- How have digitisation and/or the Internet changed the way in which one or more cultural products are produced and distributed within one creative industry; and how have these changes affected both the variety and quality of those products.
This essay will focus on the effect of both digitisation and the internet on the book publishing industry. After contextualising the research through a sketch of reactions to media change, and Jenkins’ (2006) concept of ‘convergence culture’, it will consider what issues are at stake in relation to technological change within this creative industry. The main changes to be considered are: the shift to digital modes of distribution and consumption with the development of e-book readers; the effect of the internet on distribution, for example through the increased role of online retailers; and the potentials opened up by digital modes of self-publishing. All of these changes have had a dramatic impact on the variety and quality of media texts, but it will be concluded that, ultimately, as the media landscape changes, so definitions and criteria for terms such as ‘quality’ must also change as the industry is forced to confront new challenges.
Hesmondhalgh defines the ‘cultural industries’ as those industries, which have the primary aim of communicating to an audience, or creating texts (2007, p.12). This includes, for example the music, publishing and games industries as well as advertising and the visual arts. Shifts in technology, primarily the development of the internet and the increased digitisation of culture have had huge effects on the production and distribution of products within these industries, raising a number of questions around issues such as interactivity, ownership and quality. Theorists have expressed different attitudes towards the effects of technological change. Hesmondhalgh, for example, argues that despite massive changes we are still in the age of “complex professional” production, which emerged in the 1950s (p.260). Others share this view, contextualising technological change as part of a longer tradition. Winston (2003, p.321), for example, is critical of the way people have been quick to embrace technological change as radical, arguing instead that the networks of the internet can be understood in relation to a history of telecommunications stretching back to the early twentieth Century. Arguments such as this, however, seem reactionary and out of touch with the reality of working in the creative industries. From the perspective of the consumer as well as that of the industry, massive changes are happening, radically changing media content and relationships between consumers and producers as well as how products are consumed and distributed. A more useful approach would be to examine exactly what these changes are, and what impact they are having. An example of this is the work of Henry Jenkins (2006) who analyses what he defines as ‘convergence culture’. The main features of this include: the mixing of old and new media forms; the increase of participatory culture; the intersection of corporate and grassroots media; more migratory audiences who move freely around multiple media platforms; new forms of collective intelligence and a shift in traditional creative industry relationships where “the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways” (2006, p.2). All of these features, it will be argued, are relevant to an analysis of changes in the production and distribution of cultural products within the book publishing industry.
Two major technological shifts within the book publishing industry can be identified. Firstly, digitisation has had a huge impact on the production and distribution of books through the development of e-books and e-readers such as Amazon’s Kindle device. Secondly, the internet has had a huge impact both on distribution, through sites such as Amazon coming to compete with traditional booksellers, as well as new networks of self-distribution; and, so far to a lesser extent, on production, through new forms of self-publishing and composition. Hesmondhalgh (2007, p.292) discusses the effects of digitisation in terms of three main areas – proliferation, speeding up, and quality. There has certainly been an increased proliferation of texts within the industry, caused by the increased possibilities for publishing in new forms and possibilities opened up by the internet. There has also been a speeding up of the publishing process. If one is not relying on editorial changes and rewrites, then texts can be produced at a much quicker pace. While this change in speed has not caused such a radical shift as in other industries such as news journalism, where spontaneity and immediacy of information have become vitally important, it has impacted at the level of both production and distribution. Hesmondhalgh’s final point, on quality, leads him to raise the question whether increased digitisation leads to “an abundance of rubbish” (p.290). While speed may not attain the same importance as in other industries, the relation of variety to quality is important in the publishing industry, where publishers have traditionally been seen as the ‘gatekeepers’ of quality of texts, however abstract and subjective such a role may seem. The issues of variety and quality can be addressed from a number of perspectives including: the quality of a traditional book versus that of an e-book; the quality of the bookshop experience versus that of buying online; and the quality and variety of digital self-published texts compared to those produced within traditional publishing contexts.
