Leaving it All Behind: One, Two, Three, GO


(ACT) ONE Culture and Technology

PRAGMATIST: Why are you proselytizing? Just leave it to the tech companies. The innovator/inventors will eventually come up with the right solution. They’re listening to us. We clearly don’t have the right technology now so of course there’s no universality of the use of e-readers so we can’t gauge the market demand for such a platform, in place of books.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: It’s not about technology, it’s about culture, don’t you see? A huge reading demographic doesn’t have access to e-readers, and they frankly don’t care about them. So we can’t leave it to the inventors because they are leaving people behind—people who don’t matter to them.

PRAGMATIST: Of course it’s about technology. If we don’t come up with the right accessible technology that will become a seamless component in reading everything from journalism to literary fiction—long and short—e-readers won’t be adopted. And the trend in mainstream publishing at least is that there is less and less reading of printed materials happening. We are addressing that with technology.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: And if that technology isn’t perfected—worse, if it can’t get better—reading books will be a thing of the past. Books are in all out war with anything and everything competing for attention—and everything else is going to win if the publishing industry doesn’t adapt to the drive for more accessible, interactive, portable content.

PRAGMATIST : I think you’re being prematurely alarmist. You think libraries will go away because everyone—rich, poor, rural and urban—will have portable, cheap or free content that they want? Free content isn’t a sustainable long-term model, we’re seeing that now.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: Free for some, paid for others? Like healthcare?

PRAGMATIST: Don’t get me started.

(ACT) TWO Delivery and Content

CONCERNED IDEALIST: Yes, I do think libraries may just go away. That would be awful. Some libraries are losing some funding, but many libraries are already adopting new models. Internet access is a primary driver for most libraries primarily in less wealthy areas—those which I’m primarily concerned about. Community projects, reading rooms, discussion groups, these are some of the functions that libraries are serving. I can see them evolve into more community-oriented centers for sharing information than just clearinghouses for books. That’s so stale and 20th century.

PRAGMATIST: You’re living in la la land. Have you seen the libraries that don’t receive hundreds of millions of dollars in municipal funding? Some aren’t even open on the weekends. Like I said before, books and reading in general are going to lose out in favor of 140-character, short attention span snippets of information, or games. The faster we plug that gap, the better chance we have of not losing those underprivileged groups. Might as well move the literary and genre stuff, long-form fiction to e-readers.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: There are academic and community leaders, foundations, and global movements that continue empower communities to read. We are never going to leave education in the dust, no matter how doom-and-gloom your outlook is. Reading is a fundamental tenet of education, and everyone knows that doesn’t come from video games. The slower the better, in the case of technology when it comes to disadvantaged communities and underdeveloped countries.

PRAGMATIST: You’re taking those community groups for granted. We have to bridge the gap right now (and I think that’s exactly what is already happening) between the movement to jump to e-readers, and the poor communities with little or no access to the technology that is driving this change. Look how cellphones have leapfrogged over traditional landline communications in underdeveloped countries. Nigeria now has better cell service than Manhattan.

CONCEREND IDEALIST: If the publishing companies can’t figure it out, entrepreneurs and artists will. They already are figuring out new ways to deliver content that is innovative and outside the lines of what publishing companies are used to delivering. The publishing industry knows it can’t survive by relegating itself to underserved communities with a limited interest in new fiction.

PRAGMATIST: Digital content can’t all be free; but it can’t all be premium, then.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: Exactly. We have to strike the right balance between effective technology—delivery—and compelling content that will meet the market needs and experimental aspects of the arts. I’m not sure the publishing companies can accomplish that feat. They are slow-moving to adapt content-wise and have kept marginalized portions of society at the margins of their business model.

(ACT) THREE Paradigm Shift

PRAGMATIST: Then that’s a paradigm shift—a revolution.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: That’s right. It encompasses bridging that gap you talked about but doing it comprehensively and not just among the literary elite, as they call themselves—whether they are the fringe elite or the mainstream elite.

PRAGMATIST: Are you calling early adopters an elite group?

