This week’s theme is “editing.” Editing implies that work is rarely completed single-handedly, and that many of the most important jobs are overlooked in so-called copyright pages. And yet who has ever fully appreciated the last three minutes of credits in any recent movie? If editors aren’t unsung, they are certainly ignored. Most design criticism tends to focus on the end-product, so we thought we’d look at process this week, and today I wanted to think about editing in the original sense, in terms of publishing and archives.
Sometimes I think the publishing industry wants to die. Every few years we prophecy a new usher to the end days. In the late '90s, armageddon was amazon’s long tail (long since dead as a neologism), and the so-called dumbification of writing courtesy of blog publishing. Oprah Winfrey was the only person able to render a bestseller without a movie adaptation. Men were leaving Mars for women in Venus, our souls were eating chicken soup. It was a weird time.
In the 2000s, publishing stalwarts were uneasy about Harry Potter and Da Vinci Code products and byproducts because they took up all the prime real estate end-aisle dumps leaving no room for their chick lit. As Apple began its ascent to the holy throne of all things “tech design,” people were getting used to the idea of more sophisticated blogging and social media, but at a snail’s pace compared to other creative industries (music, advertising, fashion).
Meanwhile, there has always been a foreboding sense of the end of literature, the end of literacy. We mitigated this with paradigm shifts in category–comic books (graphic novels), memoirs (confessional fiction), and stationery (note the Moleskine-to-book ratio at your local bookstore).
Today, the boogey-man is e-Books.
Yes, bookstores are dropping like flies, and publishers have decimated their staffs. Martini lunches are now happy hours with stale hotdogs, and major publishing offsites are no longer conducted on Florida beach resorts but in the multi-purpose room at their distributor's warehouses… in New Jersey… in the dead of Winter.
However, if the increase in small business starts in publishing and media are any indication, it’s not for lack of sales that the industry has died. And according to at least one writer friend, digital publishing has been a blessed boon for genre fiction writers with back-lists no brick-and-mortar bookstore is willing to carry in physical form. Now that, is a long tail. Market analytics such as the ones that feed this infographic from Now Novel clearly demonstrate how digital publishing is exponentially more lucrative for novelists, if at the expense of the traditional publisher and bookseller. However according to David Carr at the Times, at least, Barnes and Noble is actually doing really well at selling physical books, despite a lost gamble on their Nook reader, in no small part because they’ve developed a symbiotic relationship with Amazon, and this leads me to the next point.
Digital publishing is not the problem. The problem is digital archiving, which amount to nothing more than edited lists.
Whatever hang up we have about the state of the publishing industry, I believe the misgivings we have about the way we consume written media today are informed by our animosity with the way it’s packaged. I’m not talking about font direction or layout, but the places we go to consume information today, are designed to avoid any semblance of an archive. The closest thing to shelf awareness we have are Amazon's “people who saw this also read” or “two-for-one” marketing opportunities calculated by browsing patterns. There isn’t room for pure discovery without paying for the attention. However, the reason Barnes and Noble and Amazon have established their aforementioned co-dependency, is that there just isn’t an elegant way to “browse” on amazon, and there’s just no way Barnes and Noble can beat their technological rival’s prices. Each company has created its own economy of efficiency, but it only works if both the physical and the digital format co-exist.
Myself the editor of this site and sporadically recommending books and other sundry media, encouraging consumption of “nothing more than edited lists,” I can’t deny the importance of curation without being totally disingenuous. However, it is important to learn from the behavior of curation, rather than to simply download Top Ten lists and extract narrative from information; to extract information from context. We do hope the content we provide serves as a form of education or information, but more importantly, these things are meant to inspire further digging, to show off its context. I encourage first and foremost, the act of browsing, and then to make the objects of discovery, wholly discoverable. We need more shared information, and finding it happens in a careful equation of physical searching and digital consumption. The best way to encourage reading, to embolden publishing, to eradicate fear and loathing of change in a supposedly dying industry, is to make it purely discoverable, and prove that if it goes, it was not by its own hand.
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