Thursday, September 18, 2008

Two Dollar Radio: "The Publishing Industry Isn't Dying"

One of the best parts about attending BEA this year was meeting Eric Obenauf and Eliza Jane Wood, the couple who run Two Dollar Radio, one of the best small presses operating today. Galleycat has posted a video interview with the Two Dollar Radio folks, taped at the launch party for Frances Levy's book Erotomania, in which they answer the charge that the publishing industry is just the music industry, version 2.o (or something like that).

For the record, this has always been my take on the differences between books and music or film: If one looks at the history of recorded music, from the first phonographs through vinyl LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and now mp3 and other digital forms, one can see that each technology had its limitations. Some of them represented a jump forward, and some (cassettes, I'm looking at you!) didn't. The point I'm making here is that recorded music has changed its primary delivery method at least five times in the last 120 years. Why? None of the technologies for delivering it were perfect, or near-perfect enough to resist innovation.

Film has a shorter life in terms of home use by consumers. First there were private theaters - obviously the domain of the super rich only - then came TVs, which would show the occasional movie, then the VCR, then DVDs and fine-point refinements of that technology, and now online delivery of feature length films via streaming video. One can track the evolution from projected images, to VCR, to DVD, to streaming video, but the point is the same: the relatively young artform of motion pictures has changed its delivery method, especially for the home audience, a number of times. Again, none of the previous technologies was adecquate for consumer needs, so innovation was inevitable.

Now lets think about books. Books have more or less remained the same for 550 years. What does this tell me? It tells me that the book is a durable technology, and one that's difficult to improve upon. The contents of a book aren't vulnerable the way the information on a CD is (while one can tear or burn a book, it's much easier to render a CD unplayable than it is a book unreadable (although Lauren Conrad's going to give it a shot . Hey-oh!)). The fidelity of the information doesn't detiriorate with each usage, as is the case with a video tape or a cassette. Books are relatively portable, they last generations, and they are exceedingly easy to use. In short, they aren't going anywhere, no matter what Amazon, Sony, or any other digital beheomoth might say.

This isn't to say that the publishing industry doesn't need to make some changes. Most people would agree that there are simply too many books published to adequately market them, and too often good books get lost in the shuffle. And yes, it is a little ridiculous that an entire industry's hopes seem to be attached to one or two products (Where's the next Harry Potter? The next Da Vinci Code?) But there are publishing houses, like Two Dollar Radio and Akashic and Soft Skull Press and Greywolf any number of other great houses, that seem to be able to get it right. So can we stop with the end of publishing already?

Let's talk about the impeding death of magazines, because those seem doomed to me. I can easily see getting everything that I used to get from Esquire from some sort of online location, downloading it, along with GQ, the New York Times, the LA Times (if they build up their book coverage a bit), and all my blogs, onto a reader of some sort, and reading them on my way to work or on a flight. That could work. I throw out magazines when I'm done with them, don't you? Do you similarly throw out books? Anyway, this is just my two cents, and I'd love to hear reader reactions to the notion that publishing books is a dying business.

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