By Porter Anderson | @Porter_Anderson
From January 5, 2012
Part of my series of columns on publishing, Writing on the Ether, appearing Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com
No e-deus ex machina
“God in a bucket,” we used to call this in my theater days, not to say my theatrical days.
There was no “e-” in front of it in the 18th century, of course. But the concept from works of ancient theater (Aeschylus, Euripides) was that the way one got characters out of a mess of an ending to a play that was running too long anyway was through a bit of stagecraft. A machine was deployed to raise or lower a godlike figure into the fray to get everyone sorted, untangle a big mess, and jolly the audience off to the post-show Bacchanalia. Worked out well for Medea.
In chatting with some year-enders as we watched that ball ex machina descend in Times Square to haul us all out of the mess that was 2011, it became clear that many authors today see the digitization of things as just such a handy lift, a chariot swinging low to carry us home (where the readers are) — to deliver everyone from the gatekeeping Eumenides of old publishing and into the stage-center jig-fest of DIY abandon. Mickey Rooney, that ancient thespian, called this “let’s put on a show!”
Now, if we set aside the Steve Pressfield-scale battle of the bullies that sometimes threatens the traditional-vs.-self-publishing issue — pray to your gods that we see fewer such unseemly skirmishes in 2012 — we do, however, find Mike Shatzkin ready en toga, olive leaves in his hair, to offer us the Poetics of our lesser day, and in winged words.
Bookstores are disappearing. Sales are moving to digital. We’ve had an iPad in the marketplace for almost two years. And we have as yet discovered no formula for success to convert a successful illustrated print book to a successful illustrated ebook.
In his new essay, The digital future still is a mystery if you don’t publish “immersive reading,” Shatzkin refers to, say, a standard novel or work of non-fiction that requires no major graphic embellishments as “immersive reading,” immersive by its subject and/or writing alone. So is a good production of “Seven Against Thebes” at Epidaurus, the great ancient theater in the Peloponnese, at least until that bucket arrives bearing Greek contrivances. It’s what most of us write. Books of text, suitable for print or, now, for e-versioning. We have to hope they’re immersive.
Publishers of immersive reading can, at least in the short run, largely count on keeping the sales from readers they’ve always had. The problem for these publishers will be keeping the big authors (at a sustainable royalty rate) if the business becomes largely digital and most readers can be accessed without the capabilities of a major company operating at scale.
Where Shatzkin sees the wheels coming off is in “the rest of the book output,” some of it in the realm of children’s illustrated material, sure, but even beyond that.
It isn’t just illustrations that stamp a book as “not immersive reading.” Books of content chunks, like cookbooks or travel guides, are also not “optimized” merely by making them reflowable.
Production expense, reproduction dilemmas, cross-format complexities, and even copyrighting issues bedevil these sectors and will become increasingly a part of the publishing plot as physical bookstores struggle to survive as outlets for such products in print.
Not only do these not convert well to ebooks, they aren’t as well displayed in an online shopping environment.
For all our respective and collective carping here in χάος — khaos — it’s enough to make anyone not working in these areas feel “shut my mouth” lucky to be plying the wine-dark immersive sea. And glad to have a thoughtful first write of the year from Shatzkin for the journey.
Tell Penelope we’re on the way.
Note: Shatzkin speaks at the Digital Book World Conference & Expo later this month on “Remaking an Industry: What publishers should be thinking about in 2012.”
Click to read this week’s full Writing on the Ether column at JaneFriedman.com