Where is the Author?
For my first thoughts, posts, on the state and future of publishing in the digital, I had intended on looking at funding.
It’s usually the first practical question people pose: So how do we get a project started? If we were to start a new press dedicated to digitally-born works or a new department or series of digital editions, where do we find the initial funds? More importantly, how do we help ensure long term sustainability? Some of these questions will be posed in upcoming posts.
But after a couple of meetings, some talks with friends and writing groups, and my participation in a conference this weekend, a equally pressing matter has raced to the foreground: how is the role of the writer changed in the digital? Where is the writer? What is the author?
(Perhaps sometime soon we should also discuss the connotations that the mere mention of digital publishing has for some people. Why are those looking at the digital considered traitors to books? I am left confused—and a little hurt—when friends visit me for dinner, and despite being surrounding by a book collection of nearly a thousand titles surrounding the table on three sides, I’m heckled for the Ipad and Kindle that sit above one of rows of books. Why can’t your favorite edition of Dickens or Frost stay on the shelf, unharmed by your purchase of another title on your mobile? I have yet to hear anyone suggest that we put an end to the printed book.)
Again, how is the role of the writer changed in the digital? Despite what some friends and scholars have argued this week, my response is simple: I hope for the better.
The writer’s world is not the same as the world of publishers and booksellers. Perhaps there is some disagreement with me on this, but those whom many writers consider as their friends and colleagues tend to be other writers. And, despite the fact that publishing is frequently about the authors as much as it is about the books they produce, their knowledge of and involvement in the process once a manuscript is submitted (or resubmitted following reviewers’ comments) is limited. Contact is often mediated through an agent or representative from the publisher’s acquisitions and/or editorial departments. Perhaps this is way traditional publishers in print want to keep it.
But it is a new world: a variety of studies envision up to 25% of book sales shifting to digital format in the next four or five years. And all parties—authors, publishers, distributors, and sellers—will need to reexamine and renegotiate not only their business models but their very relationships with one another.
In digitally-born works, authors contemplate design and functionality. They dive into diverse avenues for distribution. They have a new direct, role in consumer relations, in talking with reviewers and readers.
Writing and publishing is truly a collaborative effort.
Barthes and Foucault have famously written about the “death” or “disappearance” of the author, the liberation of the reader. The digital age expands this—it liberates the writer.
It’s been fifteen years since Janet Murray’s vision for a new kind of storyteller, “half hacker, half bard.” The “glimmers” she saw then are getting brighter. I envision digital works to become as constant as the stars in the sky—scattered alongside their printed ancestral kin—navigating new voyages through a sea of ideas and knowledge. I’m ready for a new essay: “The death and rebirth of the author” or “What is the author?: A Remix.”
Reconfiguring the role of a writer is exciting. But new challenges and obstacles, too, emerge.
Hopefully, this Digital Publishing group can begin to tackle some of these issues and the disputes that are bound follow.