Monday, April 19, 2010

analog work in a digital world

One of the truisms about the digital revolution I've always had trouble with is the idea that creative work has suddenly become easier. Arguments against intellectual property protections often mention this trend -- the great democratizing of creativity; the rise of the amateur; the end of elitist creative silos.

Obviously digital tools for creativity seem much more available, affordable and easy to use -- especially if your creativity leans heavily on technology to begin with (video, animation, etc.); but, any carpenter, nurse, bus driver or baseball player can tell you better tools are no substitute for talent, skill and good old-fashioned hard work.

As a writer, I have all sorts of exciting new options for how I make my work product available to the world, and even all sorts of exciting new tools for making my texts -- I remember how geeky I felt when I wrote a poem on my Palm Pilot -- but I've never confused any of that with the actual work of writing creatively. That work has remained challenging, frightening, difficult and decidedly analog.

Next month, publishing professionals and amateurs will gather at the University of Toronto for the second annual bookcamp Toronto, the theme of which, Book Publishing Is Going Digital, Now What?, might have looked very timely pre-iPad; but now looks a bit quaint and old-timey. That's just how fast things are moving in publishing right now.

In and around all the discussions about ebooks and new digital writing forms (transmedia storytelling?), one session description caught my eye:

The Onset of Exhaustion: Publishing in 2010

Alana Wilcox (Managing Editor, Coach House Books)
People in the publishing industry work long, hard hours making books. Until recently, a publisher would produce books, and present them to sales reps who got the books into stores. Publishers would do some promotion (some ads, a few events), and move on to making books again. But sales reps aren't enough any more. There are dozens of sales channels, all of which require more work: bookstores, readings, our own website, ebooks, iPhone apps, non-traditional sales, increased academic and library efforts, etc. This has increased costs significantly without a corresponding increase in sales. And probably multiplied the workload by a factor of ten. With no new staff. So, how can publishing be made feasible again? How can we find solutions to the exhaustion that comes with doing what's needed to promote the books we believe in, while still having time to publish books?

Coach House Books has long been a leader in clearing a digital path for Canadian publishing. They were the first to offer free online texts; they mastered social media early, and have even come out with their own iPhone app. So, if Coach House is becoming exhausted, we should all pay attention to their experience.

Digital utopians especially take note. Work is work, on any platform. Let's retire the talk about how easy creativity has become in the digital age. Maybe then we can have a more fruitful discussion about how to better access, enjoy and respect this very real work.

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