Charming initiative by Dave Eggers (via De papieren man and Gawker): he send an email to everyone feeling at loss about the possible demise of print and all-round literacy. After an evening organized by the Authors Guild, Eggers promised to brighten up the pessimists. The New Yorker published a few lines from his speech:
“To any of you who are feeling down, and saying, “Oh, no one’s reading anymore”: Walk into 826 on any afternoon. There are no screens there, it’s all paper, it’s all students working shoulder to shoulder invested in their work, writing down something, thinking their work might get published. They put it all on the page, and they think, “Well, if this person who works next to me cares so much about what I’m writing, and they’re going to publish it in their next anthology or newspaper or whatever, then I’m going to invest so much more in it.” And then meanwhile, they’re reading more than I did at their age. …
Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it, fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down. I actually have established an e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org—if you want to take it down—if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.”
After his inbox flooded with messages, Eggers send out a bulk email response proclaiming a foreseeable future in which print and books will still play a large role. In order to make that happen, publishers (his own McSweeney’s on front) need to focus on finding a good niche to compete with the digital and this niche, according to Eggers, lies in creating a high quality product with an emphasis on design and experiences that are not duplicatable on the web. From the email:
“Pretty soon, on the McSweeney’s website— http://www.mcsweeneys.net— we’ll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper
model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We’re convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn’t retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space— if you really truly give readers an experience that can’t be duplicated on the web— then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.
It’s our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web. Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page. Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they’ll pay for it.”
I think his arguments also hold for academic books in the long run. Where printed monographs are also slowly but increasingly moving to the web, their printed version might still have some endurance. One of the models now proposed to sustain Open Access book publishing in the Humanities focuses mostly on an online, free Open Access edition and a paid for print edition, consisting of cheaply and in short (even single digits) print run produced POD books. The remit in this model lies predominantly in the sales from these POD books (for those people who still prefer to read from print) or added services on top of the online edition. It might however also be interesting to look into a market of deluxe editions of certain (probably only the best selling monographs and classics) books that people still want to ‘posses’ and pay for because they are beautifully designed or just nice to look at. Different readers, different markets; and just look at vinyl…