Media Analysis Journal: Print books in an online age

Digitaler and digitaler: Literature takes on a new form in 2015.

Digitaler and digitaler: Literature takes on a new form in 2015.

How will new media affect the culture of literature? Sven Birkerts describes print as a declining element of a “vestigial order,” being swept away inexorably by the march of media and the machine. Though his chiefly pessimistic positions toward the proliferation of electronic media are well known, Birkerts raises points with which even the most ardent backers of technology might agree. Print media forms have reshaped culture since the days of Gutenberg, transmitting and preserving knowledge while extending a vast cultural legacy to the present day. Now, with electronic media taking center stage in daily life, some fear that this cultural legacy is being nudged to the back burner or even forgotten. Confronted with a communication acceleration that shows little sign of slowing down, writers of traditional forms are facing a challenge to keep their works relevant to a digitally-turbocharged audience.
Most Americans have no trouble with the fundamentals of reading (the nation’s official literacy rate is 99%), but not the inclination to take the plunge into reading text that occupies more than routine energy. Though text-based electronic media such as Internet sites, social media, and blogs like this one may be flourishing, many Americans do not consider literature a part of their regular lives. Some genres, though, have more encouraging signs. For example, statistics from 2014 indicate a sharp jump in sales of young adult literature ( Moreover, a Nielsen survey last year ( revealed that teenagers showed a distinct preference for print books over their electronic counterparts. These may not be the heavy-duty works that made Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner famous in 20th-century American letters, but it gives reason to believe that the full-length book still has a place in 21st-century life.
The reading experience has too many devoted followers, both old and young, for conventional long-form literature to die entirely. But that experience is changing. Many Americans spend less time reading massive novels or nonfiction works, which require a fairly significant expenditure of time and mental energy, and more time scanning the Web for stories that are easily digested in a minute or less. From there, they can easily bounce along to the next item on their list using the ubiquitous online hyperlinks. These new media formats accentuate convenience, speed, and connectivity among related topics, but at the expense of rigor, perspective, and depth.
These shifting tastes and trends in reading affect the business of publishing. Paper, ink, and distribution aren’t free, constituting a permanent cost for even the most successful publishing firms. Traditionally, publishers have recouped these expenses via book sales. As fewer and fewer readers select traditional published works, the financial risk to publishers becomes greater and the barriers to aspiring writers, already significant, grow larger. For a new novelist, for example, there may potentially be legions of eager readers or none at all; confronted with declining readership for printed texts and unpredictable consumer tastes, many publishers will be unwilling to take the risk to find out.
The future for publishing may, ironically, rely more and more on the new media technologies that challenge it. Recent years have already revealed one effect for publishers, as books that by most accounts contain little serious intellectual stimulation nonetheless have become best-sellers through viral marketing. If publishers fall into the trap of emphasizing sensationalism and promotion over quality, authors of more traditional works risk being left out in the cold. However, serious authors may also be able to use new media to bypass traditional publishing channels, perhaps using online communities (a reflection of Gee’s concept of affinity spaces) to cultivate interest in imaginative writing and quality prose. A hypothetical author-organized subscription system, with pools of authors publishing works electronically for paying subscribers, might be a future evolution that links authors and readers through the power of new media.


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