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"Thirty Cents A Copy"
The Advent of Digital Publishing

A senior library director in Jamaica sent me a fascinating note reflecting on the impact of digital publishing on the life and world of libraries. She has a historian’s knowledge of the history of the modern library—the shift from the library as a kind of museum, a keeper of great books not readily or easily available to the world because of the absence of mass reproduction technology, to the emergence of the printing press, the proliferation of books, and the library’s emergence as a place for research, study, and communal learning. The deal those libraries made with publishers was that they would hold books and make those books available to readers on a loan basis. Book publishers realized the benefits of this arrangement: the library was an advertisement center for books and for reading. Those who could not afford books and the special relationship between the individual and the book would share books with hundreds, even thousands, of people. But among that number, many would develop a taste for books and become enamored of the idea of forming their own libraries, and they would find the income to purchase and own their own books. It has been a good deal. Publishers may have been tempted to curtail the freedom of libraries to lend books, arguing that such lending would cut into possible sales. But for some reason—perhaps because they saw the value in the library’s capacity to nurture committed, life-long readers, and perhaps because they had a genuine sense of the importance of reading for a democratic, prospering, and educated population, they accepted the arrangement. She then said that the new digital age is unearthing a peculiar kind of shortsightedness and greed among publishers that may mean that we—at least libraries—will eventually return to their ancient roles as museums, archives, and keepers of tomes that are no longer sold on the market. Publishers in the United States are not making their e-books readily available to libraries. Libraries, she said, can only have e-books through vendors who are putting the squeeze on libraries. The two hundred years of lending that probably pissed off some publishers may be over. 

Now she was quick to say that she is not a Luddite, and I know she isn’t. But she experiences this strange sense of a seismic shift every time I send her a note about the new innovations that Prairie Schooner has embarked on with the digital world. Like her, I have started to think more about what will be lost when the world goes digital. And I suspect that not everything will go digital, but much will go digital soon. 

My problem, of course, is that I like the possibilities of digital platforms. I live with them. I have a peculiar eye condition that makes it extremely difficult for me to read without ample light and good magnification of text. Digital books have been a blessing for me. Heck, simple poetry readings are so much more pleasant now that I read on my iPad. In the same way that I am grateful that medical science developed the technology to make cornea transplants fairly routine for people like me suffering from chronic eye disease, I am grateful for the iPad and all these wonderful platforms for reading books.

And I really enjoy the dynamic possibilities of the e-book—the multimodal possibilities, the color, the depth—that are possible when these books are well-designed. I am quite taken by them and I have seen the wonderful effects of this technology on the way we think of text and reading.

 I am reading so much more these days. And by reading, I mean for pleasure, for my own edification. Before I read books on my iPad and iPhone, I am ashamed to say I consumed perhaps three or four books of fiction or nonfiction a year outside of the reading I did for my teaching, editorial work, and professional reviewing. This year alone, I have consumed more than fifty books! And I mean novels, extended nonfictional texts, and much else. Why? Access. I read in the gym, I read in airports, I read while I am walking, I read while I am waiting, I read…well, let me not take you into the intimate places of my life, but you get the point. And I am able to read five books at the same time without having to lug anything around. Most important, I do not need perfectly bright light to read; backlighting does all the work for me. This can’t be a bad thing, not in the least. I realize that people without eyesight problems do not share my elation at this development, but they may appreciate the ease they feel from not lugging around so many books.

 Curiously, I cannot read poetry in this manner. A few of my books of poetry were rendered in e-book format and the results were abysmal. Prairie Schooner joined the Kindle party a few months ago and while we are pleased with the format and aesthetic appeal of the prose sections, Kindle is really behind the times with its rendering of poetry. Its staff will not create a simple program to cause line overage to adjust to a second-line indent, which is the convention of poetry. Instead, they have employed a first-line indent, the default pattern of word-processing programs for prose. Once you do a hard return, a paragraph is created. This makes poetry ugly, inaccurate, and simply pathetic. It turns out that many publishers do not seem able or willing to solve this problem either. This month, Copper Canyon announced its new digital books. I was told that a team of designers worked on this and other problems for more than a year. They solved it. Copper Canyon’s new digital books have found the simplest solution that one would call genius if it were not so obvious and if so many of us had not been saying this is the solution. The books are beautiful in digital format. 

It turns out that in the UK, Faber and Faber long arrived at a similar solution. I have no doubt that other presses managed to solve the problem a while ago. The problem is that I did not see these solutions until I found Faber’s rendering of Walcott’s Midsummer (a beautiful finish) and of course the new Copper Canyon titles. There are more elegant solutions in these books, but the long and short of it is that while poetry may have been the holdout in this digital wave, it has now entered the fray.

