I’m starting to retch when I hear people call new technology “revolutionary.”

The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends. Meanwhile, for quite different reasons, the genteel book business that I joined more than a half-century ago is already on edge, suffering from a gambler’s unbreakable addiction to risky, seasonal best sellers, many of which don’t recoup their costs, and the simultaneous deterioration of backlist, the vital annuity on which book publishers had in better days relied for year-to-year stability through bad times and good. The crisis of confidence reflects these intersecting shocks, an overspecialized marketplace dominated by high-risk ephemera and a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than the momentous evolution from monkish scriptoria to movable type launched in Gutenberg’s German city of Mainz six centuries ago.

Though Gutenberg’s invention made possible our modern world with all its wonders and woes, no one, much less Gutenberg himself, could have foreseen that his press would have this effect. And no one today can foresee except in broad and sketchy outline the far greater impact that digitization will have on our own future. With the earth trembling beneath them, it is no wonder that publishers with one foot in the crumbling past and the other seeking solid ground in an uncertain future hesitate to seize the opportunity that digitization offers them to restore, expand, and promote their backlists to a decentralized, worldwide marketplace. New technologies, however, do not await permission. They are, to use Schumpeter’s overused term, disruptive, as nonnegotiable as earthquakes.

I’m almost sorry that it has to be Epstein’s article that drives me to write this post. The guy’s a publishing genius, no question about it. But how many times are we going to be told that electronic text is like Gutenberg before we start asking ourselves whether our mistress’s eyes are really nothing like the sun?

Advertisements