Last night I walked a couple of blocks down Fifth Avenue to the brownstone home of the Salmagundi Art Club for a panel discussion of “Publishing in the Digital Age” hosted by the Deadline Club. It was a miserable evening, weather-wise (as soon as I walked out the door of 1 Union Square West, the heavens opened, cabs splashed water as I waited for the lights to change, and my hair took on the proportions of Diana Ross’ favorite wig), but the panel discussion was lively and informative.
The question on everyone’s mind seemed to be “Should we panic about the state of the book business in the wake of the digital revolution or do we dare be optimistic.” Our job on the panel was to illuminate the big issues preoccupying publishers and authors while attempting not to freak anyone out. Overall, my fellow panelists and I were quite optimistic about the opportunities digital publishing affords while still admitting to twinges of regret over the passing of the traditional, wood paneled, musty smelling industry we all came of age in.
The optimism on our end came down to “choice.” Authors have more choices now than they ever did. They can self-publish easily and relatively economically if they choose or they can go through the traditional channels and, if that doesn’t pan out, go back to the idea of self-publishing. Before e-books, if an author was rejected by enough agents and publishers, the idea of printing and distributing his or her own work was a daunting one. Now, it’s a relatively painless process.
So, how is this good news to us inside the industry? Well, what empowers authors usually empowers agents and, perhaps to a lesser degree, publishers. Publishers and agents still provide an invaluable service in terms of curating literary material. We still bring experience, love of craft, and critical acumen to bear on the process of book making and we’re pretty good at it. And, authors and readers know this. While self-publishing is now a thriving business, traditional publishing continues to publish more (digital and print) books every year. And readers continue to buy these curated products. Despite the perception of the business as the Titanic wildly trying to skirt the iceberg, publishers are making real efforts to keep up with the changing times so that they can bring their traditional talents to bear on the work authors are producing today.
Not to get all Panglossian about it, but isn’t this the best of all possible worlds?