The Digital Spring


By Byron Rempel

The revolution will not be available in print format.

What happens when an industry crumbles and writers multiply?

The publishing industry is in the middle of a revolution. Those at the top should tremble for the fine heads atop their ivory necks.

Our southern neighbours may feel the heat of the burning barricades more keenly than us—so far. But make no Bushian mistake, they say. No matter where you are, the revolution will not be available in print format.

The writing industry, on the other hand, now has an embarrassment of riches not seen since New World gold arrived in Spain. To mine words is easier than ever. Everybody’s got a keyboard and screen, no matter the size. Everyone can put out their word faster and to a global audience. And that audience has boomed with a new generation of voracious readers, mostly Potter-heads.

Of course that Golden Age of Spain, you’ll recall from your history class, ended with a meltdown partially because of the glut. But that’s another metaphorical future, years from now. Or months. Whatever. Let’s stay in the moment. God knows it won’t last.

So what happens when publishing implodes and writers boom?

1. Writers never did get much respect nor its distant cousin, money. That won’t change, no matter the platform. Writers need patrons, sponsors, grants, or day jobs to survive.

2. Because it’s easier to put your work out there doesn’t mean more people will read it. Especially when you compete with the 6.775 billion other writers out there. The writer is no different from a kumquat: to sell, they both need marketing.

Result: The amount of writers who survive by the profession alone decreases, but they operate like the Hollywood blockbuster. Tons of cash, content watered down for lowest common denominators. The rest of us have complete freedom to write what we want. We are not paid.

A Doom of One’s Own

Today ruins of bookstores, publishing houses and distribution warehouses crumble amid the landscape. But future bio-archaeologists will find our reaction to this—the result of instant communication—charming. Just look at the quaint exasperation of Newfoundland writer Kenneth Harvey. At the recent Saskatoon Festival of Words, Harvey announced that he will no longer write, or at least not books. The Moose Jaw Times-Herald quotes him, “I gave up writing and it was because the industry was so horrible. I’ve had twenty years of it, and that’s it…the industry is messed, it’s absolutely horrible, the worst I’ve seen in twenty years.”

Mr. Harvey has a point, and he reiterates it, but he sounds like a horse trader in the early twentieth century. Where once horse thieves were hung when they simply coveted someone else’s ride, soon dealers couldn’t give the beasts away. With the proliferation of the horseless carriage, horses became playthings for the rich. The printed book now hobbles towards the same semi-retirement.

Is that bad? It is filled with problems. There are injustices to come, great unpublished works of literature will be ignored, and things will be a general mess until a new kingmaker emerges. But really, our shift parallels that recent movement in North Africa: we live in the Digital Spring.

Charles Darwin[1] wrote that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change. So here we are: a brief moment in the sun for the little guys, be they publishers or writers. A blip of time when creativity trumps force. Use it well.

Don’t Shoot the Message

Will our stories survive the revolution? Those of us who work in the Dickensian Story Industry, where delusional misfits are the sediment on which to build fragile empires, know that the ways to get word out always changes.

Storytelling has survived worse disasters. The shift the ancient Greeks witnessed, for example. They trusted Homer to spin honest tales where primitive gods and heroes said what they meant. Then Plato launched them into the slippery world of the abstract. At any rate, the whole literature thing is still in its infancy. Humans began to speak languages 80,000 years ago. We only began to write 5,000 years ago. The modern printed book appeared 570 years ago (and Dan Brown published the mega-bestseller The Da Vinci Code eight years ago. Apparently we’ve still got a long way to go).

Self-appointed saviours like the gurus at The Institute for the Future of the Book say our form of expression is simply in evolution. E-readers and ebooks aren’t where they should be yet. Soon, readers will crawl out of the study and into the central plaza. No more retreats into dark corners of the library or the mind. To read and write will be a collaborative party!

The folks at sound a little too much like architects at a launch party for my tastes. A little too excited to hear their prophetic voices urge us towards a Utopia they’ve chosen. But I admire their initiative! We should all, like Mr. Harvey, be a little too excited these days about the future of the book.[2]

Why? It may shake up our concept of reality. Used to be, says the Institute’s Bob Stein, fifty years ago or fifteen years ago the history teacher “gave you a book and the first impression you were given is, Here is truth. But we’ve developed a much more sophisticated understanding of truth—it is something each one of us constructs from various perspectives. In the future we won’t be as interested in one person’s synthesis.”

