Bob Stein at the Melbourne Writers Festival

Last Thursday, my sister (Kate Eltham of Electric Alphabet) moderated a whole day of sessions about digital publishing at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

It was a fascinating series of sessions which included some very interesting comments from the Institute for the Future of the Book’s Bob Stein.  While I didn’t record or transcribe his comments at the festival, I was able to chat to him on Friday night, which was brief but very rewarding. I’m going to attempt a brief precis of some of the things he said, in the sessions I saw.

Bob thinks that the changes transforming book publishing are both lesser and greater than often made out.  Pointing out that it took  centuries to elapse from the invention of the printing press to the first publication of a novel (I believe his candidate is Richardson’s Pamela – though many would contest this by pointing to Bunyan or Cervantes), he argues that it may similarly take some time for what future  posterity might consider to be the “classic” or “definitive” form of the new publishing to emerge. But, in response to another question, Stein also argued that the threat posed to the trade publishing industry by digital technologies could be worse than that which has confronted the music publishing industry in the past decade. He also points out that silent reading in private is a comparatively recent social phenomenon. It’s a very thoughtful and nuanced view, which he explored in this piece for The Age earlier this July:

Reading and writing have always been social activities, but the fact tends to be obscured by the way we engage with the medium of print. We grew up with images of the solitary reader curled up in a chair or under a tree and the writer alone in a garret.

The most important thing my colleagues and I have learned over the past few years from a series of experiments with “networked books” is that as discourse moves off the page onto the network, the social aspects are revealed with sometimes startling clarity. These exchanges move from background to foreground, a transition that has dramatic implications.

[…]

Traditionally, authors have made a commitment to engage with a subject matter on behalf of future readers, with whom they would have no particular contact. In the new paradigm, I think, an author’s commitment will be to engage with readers in the context of a subject matter.

Essentially, authors are about to learn what musicians have grasped during the past 10 years – that they get paid to show up. For musicians, this means live performances account for an increasingly significant percentage of their income in contrast to ever-shrinking royalties from sales. With books, as we redefine content to include the conversation that grows up around the text, the author will increasingly be expected to be part of that ongoing conversation and, of course, expect to be paid for that effort.

Stein concludes with an interestingly political point that in some ways echoes Walter Benjamin’s closing remarks in his essay on the artwork in the age of mechanical reproducibility:

Smart experimenting and careful listening to users/readers/authors will be very important. How we make this shift has critical long-term implications for society.

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