Hal, as we’ve discussed what’s happening in publishing today—from traditional mainstream publishing to small presses to university presses to Print on Demand (POD) technologies that author-assisted publishing makes use of, you’ve consistently argued that what we’re seeing here is a paradigm shift in how books are made and distributed, and by extension, how each of the players—author, publisher, and so on—are now regarded. Could you say more about this?
Hal Zina Bennett:
We need to be saying, "Look, technological change has always spearheaded new paradigms in every society they've touched. Think in terms of how the world was changed by Gutenberg's printing press, by the sewing machine, the cotton gin, railroads, the internal combustion engine, the splitting of the atom, chemistry and so on.
Technological change doesn't just change how Bibles are printed, fabric is produced and stuck together, how people move around on the planet, or how we produce energy and manipulate our biology. It totally changes how we all live, how we think—it produces huge consciousness shifts.
It's no different with Print on Demand (POD) or the digital production and dissemination of the written word. In the world of writing and publishing, POD and ebooks are spearheading huge shifts in our consciousness. Defending these technologies, and independent publishing, as being better or worse than the old paradigm represented by commercial publishing, misses the point by a country mile—or more.
Janet: What’s your sense about most of the deeper, more important questions we, as authors and publishers, need to be asking at this point?
Hal: We've got to look deeper at what it means to be able to produce and distribute the written word in these new ways. We can't just take the position that people took with the advent of the internal combustion engine, who argued in favor of the horse versus the horseless carriage. That's blind and unimaginative. It prevents us from exploring the wider scope of what these new technologies mean to us all. You know, these technologies are not going to go away. In fact, they are growing at a tremendous rate.
We need to dare to be prophetic. How does the technology change society? How is it revolutionizing the way we think and act and feel? What new creative freedoms do these technologies promise? What’s the downside—and I don’t mean simply comparing what’s self-published to what’s published by corporatized publishing companies.
Janet: Where does the dialogue need to go to become effective?
Hal: My position is that you've got to shift the dialog entirely, from a defensive posture, of saying indies are "better than," or that commercial publishing has its limits, too, to a more fully proactive position of envisioning a very new paradigm.
iUniverse's Diane Gedyman and Susan Driscol, in their book “Get Published!” have articulated a path that is at least pointing in the direction of the new paradigm.
Trouble is that a lot of people who don't know the realities of commercial publishing are basing their arguments for that old paradigm on sheer fantasies about publishing that way, and most of what's said is naive, uniformed, and mostly silly. Take it from someone who has made an excellent living working in that industry for the past 40 years!
The world is already moving way beyond comparison between traditional commercial publishing ala NYC and these new delivery systems for the printed word! Anybody still caught up in the old defenses of self-publishing versus commercial publishing is living in the dark ages.
Janet: What do you see as some of the advantages of this shift in the paradigm?
Hal: At the very least, POD and ebooks democratize the dissemination of the written word, in ways that are probably at least as dramatic as the way that Gutenberg's little invention made it possible for millions of regular people to own Bibles (at the very least) for the first time in human history. That's a huge shift of consciousness! There are some who still argue whether it's a good thing for people to be reading their Bibles without the "quality control" and the "learned interpretation" of the high priests, of course. I suppose the same could be said for those who argue that putting control of the printed word into the hands of multi-national corporations is a good thing.
Janet: There’s currently a debate that we can tag “quality control.” What would you say about that?
Hal: Is it a good thing to let just anybody publish their own books? What about quality control? Do we trust just anyone—rather than Bertelsman (a multi-national corporation) and his ilk—to screen what our society makes available to readers? Is it too idealistic to think that maybe it's a good thing for readers to have more choices?
Janet: What kind of trends do you see emerging?
Hal: The road ahead still isn't very clear with these new technologies, but just as with Gutenberg's printing press, the genie is out of the proverbial bottle, swimming around in the ethers, mixing it up in the collective consciousness in ways we are only barely beginning to realize. Watch carefully! Even commercial publishers are getting into POD to try out new writers, build their backlists and hang onto books whose sales fall below 500 or so copies per year.
As recently as six months ago, Publishers Weekly was predicting that ebooks were just a fad that was withering on the vine, and soon it would go away. Meanwhile, Sony has stepped into the picture with a pretty decent ebook reader and a large program that by now lists even front list books by mainstream publishers. A few months after that Amazon announced its Kindle program.
Amazon has invested over a billion dollars on Kindle, and they've signed up 60% of the big publishers, as has Sony for their ebook reader program. And Amazon also has launched a program inviting independent publishers to join the Kindle program.
Look carefully, There are over a dozen successful ebook distributors around, some of them, like www.ebookwise.com, doing very well with the rather old-fashioned (by now) Rocket ebook and Palm technologies.
And nearly every computer company is now making their aftermarket documentation available in Adobe Reader and Palm formats—with some introducing Kindle and Sony reader formats.
Janet: What does this paradigm shift mean for authors and readers?
Hal: It gives a creative boost and new freedom for authors. Readers having a greater range of choices. More widely, the world consciousness is profoundly affected by the explosion of independent publishing that these technologies produce. Take a look at the parallel changes in independent film-making, made possible by the digital revolution; independent films now dominate that industry. Similar things are happening in the music industry; the old guard has all but disappeared in the recorded music world. Will the same picture repeat itself in publishing? I think that corporate publishing will continue to dominate, and that’s okay. But I also see expanding education programs, and independent services such as editing, distribution, and PR, to help authors make the most of these technologies. Think potential parallels between publishing and the music world—with iPods, etc.—and the independent film world’s Netflix and Spiritual Cinema Circle. Independent distribution is happening for books on the Internet, and I don’t mean just with Amazon. Explore the ebook world on the Internet. There’s a whole world there that seems to be ignored by the media, even the independent media.
I think we’ll always have paper books. I love them, and most of the writers who are around today have a special love affair with printing on paper. It’s not easy to cozy up with an ebook reader, for example, but I’ve got to confess that I have a certain fondness for my “old fashioned” Rocket ebook reader. You know, there’s something rather nice about lounging in bed late at night, staring into the glow of its screen and reading a good mystery. And in that little handheld device I have, let’s see, ten other books that I can instantly switch to if my interest wanes on the one I’ve been reading. Hmm. You see, those simple pleasures are part of what’s driving the digital revolution.
Visit Janet Grace Riehl's blog "Riehl Life: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century" at http://www.riehlife.com for more thoughts and information about making connections through the arts, across cultures, generations, and within the family. You can also read sample poems and other background information from "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" on Janet's website.
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