Stein doesn’t use history books as a random example. Modern historiography had its Aha moment when it acknowledged that all narrators tell the story from their own perspective. History quickly branched out to investigate our past through as many previously neglected voices as possible—women, the poor, the uneducated, the losers of wars.

Now historians are as embattled as ever. Some even quit the field altogether in the last decades. How can you study or teach something you can never truly know?

We could only be so lucky if that happens in literature. A few writers drop out because they realize they can’t ever approach truth or reality? Yeeha! More room for the rest of us! (Writers are more jealous and territorial than hippopotami and hummingbirds, if you didn’t know).

True Story

So now we’ve got extinct publishers, too many writers, and an audience that craves stories with multiple input and viewpoints. I’m not sure I fully buy into that last one, but let’s roll with it for the moment.

We’ve got the technology to publish books that people can instantly write and read together, comment on together, revise together. This kind of literature apparently began when you realized the thing you read (or wrote?) was not absolute truth. When did it happen for you? While you read The Da Vinci Code? The Bible? Three Cups of Tea?

Truth is dead. Long live the truth! Well, if only.[3] Open-source novels could at least force us to acknowledge the limits of the dogmatic book. Then who gets the copyright, and the royalties? No one, say proponents of open-source culture.

Novels are information goods, commodities whose worth comes from the information they contain; their value is only really known after they are read. The user pays to access them. When you get open-source novels, it’s like a cooperative. Nobody has to pay the access costs when copyrights are reduced. This is where writers get nervous and anarchists get all tingly.[4] The work is built upon, and in the best of all possible worlds, adds to society. Society doesn’t have to pay the costs of administration and enforcement of the copyright, which is supposed to equal out the fact that the writers aren’t paid.

This already happens with the much-maligned Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia. No, it’s not always accurate. Sometimes it can have useless pop culture digressions (think “references to Plato in contemporary movies”). But that’s the point, says Stein. “The truth isn’t on the surface as much as in the interstices where people collectively explore the fuzzy spaces between assumptions and arbitrarily drawn boundaries.”

Does that sound fuzzy to you? An interstice is an empty space between matter. Sounds to me like that would be the writer, caught between the publisher and consumer.

Exploring fuzzy spaces may be fun for a while, but if there’s no cash reward for the writer, will work come out? Do we really believe that if we don’t enforce copyrights the savings will allow a writer to produce a novel for three years? That the benefit to society will keep a writer’s belly full?

Throughout history much less a reward has kept writers afire; much less ignites them today.[5] Some died penniless but still have an audience. Most aren’t that lucky. But no matter what form publishing takes in the near future, or how many writers sprout in its fertile corpse, nothing will wipe out the human ache for stories.

[1] You may know that Darwin published a printed science book. The publisher was John Murray, who accepted the manuscript without seeing it and gave Darwin 66% of the profits. He also published Lord Byron who subsequently said “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” Still waiting, here.

[2] Over at Future of the Book they like to call a printed book a “codex” to differentiate it from a digital book. A codex is an ancient manuscript text in book form, and comes from the Latin word for a block of wood.

[3] We’re talking all kinds of capital letter Truth here, but really Byron, does anyone want the truth? Can anyone handle the truth? I mean, I just saw the new Victoria’s Secret ad and it says that once you put on their new bra you “Show nothing but your curves.” It’s padded like every other lying bra out there. They’re not your curves!

[4] Hakim Bey, whom I met and interviewed 15 years ago at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, put an “anti-copyright” notice at the beginning of his book TAZ, The Temporary Autonomous Zone. “May be freely pirated and quoted—the author and publisher, however, would like to be informed.” Leo Tolstoy was of the same school, so to speak.

[5] Creative Commons is an initiative that gives out limited and flexible rights to authors. They say creators don’t feel standard copyrights give them access to exposure and distribution in today’s world. Instead, we can “employ innovative business models” to gain from our work. Great. More work to distract the writer from writing.

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Observations from New France

Byron Rempel

Byron Rempel lives outside of Montreal and writes and edits books for a living.