CONCERNED IDEALIST: Aren’t they, though?

PRAGMATIST: How else are you supposed to know what ideas will work without the collaboration of people willing to take that chance?

CONCERNED IDEALIST: Listen to yourself. Don’t you think disadvantaged communities are willing to risk whatever it is they don’t yet have for the prospect of a better quality of life and a clearer shot to education, prosperity, safety, and health? Why can’t everyone who wants to be one be an early adopter? We’re sitting here moaning about Kindles and metadata connecting book searching on Google, and meanwhile school districts across the country and the world don’t have enough money to buy textbooks, no less smartboards or laptops for every kid. And in underdeveloped countries? Don’t get me started. We’re totally getting ahead of ourselves here.

PRAGMATIST: Ok, you’ve made your point. I haven’t thought much about that. So can the publishing industry, the dying, meager publishing industry adapt, or can it?

CONCERNED IDEALIST: We—WE—must collectively work our asses off to support literary initiatives that range from author readings and book drives to fundraising and charitable causes aimed at literacy and laptops for schools and libraries. I know that’s not specific, but the support infrastructure is there, it’s just barebones and we need to chill out with the chattering class thing and start really doing each of our own fair share of community outreach. This support will bolster the “market” that the publishing industry needs to survive.


PRAGMATIST: So we’re not in disagreement, are we?

CONCERNED IDEALIST: No, we want to see literary, genre and offbeat fiction continue to have a shot at broad readership. We want journalism and other content to be free of corporate influence and easily accessible.

PRAGMATIST: And we need to find a pricepoint that is fair to all that will continue to support the developers of content in the industry, all while cultivating new readership and retaining existing readership with content that they just can’t get enough of.

CONCERNED IDEALIST: We just disagree on how we’re going to get there—rush to digital or slow crawl to it while incorporating a sustainable business model for independent publishers and authors. These people may be in closer touch with the reality of the margins and so they can better meet the needs. New York City publishing houses are concerned with profit margins, not margins of society.

~ by yearzerowriters on November 14, 2009.

14 Responses to “Leaving it All Behind: One, Two, Three, GO”

  1. Jenn, I don’t know where to start onthis, so I may wauit for Guy to come and get things rolling. Hell, no, I’ll throw something in the mix.

    There are some amazing projects already in place amongst those working with the homeless, and organised by the homeless themselves. I wrote a piece for Gumbo Writer about some of these. The ones I have come across are all based on print books. Books are immensely important to people who are lonely and vulnerable, if for no other reason than they provide escape from the loneliness, even if only for a little while – and also, as with the homeless book groups, a communal bond.

    On the other hand, you have great initiatives like Operation Ebook Drop, where Kindles are loaded up with free ebooks and sent to troops on the front line for exactly the same purpose – escape and community. Obviously, real books aren’t feasible because of space.

    It would be great to think of digital initiatives for the homeless, but there are two real issues for me:
    1. the obvious place for such initiatives is the library – but libraries aren’t 24/7 and books are most needed at night when it’s dark and lonely and all around you are shooting up.
    2. ereaders have too high a monetary value compared to the book – a homeless person with an ereader would be an instant target for robbery or mugging.

    I am a huge fan of the ebook as an author, but I also think that, as one of its advoctaes, it is my DUTY to consider the social implications (far more, pardon the lack of sympathy, than I think it’s my duty to consider the livelihoods of second-rate middle-class journalists who might have to get a job doing something they don’t enjoy like the rest fo us because tech and “free” means they can’t be paid for writing).

    We need to come up with solutions to make sure ALL culture is available to ALL. For a very simple reason. Culture is about community. It’s a commonality between people. When we define people out fo culture, we definepeople out of our community. It might not be POSSIBLE to make it available to all, but I have no interest in being part of a community that excludes those on its margins. And I suggest the sae is true for everyone in teh culture busness. You might want to sit in your flat and churn out words on your own. Tough. You have responsibilities.

    As Skin from Skunk Anansie so delicately put it, “yes it’s fucking political.”

