What we make of it, Penelope Todd

E-publisher Penelope Todd foresees a complementary future for print and digital.

When an invention appears that radically threatens our comfortable habits and suppositions, our instinct is to clutch at the old and mistrust the new. We like our books: the look-feel-smell and memories associated with hard copy. In New Zealand, at least, we have yet to gain confidence in the e-book as useful and durable, let alone aesthetically pleasing. Not so long ago, we were suspicious of the digital photo too (those flimsy little cameras, the fiddly memory cards, the frustrating lack of printing facilities), and I dare say that a century ago we were alarmed when the noisy, toxic, unlovely motorcar began to sabotage the horsey, leathery, wind-and-weathery experience of travel in cart or carriage.

Like the digital revolution, the invention of the car caused industrial upheaval. Horse breeders, horse trainers and travellers got the shake-up, and manufacturers the go-ahead. Likewise, publishers, writers, readers and innovators are scrambling now to take stock, and advantage, of their new positions.

When I recently started up Rosa Mira Books, although my experience had all been gained in traditional, hard-copy publishing, I didn’t consider for a moment following that road. In digital was the opportunity to continue exercising my competencies with a large degree of freedom and little capital, with a process and a product that are relatively fleet-footed (preparation time is shorter; the e-book is instantly accessible around the world), and slight-footed, if we’re talking carbon imprints. With hard-copy publishers increasingly reluctant to take commercial risks in their choice of manuscripts, I saw the chance to bring out important, intelligent, perceptive and well-written work that might otherwise not see the light of day.

I work on the traditional model – choosing, editing, designing, publishing and marketing a selection of work – but what’s missing at the end of the line is the 300 grams of matter that can be held, sniffed, bent, fondled, stacked, shelved and, for a few hours of its long life, actually read. Instead, there’s a well-designed manuscript file, converted into three formats, one or more of which is viable for every reading device yet invented.

For New Zealand authors, most of whom have never been published outside the country, the e-book’s immediate release onto a global market represents a great leap forward, even though, as yet, authors and publishers are still working shoulder to shoulder, machete-ing through the thickets of social media, website enhancement, search engine optimisation, email list-building, seminar and webinar attendance; trying to make Amazon et al work for us, or to sneak around the hems of these behemoths – in order to become visible in cyberspace and to sell e-books in serious numbers.

The e-book and the reading device are what we make of them. The tiny document icon admittedly has no visual appeal until opened up on e-reader or desktop, when it reveals its cover image and contents, along with adjustable font, search functions and more. The digital reader is appearing in ever more elegant forms but we can only hope that the ultimate machine will end perpetual obsolescence (in my dreams, this “book” is as light and bendy as a small paperback, with a soft, perusable cover for image display). We each decide whether the e-reader is a bland machine that nothing would induce us to own, or a fantastic invention: featherweight storage for hundreds of works; a library we can take anywhere; a choice of e-books always on hand that lack nothing in content compared with the hard-copy parent – the same words, the same possibility for immersion.

Given the vigorous industries that have grown out of the e-book’s existence – digital publishing, digital reading devices (one website offers reviews for over 70 versions currently available), e-book sales and marketing (the strategies and the business itself), and given the transitional state of publishing and our permanently raised awareness of the need for ecologically sustainable production, some version of the e-book is likely to persist into the foreseeable future.

Times of transition seem chaotic. With publishing, the world economy and our sense of the future in states of flux, discrimination is called for, to preserve the most benign and serviceable traditions from the old, and choose the elegant, humane and ecologically decent from the new. I see digital publishing as an ongoing experiment that nonetheless offers a viable life for an author’s work. It can also be seen as a holding and testing pen for the growing body of good writing deemed too financially risky to publish in hard copy. Work that makes its mark in e-book format should be the very work that publishers turn into finely produced hard copy: in the same way that we print and frame a few favourite photos, leaving thousands in digital form could do away with needless paper production of “quick reads”, with lasting value conferred on works that make it into covers.

For the digital publisher there’s a formidable daily avalanche from cyberspace of ideas, speculation, opportunities and experiments to ponder and worry about, especially regarding how to market, but it’s always a relief and a joy to sink into the work of a fine writer. If author, publisher and reader can see through the gauze and smoke of technology and our resistance to it, we find that the heart of the business – writing, refining, publishing and reading – remains intact.

Our best hope is that digital publishing will revitalise the stagnant pools within the book publishing industry, see new and vigorous partnerships grow between author and publisher, and a healthier balance between the needs of commerce and culture. Freed from the shafts of drudgery and human need, the horse is valued for its beauty, intelligence and precision as a partner in performance. It is usually kept by people concerned for its welfare, who use motorcars and machinery for transport and labour. Perhaps the e-book will prove to be the motorcar of the future – freeing the book to become the horse, a coveted object of beauty – each crafted artefact housing content that has proven its worth in the digital arena.


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