Critical Mass: “Adventures in eReading”

As posted on Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors:

I had lunch yesterday with a book editor from one of the corporate behemoths; the conversation now is giddy with dread and anticipation, prospects and portents dire.  Talk turned to what she called, “a rush to the backlist,” which is something I’ve been hearing about for a few years.  It makes sense for publishers to review their lists and emphasize their properties, especially those with some copyright left (let’s say fifty years).  What’s surprising to me is the discussion of the public domain, an area of publication better suited to small presses.  Imprints from the larger publishers that publish heavily in the public domain, whatever the sales numbers, will erode their identities, which is all they have of value.  Small presses will always have an advantage on the public domain books; they can give more time to the translation and the package, and produce a book that, despite the original publication date of the title, still has a “new discovery”’ vibe.  

The e-book, with all its bells and whistles, is soon to come—not just pages that flip, but the integration of a full platform computer.  The real revolution will soon follow: a whole different kind of content.  What we’re about to see isn’t just a book anymore, it’s something else, a new art form.  We probably have a good sense of the first generation—a sort of cross between a website and a textbook—but the second generation remains indistinct.  For the public domain titles, the e-book means a lot of free reading; it also means that the backlist, the “Great Work” included, will be operating in antiquated technologies. Through retrofit, such a work will seem partial, sort of like watching a black and white show on a color tv.  Long term, not where a major press wants to position itself.