The Author Amidst Digital Armageddon

I really like my thesis topic.

I’m told it’s not exactly rare, but not exactly common either. Somewhat more unusual, I gather, is that the thesis project I considered undertaking at the very beginning of my MA is mostly what I’ve come to a close with. I count myself lucky. An early proposal for the topic for my first class at UM-Flint was titled: “From Paper to Processor: The Novel at the Onset of Digital Armageddon.”

The basic concepts have stuck around, but I realize the then-title reflects the very issue I’ve come to anticipate my finished product will heavily explore: we are a fearful lot. We are definitely a hearty bunch, us humans. We adapt, move on, and soon barely notice changes, but not before pulling a collective Chicken Little moment first. At the first sign of change, no matter how well-supported history’s assurances are that we’ll survive, we pretty much lose our collective shit.

Back in early 2009, as the Kindle was nearing release, all we heard was fire and brimstone about the future of the book: the publishers would die, taking the tried-and-true champion of the author with them; the book would be quickly pirated and widely disseminated, robbing publishers (oh, and authors too .. yeah..) of livelihood; good novels would suddenly have to wade neck-deep among unfiltered dreck in the absence of official gatekeepers; e-readers would borrow your car without refilling the gas tank; animals would rise against man now that they could secret away digitized manifestos underneath their beds and food bowls for reading in stolen moments.

Being that I enjoy reading and hope to eventually finish writing a book and see it through to publication, I must have taken too seriously the collective freakout that the paper book was on borrowed time, and thus confused the novel as a concept with its medium of dissemination. So my title reflected the message I was hearing: the Novel at the Onset of Digital Armageddon. 

Now at the beginning of 2011, with several versions of the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony Reader (still the worst name of the lot) all behind us, I’ve come to realize the novel will be just fine. Even the iPad will probably have a second version out by the time I turn this thesis in. Sure, the medium is changing, but the novel isn’t under siege. Digital Armageddon is happening, but its the author who is already standing in the midst of the biggest change. To tip my hand on my final product just a little bit, I am beginning to think the changes are for the better.
While I think the single most-obvious benefit the Digital Armageddon holds for the author -the expansion of readership/exposure – outweighs the faults, there are questions to answer:

  • While the author won’t go away, what must they give up and what will they gain? 
  • How will commercial definitions of “profitable” be refined, and what share of profits will authors come to expect? 
  • How will piracy be tolerated, systemically and individually. What examples can book publishers draw from the music and game industries.
  • What kind of independent market will take off? For example, there are many inexpensive and free titles available to e-readers to help swell their catalogs, but what system can we develop to better match a reader to their interests as the sheer volume of available work explodes?
  • How does the role of author as an artist (think ar-teest) stand to be redefined? Will the physical novel remain as an ivory tower for only the truly accomplished and celebrated authors to isolate themselves in?
I’m constantly tempted, as I continue research, to go off on fascinating but ultimately tangential side-quests: the history of e-reading; the technology of e-reading; the implications for education of e-reading growth; what ultimate economic implications will unfold as the industry shakes out suddenly-unnecessary jobs because revenue moves from physical to digital; the frustrating sensory je ne sais quoi surrounding the physical novel that will take several generations to shake out; and fanciful imaginings of reading in the future. I am constantly reminding myself of my focus, including an admonishment that occupies the top of the first page in my document of research notes and random tidbits:

No Matter How Interesting Other Issues May Be –
DO NOT FORGET That the Primary Subject of this Paper is
What a pleasant frustration to have.

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