The Medium is NOT the Message: (fre)e-Publish or Perish

I am currently reading Finnegan’s Wake, Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Other Plays, Saussure’s General Linguistics, Beckett’s Malone Trilogy, The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Gods and Legends of Ancient Egypt, both by Wallis Budge, poems from the Complete Emily Dickenson, Complete Yeats, Complete William Blake, Complete Mina Loy, various programming books, including Smalltalk by Example, and Barbara Mor’s The Blue Rental.

Though I possess hard-copies of all of these books, except for Budge’s Egyptian texts and most of the programming books (I do have Smalltalk by Example in hard copy), I’m reading all of this on-line or via e-Book or PDF.

There are several reasons for my reading almost everything on the computer.

First and foremost, I’m always on the computer, so it’s easy to take a break by just flipping to an on-line text.

Second, though I’ve created a reasonably comfortable set-up in front of my computer, reading a book on a couch, chair or lying on the floor is painful because of hip and back problems.

Third, regardless of what strength reading glasses I use, my eyes are fucked-up and I don’t feel like getting even the minor surgery the eye-doctor said I needed a year-and-a-half ago; nevertheless, I can adjust digital print to the size of a road-sign.

But the other reasons might pertain to other people.

All of the books I’m reading are either public domain or free (I have the pdf of Blue Rental, published by Oliver Open Arts & Free press). Ones that I don’t own, like the Budge books and various “complete editions” of poets and other authors, I either downloaded for free or bought for ninety-nine cents — many from Amazon, which is “catching on” to their own hustle of charging “hard-copy” prices for e-Books by offering free downloads of public domain editions or charging 99 cents to three dollars for immense collections like The Complete Nietzsche, which includes everything he ever wrote for a mere $1.99.

It has always been easier and more practical to read computer manuals on-line, whether they be difficult programming manuals or basic “How To” pdfs for Mac and Windows. But authors of both basic and advanced manuals for programmers and GNU/Linux/Unix users created a formidable challenge to Big Publishing by adapting the GNU/Linux/Free Software Foundation’s “Copy Left” agreement whereby they retain the rights to their work but must offer the programs/manuals/texts to anyone who wants to alter it, so long as they attribute authorship of the original to its original author.

This is why most of the best software is free, including the GNU/Linux operating system itself, which certain companies merchandise by adding their own for-profit user-friendly applications on CD and DVD while legally obliged to offer all source code and programs of Gnu/Linux itself for free on-line, down-loadable by anyone. Programmers download and improve each others work, provide open source code and proper attribution and everybody wins — in theory.

There is a specific Copy Left agreement for books and other published works, but the same principle applies. If someone wants to rewrite your book, which nobody ever wants to do if it’s poetry or fiction, especially since there’s no money involved, they can do so, as long as the original is also available and attributed to your authorship.

Authors of programming manuals, many of whom authored or contributed to the development of the programs themselves, have been offering Copy-Left-ed free PDFs of their manuals while at the same time self-publishing (via iUniverse or whomever) expensive hard-copies of the manuals to sell to Universities for use in curricula. They can make money off those who can afford to pay, while also ensuring that their work is out there for use by programmers who are not in school but capable of learning, developing in and even changing the language of the manuals.

O’Reilly Media, long the publishers of the best Unix programming manuals, expanded to Mac and Windows. They are in the publishing business, not teachers of programming, therefore are mandated to make money. While still offering the best manuals in hard-copy and e-Book, the effect of programmers Copy-Left-ing their work (some of them writing for O’Reilly and making special deals for free distribution, like Perl creator/author Larry Wall) affects them hugely. They responded by lowering the cost of e-Books compared to hard-copy versions; nevertheless, anything over $5.00 for an e-Book is outrageous. So they created special discounts and also did something that Amazon did not do: made all e-Books and publications DRM-free (DRM: digital rights management). That is, once you purchase an e-Book, it’s yours “for life,” including updates and revisions, available for download at any time, on any machine, in whatever e-format (e-Pub; PDF; formats for proprietary devices like Kindle, and others).

This is important.

Once you buy a digital book, song, album or video from Amazon, the sale is final. If your machine — iPod, Kindle, computer, whatever) gets lost or destroyed, tough shit; you gotta buy your “digital collection” all over again — from Amazon. Apple caught on to this hustle and offers buyers of songs/albums/videos from iTunes the chance to re-download the item/items they purchased at least once on the same machine as well as up to 5 other machines you own or will own in the future. Not really “DRM-free” but a “value-added resource” to beat it’s competition. When my iPod was damaged, I learned that Apple would “allow me to” download all the music I had “purchased” — rightfully so — whereas Amazon treated all purchases as hard-copy sales, i.e. all transactions are final. Sales of what? “Rights” to one copy of the digital file I paid for but do not own as an actual product? iTunes ensured my come-back business while Amazon can go fuck-off as far as music downloads are concerned.

Again Amazon fought back (against who? everyone, I suppose) with the bundling of free or 99-cent public domain packages for Kindle.

But where does this leave “traditional book publishing?”

