Monday, August 22, 2005

Another twist in the Gutenberg Galaxy?

Lulu.com exemplifies just how simplistic all those early predictions of the "death of print", the "demise of the book", the "death of the author" and the "paperless world" from the early days of the "digital revolution" turned out to be. On one level, this could be seen as another extension of "vanity publishing" (alongside blogs, podcasts etc). Not good enough to get a publishing contract? Now you can do it yourself! Affordable, and they look just like 'real' books! But I think it's potentially much more than this. A serious tool that promises to cut out the middle man will hopefully force publishing companies to think about the kind of value they provide to (and extract from) authors. If big name authors start taking the opportunity to self-publish (as some are already doing by making books available as online files), then they may necessitate some kind of loosening of the restrictive practices that often go on in publishing. (As someone who has published a couple of academic books, I should add that in both cases, my publishers were thoroughly reasonable folk - I don't mean to tar them all with the same brush). What this may portend is that, whilst the book itself has gone from strength to strength in the digital age (the age of Amazon.com, the Harry Potter franchise, etc. etc.), maybe it's the publishing industry that stands to fall victim to the digital revolution.

There are some really interesting factors involved here:

1. It's printing 'on demand'. Instead of predicting a print run in thousands, as publishers do (then having to pulp several hundred copies that never get sold), here a copy of a book is only printed when a buyer orders a copy. I heard one of the founders (Bob Young of Red Hat Linux fame) being interviewed the other day and the interviewer said something like: "So you must have pretty fancy printers for all this if they can print and bind books all in one. How many pages per minute do they run at?" To which Young replied: "We don't think in terms of the number of pages per minute. We think in terms of the number of books per minute!" Gee whizz. The books are (allegedly) indistinguishable from the results of professional offset printing presses. At the moment, they only produce soft cover books but are currently working on hard cover technology.

2. Unlike traditional vanity publishing (which can be costly), it's free. Lulu just take a cut if and when you sell a copy.

3. The author/publisher can make changes to the text between copies (e.g. corrections, updates, censor's cuts etc.) so my copy of a particular book may be slightly (or even very) different from your copy even though they are not separate 'editions' and may have been purchased within days of each other. I like the idea that the traditional notion of the book as a stable and clearly bounded text may be fading away and that books (even the dead trees variety) can become slippery and mutable artefacts like other digital objects. Is this the advent of the post-industrial book?

4. What about social publishing? Open source books that can be modified, cut, spliced and remixed to create new objects to grace our coffee tables and bookshelves... has that got any legs?

7 Comments:

At 11:22 AM, Blogger cwoo2005 said...

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At 11:30 AM, Blogger Joe Lancione said...

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At 11:32 AM, Blogger DCveR said...

Your bit of the "vanity publishing" doesn't look so bad.
I'd never heard about this service before, but books on demand even sounds ecological avoiding the pulping unsold books part.

 
At 11:35 AM, Blogger Tom said...

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At 11:38 AM, Blogger David said...

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At 11:42 AM, Blogger Guy said...

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At 12:19 PM, Blogger vnr406 said...

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