L’Édition électronique by Marin Dacos and Pierre Mounier
What has become the “Gutenberg Galaxy” at the Internet hour? Following in the footsteps of the world of music, cinema, television and photography, the world of the printed word is also asking itself deep and searching questions. For the word is becoming increasingly less “printed”. The readerships of newspapers are constantly diminishing as people prefer to read their Web sites, fed by the newspapers in real time. For books the revolution is only in the pipeline, but electronic supports for reading, e-books, digital readers, Smartphones and iPhones have appeared with their promise of relegating newspapers and books to the attic of yesterday’s inventions. Worse the mighty ogre, Google, has promised to digitise almost all the books on the planet, announcing the dissolution of the book into a huge information network presided by the ogre itself. At the moment that the printed word is veering towards the digital, this work takes stock of the current situation, first by assessing the economic and legal conditions that characterise this period of transition. It also takes a look at the diversity of e-publishing forms – from Google to comic book blogs, via the digital publishing of academic journals, the design of digital books, the editorial management of the Wikipedia encyclopaedia or the development of “people’s journalism” – by proposing a structuring typology for the field and by making an effort at definition until now often neglected. The two authors announce the emergence of a new profession in the process of formation and maturation: electronic publishing is in its early days, but the first milestones are already laid down.
What has become of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” at the Internet hour? In the late 2000s, following in the footsteps of the world of music, cinema, television and photography, the world of the printed word is also asking itself deep and searching questions. For the word is becoming increasingly less “printed”. The readerships of newspapers are constantly diminishing, as people prefer to read newspaper Web sites, updated in real time. For books the revolution is only in the pipeline, but e-books, digital readers, Smartphones, iPhones and electronic supports for reading in general have emerged with a promise to relegate books and newspapers to the attic of yesterday’s inventions.
As with every technological revolution, observers are divided into two camps: for one side the issue is about substituting one support for another. The switch from print to screen is a trifling matter that hasn’t changed a thing, apart from giving publishing’s traditional actors further technical potential through lower costs in colour production, the possibility of inserting multimedia objects, the shortening of publication deadlines, and the lowering of distribution costs. Considering the problems experienced by publishers today, this position has become untenable. In the last few years, newspapers everywhere have seen their economic model crumble. For book publishers meanwhile the situation is treacherous; they might not have felt forced into any sudden wholesale review, as happened in the recorded music industry, there are dark clouds on the horizon that might augur storms to come in several years. Wikipedia has already had a huge affect on the encyclopaedia sector, and might prove to be a harbinger for other sectors, like comic and cookery books, educational and travel guides, and DIY manuals. In the space of a few years, the academic journal sector has undergone considerable changes and is unrecognisable to what it was today. Neither can we ignore the arrival of the Google behemoth on the scene and its massive digitisation of books has caused major anxiety for the traditional actors who, because of their size, cannot strike back.
In the opposing camp there are those who believe a new era has arrived and this new era might eventually see the disappearance of the book as we know it, bringing humanity a textual revolution similar to the invention of the printing press. The digital text – fragmented, copied and pasted and hyperlinked – breaks down the barriers of the closed printed form and roams the web in new forms, which some refer to as “liquid”. The book historian Roger Chartier has very effectively demonstrated the challenge that digital texts have posed to the three historical revolutions that created the book as we know it: the codex, which organised texts into pages; the libro unitario which associated a distinct physical object with each work; and the printing press that made the text tangible. Through this optic it is easier to understand why the revolution in process may be essentially perceived as a “disturbance in the order of discourse” to recycle Roger Chartier’s expression. What delights some and sends others screaming is the possibility that books will disappear or at least morph into a form we no longer recognise, a prospect synonymous with a descent into a new age of barbarianism, and with the death of a certain form of culture.
A closer look reveals a situation that is much more confused. What should we think of digital printing technologies and printing services on demand, for example? Do they present genuine opportunities for books, or are they the gravediggers of the form? The debate hangs in the balance. What judgement might be made about the role the online bookstore Amazon plays, and in particular its new e-book distribution service for its e-reader Kindle? Do the hindrances met by many newspapers in paper copy sales represent premonitions of the disappearance of the organs of the press, or of the press itself, or do they represent an opportunity to improve what their service offers? Is it possible that these problems come from elsewhere, from the competition posed by 24-hour rolling news channels on television or radio, for example?
Today, publishing professionals – those who select, compile, correct, prepare, distribute and advertise texts to convey the written word from author to publisher – are faced with these intense lines of questioning and all issues – technical, economic, legal, and industrial – give rise to the gravest doubts. The future cannot be predicted, only prepared. For the main contours of tomorrow’s publishing landscape will be drawn by innovations today in their test stages. There are those who are paralysed by uncertainty for the future, and others who, through their own initiatives, have taken a gamble and are trying to influence the form publishing will take tomorrow: electronic publishing.
Electronic publishing is difficult to define specifically; the area is diverse and diffuse and there are as many definitions as there are actors. Consider the following: the digitisation of thousands of library works by Google or Gallica, the development of the Wikipedia collaborative encyclopaedia, the online publication of the New York Times, the Internet publishing of thousands of academic journals on the Science Direct portal, the design of a Lonely Planet travel guide application for the iPhone, or the development of an academic blog platform – what indeed might they have in common? They are all electronic publishing projects, but each explores a different direction. It is this varied and contrasting landscape that we will try to map. Actors from the traditional publishing industries have different electronic publishing practices to “pure players” who produce journals, newspapers, travel guides or community sites. Instead of focussing on the diversity of the actors, the aim here is to discern their main traits in common.
Electronic publishing practices are indeed diverse by all practices have to obey the conditions and limits of their legal and economic environment. Generally practices stem from three types of very specific activity that correspond to different points along the production chain of digital texts: some activities are related to digitisation, that is to say the porting of the printed text to a digital support, with different degrees of sophistication; others relate to what we might call digital publishing – publishing practices that never pass through an analogical support, that never touch paper, and that innately exploit the possibilities offered by digital texts; other initiatives, belonging to what we see as online publishing, base themselves on electronic networks to develop new modes of textual production. Ultimately, electronic publishing throws up new issues and creates new professions for the publishing of tomorrow.
Electronic publishing represents both a break from and continuity with the professional traditions of the printed form, but it is yet to acquire unity and maturity. This may come about through already established knowledge and the shared experiences of the professionals involved in it. The aim of this work is to provide its own contribution to this process of growing up, a process that many are eager to see happen.
Originally a lecturer in the history of photography, Marin Dacos is now a digital humanities specialist and an “information system manager” for the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research). He is the founder of Revues.org, Calenda, the social sciences calendar, Hypothèses, a research blog platform, and Lodel, an electronic publishing interface. He is currently the Director of the Centre for Open Electronic Publishing (Cléo).
Pierre Mounier is a graduate of the École Normale Supérieure and a lecturer at the École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (EHESS). He is the creator of the site Homo Numericus and the author of a work about the political issues of the Internet, Les Maîtres du réseau. He is currently a member of Cléo for which he has developed the Hypothèses platform.
Together Marin Dacos and Pierre Mounier run a seminar series in the Digital humanities at the EHESS and a blog about electronic publishing in the humanities and social sciences: Blogo Numericus.
Marin Dacos, Pierre Mounier, L’Édition électronique, collection Repères, Paris, La Découverte, March 2010, 128 p., ISBN: 978 2 7071 5729 4
The work is targeted at both specialists and a broader reading public.