    • Dude, I”m not even talking about homeless people–talk about the totally forgotten. I’m talking about working people who take the subway and don’t have money for vacations or college. They read, too. See my post here http://bit.ly/ngglM on Don’t Publish Me for my analysis of what people on the downtown 4 subway in NYC are reading.

      Skin’s right; and I’ll take it one step further, yes, it’s also fucking racist.


      • Yeah, Jenn, I know about whom you were talkig – I just got carried away because I was remembering reading this amazing article on a homeless book club.

  2. Hang on a minute Dan, to reduce the argument that artists/creators should get paid for there work as “second-rate middle-class journalists who might have to get a job doing something they don’t enjoy like the rest fo us ” (OK, they’re probably middle class – most writers are) is a bit loaded! Payment for work is a fundamental principle.

    I respect your concerns for making culture accessible to all – and I agree with them – but surely this is a cultural/political rather than technological issue. Books are free at libraries and very cheap second-hand – how and who accesses them are issues of the political structure of our society. Whatever happens to eBooks and eReaders, traditional paper books are going to be around for a long time, but the crucial thing is the reading culture that surrounds them.

    The other point I’d like to make (and it’s one I’ve made before – sorry to be boring) following Jenn’s stimulating debate is that my suspicion is that the Kindle and its like are a transitional technology. For a start they are black and white and graphically stunted – for a generation brought up on the web and computer games that’s’a archaic – even books can be in colour. I think the breakthrough device will be more like a tablet computer, web and multi-media enabled. Then the question will be – what will be read on it? Will a new hybrid form (part book/part web/part graphic novel) evolve?

    • Roland — thanks for your thoughtful insight. I totally agree about the current technology, though I’m not as kind in calling it transitional, I’m calling it SUCK.

      My next issue I hope to tackle is the issue of not just bridging the digital divide–now a cliche–but in really understanding how technie people who are developing the tools to facilitate the digital revolution (ostensibly a more democratic one?) can communicate better with the content-givers: us. we are not speaking the same language. It’s like that in business, too. I’m in business development/marketing in my day job. I pull my hair out trying to communicate our strategic objectives to the tech people I work with to develop CRM technologies, integrating tools like Handshake on an enterprise level, and so on. This needs to be done in the ebook revolution, too.

      Let’s keep this going.

    • Roland,this is in the context of arguments I’ve had elsewhere on the web with people who are probably reading this (and was just an aside). One of the points that I hear a lot on the web is that the digital revolution threatens the livelihoods of writers (usually journalists because, I think, the debate is one step further on with journalism, the crisis one step deeper because of the ad revenue issue). My point is that people who get paid for writing and enjoy it are actually very lucky – most people have to earn money doing thnigs they don’t enjoy. So if the digital revolution axes paid writing jobs and these people have to wait tables to pay teh bills like many of the rest of us I’m not going to cry for them. On the other hand if it cuts people off from culture and further marginalises the already marginalised I DO care.

      I totally disagree about payment for work. Or rather, I agree if you do the job you were hired to do you should be paid the agreed wage. On the other hand the idea that you say “I want to do this, I’ve trained to do this, now pay me to do it” (essentially what people I’ve encountered DO say) is just ludicrous. I’d like to be a writer. I’ve worked my butt off at my writing. I EXPECT nothing.

      Your transitional tech point – yes. I’m not sure anyone really thinks Kindles are IT – we don’t know what IT will be – it may be intelligent paper, it may be a development from the iPhone,but it won’t be the Kindle.

  3. Dan – I entirely agree that we choose to write novels, no one made us do it so we can’t whinge about not being paid.

    However as a general point I think artists, writers, musicians, film makers, performers must be able to earn income – the idea of an entirely amateur creative sector seems very odd and not at all desirable (because you might enjoy your work doesn’t seem a valid reason for not being paid). This is an argument made and accepted in the arts many decades ago. I never got the notion that because digital work can be replicated and distributed at (almost) no cost, therefore it must be free; that somehow it is inherently wrong to charge for it and the creators should make their income through other means (like personal appearances or souvenir fancy packaged special editions). This is the Cory Doctorow argument – it works for him as he is a sort of celebrity figure where giving his books away free just increases his profile and helps him generate income through his other roles.

