pricing power can only be futile. From the standpoint of the industrial mass-production framework that assumes scarcity, that it is the content that is the product and has market value, and that mass production is necessary to capitalize on economies of scale, it’s all about controlling the scarcity to gain pricing power.  Where the dissemination of content cannot be controlled, the traditional editor would sooner face exhaustion than make the cognitive leap to the new assumptions that don’t seem to make sense.[3]
In short, as the web evolves like an ecosystem trying to keep up with accelerating climate change, the apparently sudden arrival of new species on the internet naturally confronts the eye and leaves the human mind grasping for linguistic straws that are too brittle to bend and thus to make sense out of the foreign things. As a result, the lag or gap between the emergence of a potentially fecund online opportunity and actual usage on a large scale can be considerable. I suspect the mind of a homo sapiens can only take so much of the unrecognizable before disorientation as an obstacle in itself to be surmounted kicks in. Because the internet is not based on the old assumptions of the industrial revolution, the human mind is particularly vulnerable to crashing when trying to use new apps or platforms and stubbornly resistant to rebooting using a different operating system and browser. By implication, tech people could help the rest of us out by putting more effort into including basic explanations of what it is that they have created and how to get started.   

[1] 1 Cor. 7:31.
[2] Michael Wolff, “’Reader’s Digest’ For the Digital Era,” USA Today, September 15, 2013.
[3] If you have seen the ending of the film, The Others (starring Nicole Kidman), you have an idea of how disorienting it can be to have one’s fundamental assumptions turned inside-out. It is as though societal assumptions somehow get infused into our very being. Not only do we resist any extractions and replacements, many of us may instinctually freeze-up from the sheer extent of disorientation in stumbling upon the unrecognizable alien.