Digital Publishing Is Scrambling the Industry’s Rules
Hovering above the discussion of all these technologies is the fear that the publishing industry could be subject to the same upheaval that has plagued the music industry, where digitalization has started to displace the traditional artistic and economic model of the record album with 99-cent song downloads and personalized playlists. Total album sales are down 19 percent since 2001, while CD sales have dropped 16 percent during the same period, according to Nielsen BookScan. Sales of single digital music tracks have jumped more than 1,700 percent in just two years. What writers think about technological developments in the literary world has a lot to do with where they are re sitting at the moment. As a researcher and scholar, Anne Fadiman, author of “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and “Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader,” thinks a digital library of all books would be a “godsend” during research, allowing her to “sniff out all the paragraphs” on a given topic. But, she said: “That’s not reading. For reading, you have to read a book in its entirety and I think there’s no substitute for the look and feel and smell of a real book â€” the magic of the paper and thread and glue.”
[...] For many authors, the question of how technology will shape book publishing inevitably leads to the question of how writers will be paid. Currently, publishers pay authors an advance against royalties, which are conventionally earned at the rate of 15 percent of the cover price of each copy sold.
[...] In the context of history, the changes that today’s technology will impose on literary society may not be as earth-shattering as some may think. In fact, books themselves are a relatively new construct, inheritors of a longstanding oral storytelling culture. Mass-produced books are an even newer phenomenon, enabled by the invention of the printing press that likely put legions of calligraphers and bookbinders out of business.
That history gives great comfort to writers like Vikram Chandra, whose 1,000-page novel, “Sacred Games,” will be published in January. Mr. Chandra, a former computer programmer who already reads e-books downloaded to his pocket personal computer, said he saw no point in resisting technology. “I think circling the wagons and defending the fortress metaphors are a little misplaced,” he said. “The barbarians at the gate are usually willing to negotiate a little, and the guys in the fort usually end up yelling that ‘we are the only good things in the world and you guys don’t understand it,’ at which point the barbarians shrug, knock down your walls with their amazingly powerful weapons, and put a parking lot over your sacred grounds.
“If they are in a really good mood,” he added, “they put up a pyramid of skulls.”