    One of the key things to me about the digital revolution is that is should be able to create income streams for non-mainstream media, for diverse independent work not mediated by large corporations (I’m sure we agree on this!). This does in fact happen in many areas – the literary novel is probably the hardest to make work.

    I think it is a mistake to confuse the issue of payment for work with how cultural work is produced, distributed and received in a fragmented society – that’s a whole other (big) argument.

    • We don’t actually disagree, based on what you’ve said, Roland.

      1. The argument I have with career writers is when they tell me I MUSTN’T give my work away free – frankly, 1. that’s none of their damn business 2. if it’s such a bad business idea, I’ll soon go bust so who cares?

      2. I couldn’t agree more about opening opportunities for revenue to the non mainstream – that’s a lot of what we talk about – what business models will work. I happen to think freemium will work as a business model – like I say, if I’m wrong I’ll go bust so who cares; if I’m right and my work’s up to scratch and I take revenue from “tenured” writers, well isn’t that the way it should be?

      And to be 100% clear I wasn’t ever conflating the arguments – I was doing the opposite. I was saying there are two argumnets – a social one and one over revenue, and that one is more important than than the other. That said, as you know from elsewhere, I DO think there are global issues with revenue that need to be addressed – but that’s for a different argument.

  4. Forgive my techno ignorance, but are they called Kindle because they take a lighted taper to the stacked kindling of the paper printed book?

    narky marc

  5. Britain does not respect or honour its artists, other than maybe the celebrity ones at the very top of their (PR mediated) trees.

    Britain does virtually nothing to support or subsidize its artists as compared with say canada which furnishes artists like LePage & Martel their ability to develop and build a slow burning career, which of course feeds back into revenue for the country as exports.

    The Arts Council – a very strange body I have never been able to fathom its rationale and rubrics, WILL be abolished by the Tories as a cost cutting measure. Both this and the above point about subsidy are very hard to argue against given the needs of society in areas such as health, education etc (yes yes, the war effort and fiscal policy…)

    Art in this country since Thatcher has always had to wear a commercial hat. That always squeezes out the marginal and in all likelihood the unprofitable. The one art form in this country that never received any subsidy was of course pop/rock music – the ultimate commercial art form and a huge earner for the country.


  6. I agree that as DIY pragmatists it’s up to us to find a way to preserve our artistic integrity and earn a crust. I also think we have to bear in mind the social aspects of our work.

  7. Ever since Thatcher and Reagan, political worldthink is such that it is not government’s job to subsidize the arts. It is not a social necessity in the minds of stinking bureaucrats. AND, frankly, I don’t want the conditions of government whining enmeshed in my work.

    Wait, WORK? No, hold on.

    It’s not work, my writing. It’s fun. It’s a joy. It, and my kids, are the only joyful things in my life, otherwise taken up by WORK. If my writing was work, it wouldn’t be fun and i wouldn’t want to do it. An old friend once said, They wouldn’t call it work if it was fun. Right. I’m with Dan on this–who the fuck do we think we are, impetuous basterds, that we are entitled to dough just because we put pen to paper and we think it’s worth something?

    Though this is related to the digital divide, i’m frankly more concerned with broader conent and information delivery than with literary fiction–as imperative as it is to the cultivation of culture around the world. I’m worried about no local newspapers or news stations in Appalachia or rural Montana; and by extension, worried that the shit-ass over politicized broadband issue in the U.S. is going to continue in stalemate because the self-important schmucks on capitol hill are busy getting their dicks sucked by competing interests in the telecommunications industry.

    So there.

  8. “Have you seen the libraries that don’t receive hundreds of millions of dollars in municipal funding? Some aren’t even open on the weekends”

    There are libraries open on the weekends? Holy shit. Our local library isn’t even open on Monday.

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