transformations of the book

Thursday, March 7
Bartos Theater


How are new technologies transforming publishing and the culture of the book? What does the digital future promise for writers and for readers? What are the near- and longer-term implications of recent failures in the production and marketing of so-called e-books? This forum will address these and related questions about the fate of books in the digital age. Our primary speaker is Jason Epstein, the legendary editor and publisher, author of Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future (2001). MIT's Steven Pinker, Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and author of The Language Instinct and other noted books, will serve as respondent.


Jason Epstein
considers some of the lessons of his legendary career as an editor and publisher in Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future (2001). He was the creator of Anchor Books, the first American series of quality paperbacks, of the Library of America and of the Reader's Catalog, a precursor to on-line retail book-selling. He is the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and has also won the Curtis Benjamin Award of the American Association of Publishers for inventing new kinds of editing and publishing.
His recent essays on the future of books "The Digital Future" and ”The Coming Revolution" have appeared in The New York Review of Books, which he co-founded in the 1960s.

Steven Pinker is Peter de Florez Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT. His books include The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. His research on visual cognition and on the psychology of language has received the Troland Award from the National Academy of Sciences and two prizes from the American Psychological Association.


[this is an edited transcript]

JASON EPSTEIN showed a CD-based presentation of a print-on-demand book-making machine that, he said, will usher in a paradigm shift in the publishing business. When a book is ordered over the Internet, the machine prints the pages, binds the book, and trims the pages following specs stored in a digital file and delivers the book for pickup, or, Epstein said, "it can be delivered to your house like a pizza."

The PerfectBook is capable of producing a 120-page book in about three-and-a-half minutes, Epstein explained. "The physical book does not exist until someone orders it."

When people think of so-called e-books, Epstein said, they tend to think of books on a screen. "My belief," he said, "is that people will not choose to read [most books] on screen," thus opening the way for print-on-demand machines. Epstein agreed that certain kinds of books such as college texts or reference works will migrate to the computer screen and digital formats. He called his own online subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary "indispensable." But Epstein maintained that "books are a tactile experience, not just visual," and people will always want and need the physical object.

Epstein said that when he shares his vision of the future of publishing with colleagues, some people see the paradigm-shifting potential of the technology and some do not. Those who do understand the potential sea change, Epstein said, also fall into two groups: those who say ‘this is the end of the publishing business’ and are horrified, and a smaller group that says ‘that is the end of the publishing business, and it’s wonderful because we can start all over again.’
"And that," Epstein declared, "is what is going to happen."

As print-on-demand is deployed, Epstein explained, the existing publishing supply chain -- book production, warehousing, shipping and then receiving and storing or destroying returns -- "will become redundant." Future publishing companies, Epstein said, "will consist of small groups of like-minded editors and publicists and Web-site managers," with little need for retailers such as Borders or Barnes & Noble.

Epstein has helped form a company, Three Billion Books, which will soon field test 20 print-on-demand machines in parts of Africa and other regions with the cooperation of the World Bank.
Epstein’s company will assemble, digitize and offer approximately 20,000 World Health Organization and UNICEF health-related titles through the machines; plans call for the deployment of 400 machines in the first three years. "Then," he said, "you’ll begin to see how this works."

If successful overseas, Epstein went on to say, the machines could end up back in this country initially to serve what he calls the "ethnic Diaspora of America" by printing on-demand titles in many languages.

"By the time we’ve done all that," he said, "the point of this technology will have been made."

Epstein conceded that a world of print-on-demand book production and global self-publishing "diminishes the filtering function – the determination of what is a worthwhile book – that is traditionally undertaken by publishers and editors."
Epstein was confident, though, that readers themselves could play a filtering or gate-keeping function. "How will you filter the good from the bad?" Epstein asked. "People are the filter. People will find their way to Dickens, Shakespeare and Homer like they always have.