In a different world. Whether or not you prefer reading a traditional hard-copy book, you must admit that the way you read has changed. At least it has for me. I was always a one-book-at-a-time reader, maybe I could handle a couple simultaneously, in different subjects, in school; but seven, eight, nine at a time? I never did more than one, maybe two. Then again, I never wrote more than one or two letters in a decade. Now I send and receive dozens of emails a day. The way I read is similar. A page, a paragraph, maybe only a sentence or two at a time then on to my on-line chess games to make a move or two in each then on to reading an Object Oriented Programming manual (OOP), or writing essays, articles and Object-Oriented Prose Programs (OOPP), then back to reading parts of one or several books.

I can’t imagine it’s all that different for other folks who spend the bulk of their time in the proximity of some kind of screen (or carrying one in their briefcases, pocket books or pockets), particularly those born after 1990.

I know very few people who read books unless they have to. Of those, literary books are low on the list and poetry almost non-existent. But I know lots of people who download books, whether “literature” or that meta-category invented by book publishers, “non-fiction” which includes just about everything ever published that isn’t a short-story or novel, including poetry, which seems to be quite popular on-line.

Reading has become part of the over-all multi-media package, and as such, is conducted in the manner of other “apps,” usually briefly, on-the-fly, then on to something else, then back to reading, but not always the same text, maybe something different, some new knowledge recently downloaded to the media device (whether it be a Kindle, iPad, netbook, laptop, phone, or relaxing at home before a warm desktop PC).

Why the Big Media publishers have been churning out 1,000-plus page Grapho-maniacal tomes is certainly puzzlement, a real thinker. Perhaps a last-ditch attempt to grab the old “book crowd” with reminiscences of the size (if not content) of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky? I don’t know, but Jane Austen seems to be the hottest thing on Kindle — then again, she wrote shorter books.

Literature (whether as “fiction,” philosophy, poetry, physics, or any other subject written about regardless of artificial categorization and arbitrary pigeon-hole placement by Big Publishing) is not dead, it simply changed incarnations. But trying to fight Big Publishing with books is like trying to pit Charlie the Tuna against Moby Dick (whether as copyrighted signs transmitted by corporate “signifiers” or the living, endangered “signified”) both representative of dying bodies.

Nevertheless, literature as representative of living language cannot thrive without new blood and change. But who the hell can find anything new or different amid the morass of glop churned out by big publishing or the hundreds of thousands of e-Books (some possibly good; some possibly great; some possibly profound and life-changing) by authors who generally would not be authors without considerable prodding by the “You Too Can Be a PUBLISHED AUTHOR” con advertised by vanity publishers.

Yeah, yeah: Joyce, Shelley, Blake, Faulkner, Byron, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud, Mina Loy and god-knows-who-else were all “self-published” at one time or another, and many died that way. But Shelley’s dim-witted cousin, Biff, Byron’s butler, and Gertrude’s Alice (or Lewis Carrol’s) were not also simultaneously “self-publishing”. What does “publication” really amount to but production, advertising, distribution and for the “immortals,” so-called, public domain free-for-all acceptance, teaching and perpetuation, of an author’s books?

Here’s where an Indy publisher who truly values quality text over the production, dissemination and profit of quantities of texts, can punch out Big Media bullies like Harping Collards or Fubar, Louse & NoClue the way Gnu/Linux punched out Microsoft (why would China buy Microsoft Office at the “discounted price” of $100 per user when a single free CD or down-loadable copy of equal or better quality Libre Office, GNU Office or similar free-ware can be booted up on every computer in the country within hours?).

Whatever the subjective, often contradictory value of editorial selection, such a process sure makes it easier for folks to choose from the information-overloaded pile.

A publisher who could accept and publish, under its brand/aegis, great books as free e-Books would become The Name. Of course, it takes time, experience and successful editorial selections to built a reputation that would establish a Name, but it can be done. Especially in a market in which such books are offered for free or a “nominal” 99-cents (which, considering the low cost of keeping a server full of such books, website, etc. could be over-the-top profitable within days).

This Bold New Publisher could of course offer its e-Books as “on-demand” hard-copies for those who want them and are willing to pay a fair price or shop elsewhere — which would be, essentially, everywhere else. But again, the Bold New Publisher willing or able to devote time and resources to reading new manuscripts and publishing the best as e-texts will quickly earn a “Name.”

The Name will bring in more quality submissions, the best of which, according to The Name’s subjective editorial values, can be offered as print or e-Book. Perhaps The Name can charge a nominal fee competitive with Amazon’s $.99 to $1.99 enabling, This Bold New Publisher to hire an editorial staff, buy more hard-drive space, even make money (after overhead and author royalties) which will be used for further investment in the production of quality material – if The Name knows what’s good for it and doesn’t want a quick, one-way ticket back to the information-overloaded pile.

Wonder why someone hasn’t thought of this before… or perhaps Big Media has and is just waiting to beat any Bold New Publisher to the punch and, as usual, establish a monopoly, squash all real or potential “competition” and return the new digital medium to old Big Publishing’s mediocre mold.

Adam Engel lived for your sins -- and he lived well! -- in Fear-and-Trembling, Brooklyn, one of the last gangrenous toes of NYC not yet severed and replaced with a prosthetic gentrification device. Read other articles by Adam, or visit Adam's website.