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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Digital death: Pondering the afterlife of publications in the electronic age

Pages from an old book

Source: Commons.wikimedia.org

Print books, magazines, and newspapers are funny beasts. They can seem fragile and ephemeral at times, mere wisps of flimsy paper and cardboard that yellows and becomes brittle with age.

Yet some ancient books endure, either preserved as artifacts or reborn in reprint editions. And, copyright concerns aside, endeavors like the Google Library Project could keep old content alive indefinitely by digitizing it. However, just because a book might conceivably outlive its print run in digital form doesn’t mean there’s a demand for it.

And I wonder what digital publishing is doing to closed magazines, defunct newspapers, and out-of-print books.

A little over a year ago, a magazine I subscribed to quietly printed its last issue and shut down. Parent company Meredith decided to call it quits on its quirky DIY title ReadyMade, and with merely a blog post from its editors the three-year-old publication stopped printing, stopped posting, and quietly switched all its devoted readers to subscriptions to Better Homes and Gardens. Without contacting said subscribers directly. I will just say that the switch was more than a little confusing, like expecting to come home to your hipster roommate and finding your grandma in your living room, instead.

Oscar Wilde's tomb

Source: Claire Ivett

Rather than pursue a digital-only incarnation of the magazine (Craft is one mag that made the transition admirably), ReadyMade saw one last blog entry and died. It left behind a website replete with old features and comment boards littered with spam like the lipstick prints on Oscar Wilde’s tomb. (Okay, so maybe the comments from Canada Goose Outlet aren’t exactly like that.)

The magazine did, however, leave behind a more enduring product: the ReadyMade 100 Project Manual, a print-on-demand compilation of one hundred do-it-yourself projects that’s still available to order from the Espresso Book Machine at McNally Jackson. Presumably, with the combination of the extant website and P.O.D. manual option, you can still get your fix if you just need to know how to make a light fixture from an antique fan.

That said, though, the true life of any work might not be how long it lasts but how long there’s a demand for it. I’d be interested to know how many orders McNally Jackson has received for the manual this month. And I wonder how long ReadyMade‘s parent company Meredith will want to keep the website alive.

One other fear I’ve overheard is that, in the case of copyrighted, contracted content, publishers might use digital and P.O.D. to keep books from ever going out of print, therefore keeping the author’s contract alive (or at least undead) indefinitely.

The validity of this argument is kind of suspect—and I’ve heard publishers come back with the argument that if a book isn’t selling well, the author regaining rights and reshopping it to another publisher is probably unlikely to change that for her.

Still, I don’t know that it’s entirely fair to discount an author’s wish to have the rights for a book reverted to her. And digitization has the potential to keep even an unpopular book “alive” like some sort of cheap ebook zombie for the rest of its days.

On the flipside, digital content can sometimes end the life of content (or at least the availability of it) prematurely. Many of us remember the infamous Kindle 1984 debacle, when Amazon decided to rectify its erroneous digital distribution of Orwell’s novel by removing customers’ access to the book overnight. And online articles, blog posts, and drunken tweets can vanish as easily as one user deciding to delete those words forever.

In some cases, digitization prolongs the life of content. In others, it can snuff it out with the stroke of a delete key. And (speaking with the authority of a person who has had more than one hard drive crap out on her) electronics themselves aren’t the longest-lived things. The Internet can give us the appearance of an everlasting content repository, but when websites vanish or servers crash, there’s no lasting physical testament to digital content. At least with print, we had the comforting knowledge that a print version might somehow, somewhere, still be keepin’ on. With digital, our content can either evaporate or live forever.

4 comments on “Digital death: Pondering the afterlife of publications in the electronic age

  1. peterturner108
    August 2, 2012

    Great topic, but I think two issues are being conflated here. The contractual right specified in many author/publisher contracts has to do with the reasonable right of the publisher to get the most of their investment. “In print” is, you’re right, a meaningless term of art now. Often, authors and agents negotiate the language to reflect a rate of sale, below which the rights to the book must be reverted to the author on request.

    The digital issue that arises with many e-Book platforms is that when you “purchase” an e-Book you don’t own anything. If Amazon were to suddenly disappear (all the Kindle books that have been bought would disappear from people’s “library”). If you buy from a DRM-free vendor or take the trouble to break the DRM (not that difficult), you then own a file, which you can then safeguard from disappearing into the ether.

    In any case, I don’t agree books are somehow less tangible in a digital form then in print. Books can get lost in any format; only now (if you own the file) you can save it in multiple secure sites.

    • Claire Schulz Ivett
      August 2, 2012

      Peter, thanks for reading, and you make lots of excellent points. I think my point of view has been somewhat (and perhaps overly) shaped by my own negative experiences with finding digital files to be all too ephemeral, having lost thousands of photos and songs when a hard drive was corrupted. Of course, as you rightfully point out, that’s easily remedied by having multiple backups. Still, I personally tend to prefer physical, tangible objects to digital copies of them, but this is my bias.

    • Val
      January 22, 2013

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  2. jennagilligan
    August 8, 2012

    A related link, courtesy of PW Daily: “Singularity & Co is a new Brooklyn based science fiction bookstore with a mission: based on the Kickstarter project that provided its seed funding, the store is devoted to rescuing one customer-chosen, out-of-print sf book from obscurity by buying the rights to publish it online as a free ebook.” (http://boingboing.net/2012/08/07/new-sf-bookstore-devoted-to-re.html?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly%27s+PW+Daily&utm_campaign=2f09fcf6f6-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email)

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