Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Recalcitrant Scrivener Returns

The Recalcitrant Scrivener is back. I had originally started writing a blog as a way to make a series of points about the dysfunctional relationship between literary fiction and the publishing industry. This led to a discussion of the role of electronic publishing as a possible vehicle for change. After I had brought the initial series of essays to a close, the world of books continued to change. Nothing stands still, to partially paraphrase Heraclitus.

No one precisely knows where the electronic dissemination of literature will lead. The major publishers hope that e-books will simply function as a new delivery medium, a sort of web-based version of the mass market paperback. This scenario is entirely possible, though not desirable.

In a Guardian interview last month, Gail Rebuck, chief executive of the Random House Group, the UK division of the company, offered the following:

"Publishers are relevant. We have practical expertise and, of course, money. We give our authors advances which enable them to concentrate on their work in hand… My idea of hell is a website with 80,000 self-published works on it – some of which might be jewels, but, frankly, who's got the time? What people want is selection and frankly that's what we do."

A bit strange, in that Random House currently sells its books on a website that features several hundred thousand titles, some published by major book publishers, some not. This, of course, is Amazon. When chain bookstores have disappeared, or are greatly reduced in size and scope, web sales will be the primary means of moving books, electronic or otherwise.

My vision of hell is one in which extremely aggressive but not particularly literate people decide what the rest of us should read.

Nearly every day, I walk by the New York headquarters of Random House on my way to work. Featured in the ground floor window is a selection of new titles, among them Worth Dying For, by Lee Child, Third World America, by Arianna Huffington, and The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, which is actually a series of books. Indeed, I am not at all surprised that the Cat in the Hat knows a considerable amount about both murder and downward mobility. Conspicuously lacking is any mention of Dr. Seuss, the proverbial Cat’s progenitor.

And so, let us raise a glass to Marshall McLuhan and to Alexander Pope. There is more scrivening to be done.

The first series of Recalcitrant Scrivener essays is now available as an e-book on Kindle. The original blog entries remain available online, for a short time only.