Deborah Emin: Publishing’s Complicated Relationship with Technology

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Deborah Emin

Deborah Emin, founder and publisher of Sullivan Street Books

The rapidity of the change from a print to digital culture is potentially deleterious to readers, writers, and the next generation coming after them.

Editorial by Deborah Emin

If you ask me, and I hope you will ask me, not enough has been written about the tenuous connection both writers and readers have to the continuing developments in e-book technology.

From the first Kindle in 2007 until now, I would equate the writer’s attitude to e-reading as about 180 degrees from readers’ attitudes. As a publisher that fact is disturbing. Yet, as there are greater and greater advances made, investments made, in e-reading devices and the software for creating e-books, I begin to see a narrowing of the gap between what writers think of e-reading and what readers think. This should concern us too because what both groups want now is the greatest simplicity.

While my area of publishing is small (I focus on publishing books to improve our lives on this planet), my work as a publisher of initially ebooks only has given me a unique perspective on publishing’s complicated relationship to technology.

For the first couple of years, I sold our ebooks exclusively from our website. This gave me direct contact to all our buyers. But being the Customer Service Department is time consuming and labor intensive. I also learned how the variables in the hardware side of the business are ridiculously and needlessly cumbersome and make for unhappy customers.

Our customers were not the only ones unhappy. Our writers were too. Unaccustomed to this new digital side of publishing, their efforts at promoting their own books were often challenged by unhappy potential buyers who wanted a physical book.

Yet, even beyond the travails of my company, I am privy to the ideas, complaints, suggestions, comments of book buyers all over the country. My wife and I take a two-month road tour within the US every summer. We meet people and talk to them about books because we invite them to participate in the Scags at 7 Video Project, or because we hang out in libraries and independent bookstores wherever we go. People still love books but their attitudes towards them have changed.

We panicked, thinking television would end the book business. It didn’t.

Probably most of us are aware of how literate this country was at its founding and how class and economic situations were not the determining factors as to who read books. If we look at what happened to print culture after the Second World War, we begin to find the effects of our switch from a print culture to an image-based culture affecting attitudes towards books by publishers, who panicked, thinking television would end the book business. It didn’t.

For approximately 500 years humans lived in a print culture. All knowledge was shared via the printed page. Then for a brief period, from 1960 until 2000, roughly speaking, we had an image-based culture, our televisions were our main source of information. Now for maybe 14 years, our culture is digitally based. There is no way the mega-merged publishers of today can turn around their models and views on books to match where we are in terms of dissemination of information. That is only part of the complicated relationship.

Readers and writers have had to accommodate as well the demands on their time and their expectations of how the books, in whatever format, will be presented to them.

Writers here have very little time or the resources to learn new ways of telling stories in order to take advantage of the incredible growth in what is possible digitally.

Readers, I fear, have retrenched; their early excitement for wireless delivery of a full book in a matter of minutes is where they remain. And many I spoke to are just plain bored with print on the screen and have returned to physical books. Caught in a double bind, publishers can’t seem to create a need (market) for more enhanced ebooks because they don’t have sufficient writers, and stuck with these awful e-reading devices whose machinery are difficult for their market to use, we have come to a very interesting new place. And one we might be optimistic about, except for one unfortunate new development.

Here is the most ironic development of all — the Common Core curriculum in our schools which has been promoted by and profited from by none other than people like Bill Gates.

This latest “disruption” has proved to be a real kill joy to reading. While students still must learn to read, they now learn to read to answer questions on a test. Much of the joy of reading is being destroyed by the rigidity of these tests and the amount of time children spend preparing for and taking them.

This will not be the harbinger of a more technologically literate reading or writing public. Rather, well, I hate to predict how bad this will turn out to be. But with our wondrous devices for reading and writing growing in ability, who will be there to take advantage of them?

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

Deborah Emin is the founder and publisher of Sullivan Street Books. The mission for this company is to change the publishing paradigm. Publishing is the industry entrusted to provide those ideas which can change our lives and thus it must now be done sustainably and with great concern for the future of our planet.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.