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Friday, January 23, 2009

The future of the book

TIME Magazine has published a marvellously upbeat vision of the publishing industry, present and future. Considering the awful state of the present -- meticulously detailed near the start of the story - the future, through the eyes of the writer, Lev Grossman, looks exciting, innovative, and maybe even profitable.

"What will publishing look like?" he asks. Certainly not dead -- "A lot of headlines and blogs to the contrary, publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving, and so radically that we may hardly recognize it when it's done. Literature interprets the world, but it's also shaped by that world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since--well, since the early 18th century. The novel won't stay the same: it has always been exquisitely sensitive to newness, hence the name. It's about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever...."

What has triggered the change? Electronic publishing, plus the new respectability of self-production of books, what until very recently used to be called "vanity publishing." While the novel is becoming divorced from the dollar, with so many people publishing off- and online at their own expense, there is still a lot of money to be made. Recently there has been a spate of self-published books (think The Shack and The Lace Reader) that have been snapped up by regular publishing houses for huge sums.

And the books themselves are evolving - rapidly. "Novels will get longer," he says. "Electronic books aren't bound by physical constraints--and they'll be patchable and updatable, like software. We'll see more novels doled out episodically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century."

So, are there New Age Dickenses and Austens waiting in the wings? Grossman certainly thinks so.

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