In my previous post I claimed that there has never been a more interesting historical moment in publishing than the present. “Publishing” is often understood as synonymous with the “publishing industry,” but in my teaching and writing I prefer to use the term inclusively in order to put small press publishing, self-publishing (including blogging and other forms of social media) and other forms of grassroots activity in dialogue with the more traditional commercial media outlets. Personal and interactive media have absorbed or trumped traditional mass media providers, and those that have survived the ‘big switch’ (as Nicholas Carr calls it) have done so by incorporating the paradigms and principles of emerging media technologies. While writers still embark on book tours to promote new titles, many publishers have cut back significantly on the budgets allotted to personal appearances, favoring virtual promotional tactics such as Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, FaceBook pages, and networked blogging. The fact that all of these tools are user-friendly and essentially free has done much to level the playing field inhabited by small presses and major presses. Where it would have been prohibitive for most small presses of the pre-personal computer era to send a poet on an all-expense-paid trip to promote their new book of poems, a similar press can now create an online campaign on a very limited budget.
As Jerome McGann has asserted time and time again, for five hundred years our primary tool for studying books was—you guessed it—books, and of course this extends to the marketing and distribution of printed works as well. I used to send out hundreds of postcards to promote new titles from my own Cuneiform Press, but have all but given up on that costly, time-consuming method in favor of listservs and e-marketing while noting that in doing so I am sacrificing the ephemera and other paratextual detritus that makes bibliographic research such a rich and varied field of study. Although always somewhat obscure, textual studies and bibliography have fallen almost completely by the wayside in English departments and library science programs across the country, but as McGann has demonstrated in his groundbreaking Dante Gabriel Rosetti archive and other digital innovations at the University of Virginia, the computer has revitalized these fields—the task now is for the scholarship to catch up with the technology. Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms and Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab come to mind as two relatively recent studies that have taken the discourse to the next level, and though their teaching and writing there’s no doubt that we will see more compelling studies in the near future.
Although it may seem paradoxical, it isn’t surprising that many of the theorists, publishers and poets making the most significant contributions to the future of the book (again, a term I use inclusively and not limited to the archetypal codex) are deeply committed to its history, to conceptualizing the parallel proliferation of analog and digital worlds. The digital world has a long way to go before it catches up with the analog world aesthetically, which may be a significant reason for the growing interest in the art of the book. Happily, the accessibility of tools to create quality facsimiles both online and in print has made it possible to put the most exemplary innovative works of literature from our relatively recent past back into circulation. Although entirely worthy of study, I’m the first to admit that descriptive bibliography is obsolete. Working closely with librarians and archivists at UVA, Drucker’s Artists’ Books Online set in place an important, revolutionary, framework for the future of bibliography. The ability to see, retrieve, print, document, and describe artists’ books that often exist in relative obscurity is nothing short of the Gutenberg Revolution all over again, only different. Many of the books featured on the site were produced in small editions for one reason or another, making it difficult for readers to obtain or even visit with these titles in a public or private library. The digitalization of the book has decentralized critical bibliographic information, spreading the seeds far an wide—one need only invoke the Library of Alexandria to convey the advantages of doing so, yet some librarians and artists feel threatened by the move and its implications on the status of a work’s originality and value. Yet time has proven the opposite to be true: the more people know about a particular book though online exhibition, analysis, and discussion, the more likely it is to be understood and valued.
To be continued...