STEVEN PINKER agreed that print-on-demand technology will change some publishing practices, and he placed this eventuality within a context of changes in book production and marketing that have occurred over the last decade, including online book purchasing, large chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, and electronically distributed books.

Pointing out how each of these changes has resulted in benefits to the consumer, Pinker half-joked that one benefit of the print-on-demand technology is that it answers the question, "What do we need publishers for, anyway?"

Pinker conceded that publishers now provide gate-keeping and branding functions along with the physical production and distribution of books; functions he said had been combined by "accident." He went on to question what the role of publishers would be in a print-on-demand world in which those functions are severed.

With production and distribution out of the equation, Pinker pointed out that many other publisher functions, such as copyediting and publicity, can be performed by freelancers, as some of it is now.

That leaves to publishers the selection function, Pinker suggested, "a function that previously has not been exercised as acutely as it might be. The world of publishing has been fed largely by English departments, and there are books on a variety of subjects that these people are not qualified to judge."

He went on to suggest that in taking on the function of the selection "bottleneck," publishers might operate "something like a university press where they look for experts and reject books not just because they don’t make money, but because they don’t live up to the standards of that brand."

Though Pinker accepted Epstein’s scenario for the future, he envisioned a publishing environment in which brands and imprints still matter.


QUESTION: About 150 years ago, when photography was invented, we went through a similar period in which painting was thought to be dead. There was a dialogue between the two media for 100 years, and painting got rid of reality representation and began to concentrate on qualities it did not share with photography. What niche will be left for the traditional publishing companies when you can buy your books directly from these machines?

EPSTEIN: There will always be room for editors; that’s a real function for publishers. Also, some books don’t lend themselves to print on demand, such as art books with a lot of color images. Books published in hardcover will always need publishers. There’s plenty for conventional publishers to keep on doing. A publisher is, most importantly, a group of editors. The warehouse, the trucks, the shipping, the management, you can get rid of all of that stuff - you don’t need it. But, you can’t get rid of the editors themselves. Editing is publishing’s essential function.

QUESTION: What will happen to the recognized system of evaluation, to awards such as the Pulitzer and the O. Henry Awards? Does print-on-demand signal an end of the recognitions of excellence? Does the end of the gatekeeper threaten quality?

EPSTEIN: Quality is threatened by everything, but it survives. Quality takes care of itself. It can’t be expunged. It can’t be lost in the shuffle. There will be a lot of terrible books in the marketplace as a result of this technology, but they’ll go away.

PINKER: Referring back to the question about awards, I suspect there will be a greater number of prizes because the role of critics will become more prominent as a filter. The role of critics and the role of prizes will increase.

QUESTION: What about the channels for promoting books in this new world? How will this system change people’s ability to find out about books? I am still not clear how the role of publicity and getting the word out about books will actually happen.

EPSTEIN: Word of mouth is what sells books, not ads in the New York Times. Not even revues in the Times. One person telling another is why people read books, and the Web is great for word-of-mouth endorsement. As we get into these technologies, authors will generate their own personal audience on their own Web sites. An author will link to similar sites until, by the time they’ve written their fourth or fifth book, they’ll be linked to hundreds of thousands of sites where their books are accessible. This technology will change practically everything about the publishing business, but as far as publicity is concerned, there will be greater accessibility to readers than ever before.

QUESTION: Mr. Epstein, as you begin to distribute books in developing nations, the people in those nations will have more books, but not necessarily know how to read them. Do you think we’ll see a revolution in literacy that parallels the change in technology? Is the World Bank paying attention to this problem?

EPSTEIN: With the advent of moveable type, there was literacy in Europe within two generations. My guess is that if the books are available people will read them. I think reading is something we figure out as human beings.

PINKER: I agree with the point that if there is more content available, there will be more of a premium on being able to access it. I do think people will want to read more simply because there is more to read, but I am not so sure how naturally that will happen. Literacy has to be taught, but being an optimist I think that if there is more to read and a greater demand to learn how to read then there will be more places and ways to teach people to read.