Thursday, March 7
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
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.
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
[this is an edited transcript]
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 its wonderful
because we can start all over again.
"And that," Epstein declared, "is what is going
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.
Epsteins 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, "youll
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 weve 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
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 dont make money, but because
they dont live up to the standards of that brand."
Though Pinker accepted Epsteins scenario for the future,
he envisioned a publishing environment in which brands and imprints
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; thats
a real function for publishers. Also, some books dont
lend themselves to print on demand, such as art books with a
lot of color images. Books published in hardcover will always
need publishers. Theres 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 dont need it.
But, you cant get rid of the editors themselves. Editing
is publishings 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 cant be expunged.
It cant be lost in the shuffle. There will be a lot of
terrible books in the marketplace as a result of this technology,
but theyll 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 peoples
ability to find out about books? I am still not clear how the
role of publicity and getting the word out about books will
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 theyve written their fourth or fifth
book, theyll 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 well 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.