 I cannot be snobbish about this change. I must embrace it. And the main reason for this is that the world is changing. A few weeks ago, I was in Hong Kong’s underground metro system and I was struck by just how ubiquitous the tablet and cell phone are in these parts. Oh, I have been on subways in the UK and New York and on the above ground in Chicago and Miami and, trust me, the Hong Kong folks have these parts of the world beaten in terms of their use of cell phones and tablets. They are accessories, conversation starters, interrupters, and enders. And it is clear that in these parts of the world, as well as in places like Haiti and many African nations, the cell phone has become a force of information access that cannot be denied. 

 The African Poetry Book Series that I am series editing, and that will have its first four titles published in 2014, will go digital at once. And we will because we want to reach those cell phones in Addis, Nairobi, Cairo, Lagos, Accra, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, and Harare. We have to find a way to make this work available in such formats because, quite frankly, libraries, book distributors, and bookstores are not reaching people like we want them to. Suddenly, these traditional mechanisms are becoming expensive and deeply limiting.

 But the book, the print publication, will not go away. I really believe this. I am not panicked at the idea of its disappearance, and perhaps I am wrong not to be. But I have a feeling that it will stick around for many important and serious reasons. Prairie Schooner is actually looking forward to allowing technology to make our print publication even stronger, more dynamic, and more aesthetically pleasing than it is now. I don’t know how this will happen, but I know already that the pleasure I get from print versions of books is rooted not only in nostalgia, but also excitement about future possibilities.

An older friend of mine (I am fifty years old—he is older than that) told me that he knew he had been overtaken by the digital age when while reading a novel in a cozy recliner under an amber lamp while a fire crackled away in the fireplace and Debussy wafted in the air (the music is my addition, but you get the point), he encountered a word whose meaning he knew but that seemed to be being used in a fascinating way in the story, so he put his finger on the word and pressed down. Nothing happened. No highlighting, no menu of choices—“note, highlight, share”—and no definition at the bottom of the page in editor’s blue ink. He first felt frustration at the awful piece of equipment, then realization, then amusement, then shame, and then more shame, especially when his wife started to laugh as she noticed he was trying to select text on a book! She likes books and is an evil soul to laugh at her husband like this, but all we can say is, the times, they are a-changing.

 I have begun to compile a list of things that will be lost when the digital age finally takes over books. I call it “what the digital book won’t do,” but the list has morphed into a clumsy ode to the book. And it is incomplete and at times silly. But loss is loss, and so we must accept it. This is an ode, however, not a memoriam. And it is an ode only because I use ode here as a metaphor. This is not a poem; please bear that in mind. I will be listing these on Twitter over the next few weeks. If I arrive at one hundred things in one hundred days, I will begin a petition to save the book. I know that my librarian friend will sign right away. 


What the Digital Book Won't Do:


#1. Can't throw it across a room in disgust if you hate the book. You can, but this will be an expensive act of petulance.


#2. Very expensive to risk reading in the bath. 


#3. Very expensive to read in the rain.


#4. Hard to lend it to anybody. Getting your book back is such a pain, and stolen books—well that is a several-hundred-dollar loss.


#5. Can't experience the sense of despair or accomplishment at how much you have read and how far you have to go.


#6. Bookmarks are now obsolete and more ridiculous than ever before.


#7. Bookshelves won't be public places to impress students, friends, and families.


#8. Nowhere to hide money, secret keepsakes, and secret notes on shelves behind books and between the leaves of books.


#9. The industry of bookmark ribbons for bibles will become obsolete.


#10. Can't show off to strangers how brilliant you are by exposing the cover of War and Peace that you are reading.


#11. Book jackets, oh those lovely bits of clothing we place on books, are all gone, as well as the pleasure of undressing a book and sharing its vulnerability, stern plainness, and anonymous intimacy with the world.


#12. None of the pleasures of the contrast between type and handwriting, pencil, blue ink, green ink, scented ink, and red in real margins.


#13. Nothing to properly press leaves and flowers.


#14. Evidence of your accumulated knowledge seems hardly as impressive in a slim piece of metal and plastic as it does on multiple rows of shelves.


#15. The phrase “turn over a new leaf” will become an esoteric idiom, an archaism (of course, this may always have referred to leaves from trees, but who knows that?).


#16. How can we seriously burn books anymore with a straight face? Do you know what it takes to burn an iPad? And can you risk it when that same iPad may have the Bible or some other sacred text stored on it?


#17. No longer able to read after the jet door is closed while the plane is taxiing or during takeoffs and landings.


#18. College administrators will now demand that all faculty have cubicles, since they don’t need all that shelf space and all that square footage for books.


#19. No more book bags—kids will get weak backs since they won’t have the experience of carrying 100 pounds on their backs to school every day.


#20. The dog can’t eat your textbook.