Firstly, then, the advent and increased circulation of e-readers has caused a lot of debates about the quality of the reading experience. Some have argued that reading while traveling, either when commuting or on longer journeys has become much easier, both for industry professionals and general readers (Stein, 2009; Goodwin cited in Saner, 2011). Variety has, in a sense, increased, as people are able to not only read but buy and download books anywhere (Baker, 2009), and some have argued that the quality of reading experience has actually improved as they prefer the ‘cleanliness’ of the e-book to a used library book (Baker, 2009). Most responses, however, have been framed in terms of what is lost from the experience of reading a printed book. Variety has, in a different sense, decreased, as fewer titles are, as yet, available as e-books (Baker, 2009). There have been problems with issues like formatting (Stein, 2009) and a loss of the social qualities associated with the book – sharing, seeing what others are reading etc… (Saner, 2011). Most objections, however, revolve around the loss of tactility in the reading experience. For Baker (2009), the texture and feel of the print book is lost, “reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words”. Goodwin discusses how you lose “the real tactile sense of how far you’re getting” (cited in Saner, 2011), while Mullin (cited in Saner, 2011) discusses the fear, associated with the dematerialisation of all media texts, that all of his books could simply disappear through pressing the wrong button. Overall then, it could be argued that neither variety nor quality have increased with increased digitisation in this context. Convenience, however, has hugely improved, suggesting that patterns will change and the industry will have to engage with the other issues. A related effect to emerge from the debate is the shift to online distribution and therefore the closure of many bookshops in the US and now also in the UK (Goodwin, cited in Saner, 2011). Goodwin discusses the loss of the unexpected discovery when buying online, as well as the physicality of the bookshop experience. While the quality of the media text may remain the same, online distribution could be seen as a loss in quality in the consuming experience.
One issue pointed out by Plunkett (2008) in his analysis of the new generation of those with power in the media is that digital possibilities of self-publishing have led to an increase in variety of product, and this has affected the power relations within the industry. People no longer need to rely on the traditional role of the ‘gatekeeper’ he argues, but can use the internet to reach an audience directly. In the context of book publishing, this is reflected in the way editors and agents can now be bypassed as work is developed online, either through blogs, discussion groups or self-marketing strategies. The number one bestseller on the Amazon ebook bestseller list for “90% of the last three months” (Skidelsky, 2011), for example, is a self-published crime novel by writer Stephen Leather. He has used the potential of self-publishing and flexible price models offered by digitised book distribution to publish and sell a book that was rejected by a traditional publisher. By opting to sell it for 70p he has achieved huge sales and is reported to now be earning “up to £11,000 a month” from the book. Skidelsky (2011) discusses how this illustrates a huge shift in the publishing industry, “striking fear into publishers” by achieving such sales without their gatekeeping role. While this may act as one kind of precedent, others are less certain about what impact developments will have, “maybe the gatekeepers will change – they will no longer be agents and publishers. But I like having my choice curated a bit” argues Goodman (cited in Saner, 2011), suggesting that the publishing industry will change rather than be abolished completely. The internet is not only a complete free-for-all after all, but also site of the emergence of new forms of gatekeeping, such as the Writer’s Online University discussed by Jenkins (2006, p.180). While Jenkins has previously proposed the grassroots creativity of self-publishing as an alternative to the commercial mainstream (p.246), it is more the case now that it is increasingly a part of this culture and the creative industries that support it. Leather’s story offers on example of the overlap between traditional and new forms of production and distribution in the publishing landscape. Others have also emerged. Websites such as Bear Parade (2011) act as electronic publishers distributing work for free, but this has then gone on to become a platform for writers such as Tao Lin who now have deals with traditional publishers.
Digitisation and the internet, then, have both had a major effect on the production and distribution of products within the publishing industry. It cannot really be argued that variety or quality have simply improved or decreased though. Rather it is the case that the whole industry is changing, having to adapt to new models and different criteria of quality. There can no longer be a binary between traditional publishing and self-organised internet based distribution, as each become increasingly important for the other. To return to the points drawn from ‘convergence culture’ at the start, the publishing industry is at a stage where old and new media are colliding creating, to an extent, an intersection of grassroots and corporate interest. Increased potential for participation has led to the rise in self-publishing, while shifts in patterns of consumption have both caused and been caused by new forms of distribution. The power relations between the media producer and consumer are sketching out new grounds, and the industry must adapt to this new context if it is to survive.
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