14.0472 Epstein's revolution

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: 11/05/00

  • Next message: by way of Willard McCarty: "14.0474 call for comments on an Assessment Guide"

                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 472.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
             Date: Sun, 05 Nov 2000 14:51:43 +0000
             From: "P. T. Rourke" <ptrourke@mediaone.net>
             Subject: Re: 14.0468 new on WWW: "The Coming Revolution"
    Thanks both to Dr. Miller and Dr. McCarty for their references to "The
    Coming Revolution."  There are two major issues I have with the Epstein
    article.  The first will be of the most interest in this forum: Epstein is
    imaging that the print-medium paradigm of publication will survive
    deGutenbergation - that of a single unchanging edition, a "finished" form of
    a work.
    But the concept of a "finished" form is an artifact of the printing press,
    with its limitless unchanged copies of a single archetype: the preceding
    paradigm, manuscript distribution, resulted not only in the unintended
    variants which are the main source of work for textual editors, but also in
    (fewer) deliberate or at any rate authorial variants as an author provided
    new copies to his readers.  Each copy of a MS was a new edition, offering
    the author the opportunity to make changes and improvements.  Thus there
    would potentially be a different "edition" for each copy of the MS that left
    the author's possession.  (The practicalities dictate, however, that it was
    relatively rare that such changes were made.   But one does think of poets
    changing lines in printed books when giving them to friends, and wonders
    whether a poet might have made gradual changes to his archetype that were
    reflected in "publication" copies distributed to the bookselling trade.  One
    also wonders if Ovid's five book "edition" of Amores became three in part
    because it was easier & cheaper to copy only the best poems.  I'm afraid
    that I'm not an expert on this subject, so if anyone is and can make good
    counterarguments I'd welcome them).
    Now in the electronic paradigm the author is in what is in some ways an
    enviable position: he may if he wishes make improvements every day in an
    electronic edition.  What's more, if the work's locus of publication is
    static (as is a web page with a fixed URI), he can erase all previous
    editions of his work.  Consider e.g. Auden's "Spain," with its line about
    murder.  Were he publishing in the 2020s, Auden could simply pull up the
    copy that's being distributed, delete the line, and put it back up on the
    website.  Presto! It never existed, because while there may well be a huge
    number of electronic copies already in distribution, electronic copies are
    extremely volatile, and the copy text will always be assumed to be the copy
    provided on the author's site.  Or Auden could delete the work itself from
    his website entirely, and the work would never have existed!  It *would*
    retain a ghostly existence in the form of archaeological data files in older
    archives, but it would not be as it is now, with thousands of physical books
    in libraries still making the poem available to readers every day.  And I
    suspect that the volatility of electronic texts will mean that those which
    are not explicitly preserved by digital libraries or other institutions will
    fade into nonexistence soon after they are taken "offline."
    Obviously this is a complex issue, and I'm just touching on a couple of
    aspects of it which should already be plain to most Humanist readers.
    But there is another, more immediate and practical point where
    (paradoxically, considering the fact that my first point severely
    problematizes my second) I have to differ with Mr. Epstein.  He does not
    seem much to value the contribution of editors to fixed edition
    publications, or to recognize that they are an important part of the cost of
    publication for a work.  (For all I know Mr. Epstein is an editor himself;
    but his focus on bestsellers suggests he never read *Editors & Editing*, at
      > Another 35 to 50 percent of publishers' revenues is consumed by
      > manufacturing and sales expenses including advertising. Of the rest, a
      > offsets fixed costs and the remainder becomes profit, assuming the book is
      > success and the advance paid to the author against royalties is earned
    At the journal I worked for in the early 90s, printing and distribution
    accounted for 40% of costs (well, it would have if we had been publishing on
    schedule), editorial personnel 40%, and other costs 20% (e.g., three 386
    computers, meals with contributors, etc. - there were no payments to
    contributors, which would have brought the fraction for production down to
    30%).  The price of the journal should have been $10-15 (it was lower,
    because heavily subsidized), which would have provided no profit.  Even
    eliminating 40% of the costs entirely (and the costs of maintaining a
    webspace, though a lot lower than the costs of printing and distribution for
    print publication, are not zero), and assuming that our editorial costs were
    relatively high (say cut them to a dollar value equivalent to 30% of the
    actual total costs), that journal would still have cost $5-9.  And I suspect
    that e-book prices will reflect that kind of calculation (i.e., be ~70-75%
    of the cost of hardbound books).
    However, I also suspect that commercial publishers will see this as another
    excuse to cut production and development staff (e.g., imaging that because
    we're dealing with electronic publication the need for galleys is somehow
    obviated), perhaps pouring a small amount of the savings into acquisitions.
    And we'll end up with more poorly edited books and less and less
    craftsmanship (something that is not eliminated by the medium: web
    publication at least leaves an enormous amount of room for genuine
    booksmanship, or would if CSS2 were properly implemented).
      > But for a book sold electronically, the publisher's cost of manufacturing,
      > selling, and so on is eliminated and the savings can be shared with the
      > and with the reader in the form of a lower price.
    Notice that by this point the whole concept of editorial expense (and
    editorial value) has slipped Epstein's mind.
      > Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and other best-selling writers as well as such >
      > writers as Toni Morrison, John Updike, and E.L. Doctorow, with narrower
    but > still substantial followings, may sell their digitized editions
    largely on their own > popular websites. But authors of more specialized
    titles will sell their work
      > through linked sites to precisely targeted audiences.
    I may be reading far too much into this, but it seems to me that this is
    implying little more than a writer with the help of a freelance proofreader
    and a piece of encoding/markup software creating an edition and "publishing"
    that.  The whole concept of imprint is lost.
      > But in the electronic future publishers will promote their titles on the
      > Web to appropriate readers by means of linked sites devoted to
      > aspects of a given subject.
    Given the poor results of the Amazon.com experiments in this direction, I
    wouldn't hold out too much hope for major advances in marketing.
      > The World Wide Web will destroy the filters that have traditionally
      > separated publishable work from the surrounding chaos.
    Napster is not the appropriate model for publishing, I'm afraid. Yes, I am
    reading a great deal into this: I'm reading "filters" as referring to
    editorial work as though it were the equivalent of the record company's
    stranglehold on the music business.  There is one significant difference,
    though: it's quite reasonable to "produce" (in the recording industry sense)
    a record of one's own music - the barrier is technological, not
    psychological, and gets lower every day; it is impossible for psychological
    reasons to effectively edit one's own writing.
    My 20c worth, anyway.
    Patrick Rourke
      > Online at the New York Review of Books www site
      > http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/) is Jason Epstein's "The Coming Revolution".
      > [Apologies for the delay in publishing this, which got lost in the
      > flood; meanwhile Epstein's article has moved into the Archives and is to
      > found at <http://www.nybooks.com/nyrev/WWWarchdisplay.cgi?20001102004F>.
      > Comments on the article most welcome. Allow me to register an objection to
      > the technologically deterministic view of history offered in it,
    however --
      > and to ask, why do we need to construct the world in such a simplistic
      > Multiple, mysteriously interrelated phenomena make for a much more
      > interesting view of things. --WM]

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : 11/05/00 EST