Friday, 14 September 2012

The Two Industries?

"A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?"
-C.P. Snow, 'Across the Great Divide'

In The Two Cultures, a 1959 lecture, C.P. Snow argued that the academic community was splitting into two distinct strands, one literary, the other scientific, and that these two strands were increasingly struggling to communicate, and to recognise each other's standards of value. This, he claimed, was a product of the complicated revolution in science which took place in the first half of the 20th century - the advent of general relativity and quantum mechanics, the dawn of the 'nuclear age', even the earliest computers.

There's no doubt that it did get harder for someone to be both culturally and scientifically literate during that period - the bar for scientific literacy shot up, until one needed to understand complicated bits of maths and physics to qualify. Becoming truly fluent required a greater amount of time, so scientists had far less time for the humanities.

Perhaps things have stabilised since. Snow certainly later backed off from some of his arguments. Despite being a student of the humanities throughout my academic (indeed, my adult) life, I can communicate with my friends who are scientists. I can even understand the basics of what they say about their own studies.

But I think we have come to recognise that the modern scientific revolution has created distinct pockets of expertise (or perhaps just exponentially deepened them), and that there will always be knowledge on each side of the divide - significant, important knowledge, like how quantum electrodynamics works, or the significance of modal realism - which will go unrespected by the other.

I've just finished the first draft of my PhD thesis, which among other things attempts to cross this divide. I discuss in detail the arguments of John Foster (a philosopher so technical and complicated that he doesn't even have a Wikipedia page), and I relate them to Einstein's original thought experiments on special relativity. It kinda worked, but it was really hard. There is quite definitely a science/humanities divide, though I think most intellectually astute people these days have gotten over the need to be partisan about it.

Anyway, I was thinking over all of this, and I noticed something oddly similar happening right now. We've had another revolution since the scientific one which Snow discussed, this much is obvious; call it the digital revolution or the internet revolution (I prefer 'information revolution'), but it's happened, and it's actually still happening.

More importantly, it's causing a similar kind of schism, between those who have benefitted from the revolution and those who haven't. The schism this time is industrial rather than cultural, but it's the same phenomenon. It's happening at different times in different media industries, and at the moment it's mainly hitting book publishing. It's already happened to film, newspapers, TV and sequential art, and arguably to music as well.

Look at it this way: is YouTube part of the same industry as a TV channel or movie studio? Most importantly, do consumers approach YouTube the same way they approach their TV or the cinema?

Are most webcomic consumers also regular readers of 'print' comics? Do people see blogs as an extension of the newspaper and magazine industry, or as something separate?

My question is as much one of consumer psychology as it is of actual business practices. There have been attempts from the pre-revolution industries, ranging from the clever and successful to the tragicomically clumsy, to operate in all these new mediums. And in consumer-viewpoint terms, I think there is a clear difference.

We think of Youtube as offering far greater choice and convenience than a cinema or TV channel, at the expense of having to wade through a morass of crap and goatse to find quality content. Webcomics don't leave you dependent on what your local comic shop (if you still have one) stocks, nor do they require you to leave the house. With blogs, you get one article at a time, not a whole sheaf of articles on a huge range of topics, only some of which you're interested in.

Maybe I'm starting to sound partisan, and that's not my intention. The new model has more content, more access to content, and can probably keep pace with the times much better because there are fewer stages in the production chain. BUT the new model produces a lot more noise to go with its signals. Personally, I don't trust the filters currently used by the old model - they appear to me-as-a-consumer to be reactionary and cynical - but having filters, provided they're good filters, remains useful.

What's the relevance of this to us as authors? Well, I think we're still busily engaged in trying to treat digital self-publishing as part of the same industry as 'traditional', corporate publishing. Those of us who are pursuing self-publishing worry endlessly about getting readers to see self-publishing as 'just as legitimate as' trad publishing, but what we really mean is showing that it's the same thing.

And it isn't. No-one (or at least no-one with any sense) tries to pretend that putting a video series up on YouTube is the same as a TV company putting a show on your TV screen or schedule. I think a lot of the confusion and strife we're seeing between self- and trad-published authors and industry figures is traceable to this same confusion.

I think that those of us with an interest in digital publishing (and even if your ultimate goal is the traditional system, you should be using digital publishing as a stepping stone - it's a tool, and a powerful one) need to abandon this trend. We need to look at what digital publishing can offer that trad can't. We need to show to consumers that while we're just as good as trad publishing from their perspective, we're as different from it as YouTube is from a cinema, or as XKCD is from Superman.

We can offer far lower prices. We can offer short fiction without having to bundle it into anthologies or magazines. At the risk of sounding like I'm just blowing my own horn, we can do regular serials easily. We're not bound by whatever restrictions shape the ordinary paperback to its particular sizes and limit bookstore shelf-space. We don't have to ship our products in trucks.

If there is a schism between the information-age and the pre-information-age industry, it's a good thing. It means more options for consumers and producers alike. We need to stop both trying to heal the divide and slinging mud across it (in both directions). We need to welcome the divide, make it work for us, and work out how to demonstrate to consumers that it is there, and that they can benefit from that fact as much as we can.

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