‘Unprintable Fiction:’ The Future of Publishing?

The introduction of the e-book may have been groundbreaking back in 2007, but just like so many other digital adaptations of legacy media, there have been critiques about simply copying and pasting the content from one medium (such as print) to another (in this case, a digital e-reader). Digital versions of newspapers and magazines have begun to format their online content in a more mobile-friendly format that mirrors the structure of blogs, but e-books seemed to be lacking any similar type change or innovation.

In an attempt to remedy some of these problems and construct a new type of novel with the mobile-device user in mind, Richard Lea wrote about a new type of book in an article for The Guardian just a month ago. Entitled “What apps next? Publishers and developers embrace ‘unprintable’ fiction,” Lea follows the efforts of publishers and developers like Anna Gerber and the folks at Google Creative Lab. This drive for ‘unprintable fiction’ is an attempt to solve the problems of readers who feel that printed material doesn’t translate well to a digital medium: “People like to talk about how physical books have qualities that don’t transfer well to digital. We want to show that digital books can have narrative and visual qualities that champion writing but can’t be transferred to print.”Lea notes that Gerber “isn’t trying to kill off the printed book,” and quotes her as saying “We don’t really think the point is to change the way we read, … but we do like the idea of trying to immerse readers in books on their phones.”

Despite these attempts, however, there are some unexpected problems. Similar to e-books, there have been issues with pricing (apps take considerably more time and effort to produce, but consumers tend to not want to pay a couple dollars for the product), and with the publishing houses and software developers working together. Although both are integral for the production and success of such a product, Lea notes that “software houses and publishers operate in entirely different ways,” which can cause some issues during production.

It’ll be interesting to track the development of such apps and forms of interactive fiction, and how they differ from video games and video-based narratives. At this point, it’s too early to predict whether such app-based reading will be a success, but maybe this will be a new industry standard to replace the e-book.



Penguin Random House: A Sign of Mergers to Come?

Prior to 2013, the publishing industry was vastly different than it looks today. I’ve already mentioned the “Big 5” players of the industry in past blog posts (Penguin Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster), but prior to  July 1st, 2013, the “Big 5” was actually the “Big 6.”

The merger of Penguin and Random House has arguably been one of the biggest changes in the publishing industry since the introduction of e-books in 2007 with the Kindle. The merger has been referred to as a “mega-merger,” with a house that will now “control a quarter of world book publishing.” That’s not just 25% of the US publishing market, but the global market. That means this merger creates a new global house, with “locations in about 20 countries around the world, including China, India, all major English-speaking countries and many countries in the Spanish-speaking world,” and a control over about 40% of the US market.

As with all industries, company mergers tend to come with a lot of headaches – there’s concern’s from employees over the potential loss of benefits or change in workplace atmosphere. The Penguin Random House merger has worries employees, no doubt, but it also causes tension in the industry at large. According to an article published by the New York Times the day following the merger,”[t]here are no immediate plans for laying off employees or closing imprints. Both Penguin and Random House have long leases on their buildings in Manhattan, so they will not work from the same building anytime soon — maybe not for at least a decade, Mr. Dohle said.”

This merger has also concerned a number of professionals in the industry at large. Just eight days after the merger was completed, another article posted in the New York Times discussed the possible impending dangers caused by the merger, such as the increasing disregard for the individual brands of the imprints that form these large houses, and issues it may cause agents and writers (both Penguin and Random House either forbid or restrict their imprints from bidding against one another for the same manuscript) which could lead to smaller and smaller advances.

I think it’s also important to consider what this means for the remainder of the Big 5 – with the consolidation of two major players in the industry, should we expect to see similar mergers in the future? It’s a scary possibility that many writers, agents, and readers may have to soon face.

Melville House

As noted in the previous post, independent publishing houses often run into more financial and distribution issues than larger houses do. With access to fewer funds, it is not uncommon for smaller independent houses like Melville House to take on more roles than larger houses may. For Melville House, that refers to selling their books in addition to publishing them. Although not the only independent house to take on this additional role in the publishing process, (Verso is another radical left indie publisher that operates its own bookstore) it is still a unique feature that sets Melville House apart from many other publishers.

What truly sets Melville House apart from the rest, in my opinion, is its origin. As taken from their website: Melville House “was founded in 2001 by sculptor Valerie Merians and fiction writer/journalist Dennis Johnson, in order to publish Poetry After 9/11, a book of material culled from Johnson’s groundbreaking MobyLives book blog. The material consisted of things sent in to the blog by writers and poets in response to the 9/11 attacks, and Johnson and Merians felt it better represented the spirit of New York than the call to war of the Bush administration.” In addition to this relatively radical and politically-based founding, Melville House also offers a range of news regarding books and the publishing industry at large through the MobyLives blog that the house grew out of (and has since been folded into Melville House’s website) – which does set it apart from almost every other house out there.

Although transitions are not unheard of in the publishing industry (especially in the large push to move digital), Melville’s story differs from what most people may assume a transition in publishing would mean. Rather than moving from the more traditional print-based media to digital, Melville began online as a blog and moved into more traditional print media. Although this occurred back in 2001, (a good five or six years before the introduction of the Kindle and the push for e-books) this is strangely reminiscent of a transition that appears to currently be happening in the magazine industry with digital properties like Airbnb working on partnering with companies to develop print magazines. With that being said, however, Melville House has also made some more anticipated transitions: primarily their move from Hoboken, New Jersey to DUMBO, Brooklyn in 2008.

Amid all of these transitions, Melville House is still thriving. Their store acts as a popular venue for the events of other independent releases and publishers, and they have been attracting the attention of award-winning authors who have been previously been working with the Big 5 (i.e.Nobel prize winner Irme Kertesz from Knopf and Paul Berman from Norton). It’ll be interesting to see if Melville’s radical, leftists, and avant-garde reputation is a part of their success, and what that means for the future of ‘the establishment’ of the Big 5.