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Computer: Friend or Foe of Books?

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A few days ago, I mentioned the fantastic Bookmark Now: Writing in Undreaderly Times, a collection of essays edited by Kevin Smokler. The essay A Computer Ate My Book by Douglas Rushkoff raises some interesting questions and some pointed criticisms of publishing. Rushkoff begins by brushing aside all the-sky-is-falling complaints of how the Internet is ruining literature. He points out that websites are still a written medium, with words, writers, readers, and the act of reading. He mentions that about 25,000 people regularly read his blog and that all

    this additional conversation and reader service makes our books more likely candidates for school curricula and libraries, not to mention individual purchases. This means we can pay our rent more easily. And so can our editors and publishers. So works the “gift economy.”

    Instead of celebrating this fact, the publishing industry’s decisionmakers are quivering.

Rushkoff discusses the recent Napster phenomenon facing music and the historical fears over radio killing record sales and videocassettes ending the movie theater business. But publishing’s unwillingness or inability to take advantage of the technology is costly. “My current U.S. publishers still won’t let me release the electronic versions of my works for free. They are afraid of losing sales. And I’d venture their fear is costing them a lot of money, in the long run.”

Rushkoff does not pull any punches in his criticisms of the publishing industry. When they do use technology, he argues, they use it in the wrong way.

    Instead of serving their authors’ need for editorial expertise, the publishers have relegated some of their most vital choices to computers, exacerbating the book’s inevitable slide toward consumer commodity. When sales data and spreadsheet software determine everything from acquisition to distribution, it’s no wonder that the short-term stock value of the parent media conglomerate takes precedence over the long-term health of literature. Computers, which could have made the industry more responsive, are instead being programmed to discourage new growth. “Mid-list” titles are shunned in favor of blockbusters, which are actually less dependably profitable, considering the investment required, and make for a less stable revenue stream.

    So publishers lose money on higher volume and then blame the Internet for a loss of interest in books. It is not the readers who have forgotten about the soul of the book; it is the publishers. Computers don’t kill books; people do.

Amusingly enough, Rushkoff himself has been hurt by computer idiosyncrasies. He relates how his first technoculture book featured a cover made of a high-tech shiny material. The material was so shiny that cash register scanners could not read the bar code. Frustrated clerks entered the sale manually, just recording the price so the cash register was correct but not noting the title. He writes, “most stores had no record of the sales of my book and thus no automatic reordering of more copies. Until the problem was fixed, every store was out of stock, yet the book had close to zero registered sales.” In another snafu, Rushkoff’s publisher changed the title of one of his books at the last minute and thought that if they “simply entered the change of title into one of its own computers, all the bookstores and libraries would somehow implement the change, too. Oops.” No booksellers found out about the new title. Their computers were expecting a book called Children of Chaos and so when the new title, Playing the Future appeared in their shipments, the bookstores assumed a mistake had been made. So most of the books were “promptly returned to the publisher unopened. They hadn’t ordered a book with that title! Everyone who went to a store asking for my book by the original title was told it hadn’t come in yet. Everyone who went asking for it by the new title was told that it didn’t exist.”

Rushkoff ultimately reiterates what everyone who works in the software industry will tell you: computers are only useful if real live human beings know how to use them. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to think this is happening.

    I’d love to hear that publishers were using a bit of their own decisionmaking powers rather than just depending on the data streams coming from the mainframes at Barnes and Noble headquarters.

    Though I’ve been burned by them, I still hold no grudge against the computers that ate my book or any other–just against the people that let them do it.

Just how much to rely on technology is always a difficult decision to make. It’s hard to find the right balance. I have had some clients that wanted the computer system to do absolutely everything. They think they can get rid of all their staff and just kick up their heels and let Hal 2000 do all the work. Other clients didn’t trust the technology so for they were essentially buying expensive typewriters. They still wanted these huge staffs to do all this manual verification of the data. So I can understand the publishers’ dilemma. But Rushkoff certainly raises some interesting points and some very direct criticisms that are worth contemplating.