Tuesday, June 19, 2012

David's Publisher's Note

Each Godine trade catalog features a Publisher's Note from David. The one from our Fall 2012 catalog is certainly worth sharing with you today:

Godine and the Brave New World

Hardly a week goes by when I am not asked what Godine is doing about e-books and Amazon and what effect these new media will have on our business. Good questions with some cloudy answers. If you look through this catalogue, you can see for yourself how few of our titles will or – given the present technology – can make an easy or satisfactory transition to a handheld electronic device. There is a reason why books such as The Hand of the Small-Town Builder and Waterfront New York offer two-page spreads that are carefully designed, and not easily disassembled, visual units. The design and the production of such titles are as much a part of their value as “intellectual property” as the words and images. Broken apart and parsed, outside their considered context, they lose meaning and impact.

The printed book has survived for five hundred years because it is, like a violin, a machine perfectly suited to its use. We take books for granted and can instinctively find the title page, the index, or the table of contents. They “open” without turning on a switch. We’ve never issued a user’s manual (apart from Georges Perec’s Life a User’s Manual). There is a comfort level with a book that needs little explanation – or justification.

If there is a revolution it involves a) how text, relatively pure text, is now stored and transmitted and b) the physical distribution of information. Consider our lead book, Le Clézio’s memoir of growing up in Africa. Here it doesn’t matter in what type size or style you read the text. The files needed to read this text can be manufactured and sold cheaply, on a “per read” basis, far more cheaply than a physical book. The real issue is the price the reader is willing to pay, and the publisher is willing to ask, for the content. Companies like Amazon don’t develop (or even recognize) a talent like Le Clézio, but they have the technology to distribute – both the physical book and the electronic counterpart. They are delivering the milk, but they are hardly attending to the cow. If books (the milk) are sold for $9.99 through Amazon, who is going to step forward to take care of the cow at $26.95? And if it makes so little difference to the reader through which “device” the text is accessed – a book or a Kindle – I would argue it’s clear who in time will win this battle.

But, of course, content does have a price: the price of selecting and developing it, of editing and organizing it. These are the costs that are not reflected in a “distribution model” where one pays only for the end results. This is a battle between content creators and content distributors that will be played out over the next decade, complicated by an electronic revolution that has made content creation open to virtually anyone. If you own and can operate a computer, you can write, design, and distribute a book. The numbers are astonishing; in 2009 “non-traditional” (meaning self-published or on-demand titles) accounted for 267,000 new titles. In 2010, that number had spiked tenfold, to more than 2,775,000. It’s a new world, more confused than brave, and we’re doing our best to cope with it. But speaking personally, I was just as happy in the old one, and the books you’ll encounter in this catalogue probably reflect a bias toward quality book making better than any justification you’ll read in a Publisher’s Note.  


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