I know it's somewhat ironic to talk about digital publishing on a blog, but let's contain our amusement and just dive right in. About two months ago, romance publisher Dorchester Publishing announced that it was going to go to an exclusively digital publishing strategy, with only occasional books coming out later in trade paperback editions or being available as POD purchases. Since then, the company has done some backtracking such that it's not entirely clear to me who I should believe and who is just trying to reassure those to whom the publisher is fiscally responsible, but the upshot is that Dorchester will be taking a huge swing at the digital books market, a swing they're hoping will connect with purchasers of ebooks (with the explosion of the ebooks market) and with their regular customers (who will hopefully be willing to continue reading Dorchester titles in an electronic format).
I have to admit, I wasn't that concerned about this development. After all, I don't write romance novels. However, I do write queer literature, and today's announcement that Alyson Books will be going into an all digital format does concern me. When I was grappling with my own queer identity issues in high school, I came across a copy of their anthology Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology in a bookstore in Seattle and felt like I was home. Over the years, I've very much enjoyed reading other of their books (Young, Gay, and Proud and the phenomenal First You Fall come easily to mind), but I wonder if I'll continue buying their books if they're only available in a digital format. You see, I don't own an electronic reader of any kind, and I don't plan on buying one in the foreseeable future (the realities of my finances preclude such a purchase). I've always hated reading books (or even literary criticism articles) on a computer screen, so I don't think I'll be likely to buy them in that format.
Part of the reason Alyson Books has decided to forego traditional publishing is the closing of gay and lesbian bookstores (which have been ravaged by the economic downturn and by the rise of more convenient ways to purchase books like Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble) and I have to admit that I understand their problem. They're not making money in traditional publishing and the cost of producing books is really high (even higher when all of the stores that used to carry your books have closed and now the books are taking up space in your warehouse instead of space on the shelf of a bookstore where someone might actually buy them) and like it or not, publishing is a for-profit business, which is something we sometimes forget. From this office, located on a university campus, where writers pour in submissions by the hundreds, it can seem unimaginable that the publishing world outside is not thriving similarly.
What does this mean for the market as a whole? I hate the thought of mid-size and small publishers getting edged out of business by market forces beyond their control. Alyson Books makes good literature (First You Fall, which I mentioned above, won a Lambda Literary Award, and their anthologies tend to be the subject of library challenges across the country, which is, from what I can tell, almost always a sign of quality) and the idea of their not making books anymore (which is what might happen if their gamble on digital publishing doesn't pan out) is distressing.
It is becoming more and more apparent that publishing is changing, that we live during a time when books are going to shift from being physical objects to digitally distributed information packets, and most of the time I am okay with that. I like the idea of electronic books from a green perspective (less paper used up, fewer gallons on gas used shipping physical objects, etc.) and I like the idea of publishers offering books more directly or via online sources. But I know that I'm going to miss the physicality of books and I know that there are certain books that I would perhaps buy in a book store that I won't know about in a digital realm. Browsing for books online is a process I find truly unsatisfying and my online books purchases tend to be known quantities, either books from authors I trust to produce good work or books that have been overwhelmingly recommended to me by friends and colleagues.
Ultimately, I don't know how this is all going to shake out. I am not enough of an insider to see the true lay of the land (the barista who serves Janet Reid her coffee is in more of a position to know the future of publishing than I am) and guessing at it will ultimately just make me seem foolish. I hear all the doom and gloom, but then I heard a lot of doom and gloom about the future of Apple in the 90s, so you can see where I'd be reticent to pay that much heed. After all, books have been around for a very long time, they're an item people are used to (whether they have positive or negative connotations concerning them is another thing altogether), and part of me doubts that they'll so easily give up on the pleasure of holding bound pages in their hands. But I see what's happened to the USPS since the advent of email, which really is an analogous situation, and I reconsider. I guess what I'm mostly trying to say is that I am hopeful that the future of publishing, whether digital or physical, will include a place for the kinds of books I like to read and that a system will somehow develop such that I'm able to stumble into books I love in the same way as I stumbled into Revolutionary Voices when I was a teenager. It's an experience I would hate to lose and one I would hate for others to miss out on.