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Publishing in the Humanities Today: Part IV

10th December 2009

Segueing from the effect of technology on the print model of book publishing to e-books, here’s the fourth installment of Fordham University Press’ Editorial Director Helen Tartar’s November 18 lecture:

So I’ll say some words about what has been spoken about a lot—“e-books” and hand-held electronic readers such as Kindle. I’d like to invoke here a helpful distinction proposed by Rebecca Kennison, director of the Columbia University Center for Digital Research and Scholarship (CDRS):  that between the online book and the book online. A  book online is what Amazon, Sony, B&N, etc. are pushing through their various hand-held readers. Basically it is—though not at all simply, in terms of the work required–the transposition of a digital file of what is printed as a physical book onto an electronic device. Any child raised in an advanced capitalist society ought to know why so much advertising is going into these hand-held devices at the moment. The manufacturing cost of a Kindle must be a quarter (and probably much less) of its selling price of $300. (And when was the last time you paid that for a book?)  So Amazon no doubt benefits from a markup much greater than its margin on the 50 percent or so discount it gets from publishers and the price it charges for their paper books. And then there is the electronic virtuosity in what Vance Packard long ago dubbed “planned obsolescence”— in a year or two, you can announce a new and improved version of your electronic device and force people to buy all over again something they didn’t need in the first place.

One thing that interests me very much here is whether and how media development outside the book may (or may not) have solved the issue of consumer interface, which has long been the sticking point in the imagination of “electronic books.”   In the nineties, Xerox Parc was fascinated by the problem of creating an electronic device that would flexibly fit into the body in the way a book does. But a much less elegant solution may have been enabled by such things as cell phones and hand-held computer games, because of people’s psychic investment in these things.  I’m especially interested in heating-up points in technological change where new technological practices, rather than disempowering and disenabling those forced into using them, start to result—usually via the hoary means of serving as vehicles for human passion—in arguably new modes of psychic life and sociality. If the “e-book” indeed does take off at this point, I would speculate that this may be because people now find hand-held electronic devices, no matter how horrible the interface, as compelling a model for interiority as the printed book came to be in the newly devised private rooms and other spaces of intimacy in the early modern period.

The online book, by contrast, is something else, an attempt to use the specific media skills of trained professionals (and I emphasize these words) to enable authors to realize their visions of presentation for their work in ways that they could not accomplish in the print medium alone. Everyone knows that text is only one of the things one can accomplish digitally: Why not try a book that incorporates more pictures than can normally be afforded in print, or even a video? Could the electronic medium be used to alter the temporal structure of how a book is experienced? And what about searches? Now that most writing is done on computers, everyone has rediscovered the wonders of the ancient genre of the concordance, the ability to search for specific words or phrases outside any conceptual armature.

Both of these options, I would hasten to add, preserve the notion of the book and  respect the notion of its publisher (even though the first may seem to seek to eat into that publisher’s revenues). And both require subsidy. Your having written your manuscript on a computer makes it no more ready to become an e-book without the intermediation of trained personnel than it makes it ready to send to a printer without the same. And somebody has to buy the time of those people. I haven’t heard that Amazon, for all its advertising push behind the Kindle, is willing to put any money into the special coding necessary before books can be accessed through that machine. Presses need to pay for that coding in order to get any subsidiary income that might result from such e-usage. This coding is equally necessary for a book on-line.

I myself don’t know all the specific additional intermediary work processes, beyond coding, that go into creating an online book—but I am in the process of finding out about them (and also about the costs and opportunities of books online, since Fordham is making a commitment to prepare many of its Spring 10 titles for potential sale as e-books). One of the Columbia CDRS’s pilot projects is an electronic expansion of Fordham’s book Dangerous Citizens: The Greek Left and the Terror of the State, by Columbia faculty author Neni Panourgía. I proposed Panourgía’s book to the CDRS because, perhaps erroneously, I thought it was already pushing toward being an online book. The author’s mode of composition was to use Microsoft’s Insert Reference function to create lengthy parallel texts—some of them amounting to ten pages correlating to three lines of main text—without reference to what could physically be accommodated on a printed page. Moreover, this is a book in anthropology, and so the fieldwork includes many photos, poems (sometimes with YouTube readings in Greek), interviews, and trips to the locations discussed, the prison islands, which could be a source of video footage. And since this fieldwork links into networks of memories, often suppressed or recorded only in obscure documents, there is the possibility of an evolving book, of adding additional material as readers respond to the site.

The full story of how all this is meshing in the online book, and how it will be enhanced through possibilities imagined and added by the CDRS team beyond what the author or I could envision, is not yet know to me, and indeed not yet finished. It deserves a writeup at least as long as this talk, and I hope will get one.  But you will soon be able to see it for yourself. The website is going live, with open access, at the American Anthropologial Society meeting the first week in December. And importantly, the online book will make no attempt to replace the printed book and the work time spent in its development—indeed, a prominent part of the site will be a buy-the-book option.

The final installment of the talk will be appearing here tomorrow!