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From Gutenburg to Nooks

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In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan declared “the medium is the message.” Of course, since McLuhan’s book is not available on Kindle, Nook, or iPad, it’s a lot tougher to reach his message.

The growth of digital devices is shifting the world of publishing. As more readers download e-books, authors, scholars and the industry as a whole are finding ways to adapt. Illinois State faculty discussed the changes in publishing and promised it isn’t a literary apocalypse.

According to Illinois State University Professor of English Robert McLaughlin, the digital foray into publishing is simply the newest development in the field. “Every time technology changes, the way the readers engage texts changes too, so this is nothing new,” said McLaughlin, who teaches a literary publishing course for the Department of English. “We’ve been seeing this from the shift from scribes to Gutenberg’s moveable type. The e-book is just the latest stage in this evolution.”

photo of Robert McLaughlinAs with any change, McLaughlin said growing pains ensue, but the move is opening some doors. “The shift is benefitting small presses in some ways, such as making it easier to distribute books. They don’t have to worry about trying to get them into bookstores.”

Authors are finding new avenues as well in the digital forum. “It’s really an era of total authorship,” said Steve Halle, co-director of the English Department’s Publications Unit at Illinois State, who is also the founder of  co•im•press, a micropress initiative to “publish strange, transgressive or ‘unpublishable’ writing by unsung or under-sung authors.” He noted digital publishing is offering writers the chance to explore their works and get recognized, whether it is through social media, blogs or independent presses. “The advent of these outlets is de-stigmatizing many avenues to publication, including self-publishing,” said Halle.

Rather than hiding from the digital publishing revolution, large publishers are using the revolution to search out authors and trends. “They are paying attention to social media outlets and fan fiction,” Halle said. “Publishing is a business, and publishers want to stay ahead of what is trending.”

photo of Steve HalleHalle pointed to blogs being turned into books, like Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. “And sometimes the media is using Web 2.0’s capacity to create ‘truthy’ narratives in real time,” he added, referring to magazine writer Dan Sinker’s fake Twitter feed of Rahm Emanuel, @MayorEmanuel. The feed, and the long-kept secret of the author, became such a sensation that it was published as a book in 2011. “It was a nontraditional way to get a book published.”

With any change, upheaval comes in its wake. Digital publishing has also sent booksellers, publishers and even scholars scrambling to keep up. With the onset of the digital revolution, some booksellers are looking for ways to bypass publishing houses all together. “They call it cutting the middle man out of the picture, encouraging authors to publish directly with Amazon,” said McLaughlin. “That might be good for the best-selling author, but what happens to the mid-range authors? The undiscovered authors? It’s a very volatile situation.”

That volatility may not settle any time soon as booksellers and publishers decide what their role will be in the new digital revolution. Barnes and Noble recently announced they would turn over the production of their Nook tablet to another company, and Amazon continues to battle with Apple over the price of e-books. “It’s getting to a point that publishers cannot even set the price of the books they sell online,” said McLaughlin. “Something will have to give.”

University presses are not immune. Decreasing budgets for universities across the country mean presses have to find a larger audience for their works. “University presses have gotten more interested in publishing books that can have a popular bookstore sale beyond other scholars. That’s a radical change in their original mission to simply print scholarly monographs,” said McLaughlin. He added that scholars themselves are thinking how to make a work more commercial even before they send a proposal to a university press.

Times may be uncertain, but Halle has high hopes for the future. “Publishing is a field where those who have an entrepreneurial mindset flourish,” he said.

Gutenberg would be proud.

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