Seabring Davis, a Bozeman writer and editor of the Big Sky Journal and other publications, addressed a crowd of 40 at the Billings Public Library who’d come on Tuesday to hear a presentation called “The Future of the Printed Word in the Age of the Internet.”
“I guess I’ll address the elephant in the room,” she said. “When you figure out what the current state of publishing is, please let me know!”
With the dominant influence of the internet, print publications find themselves in a quandary of how to go about making money to put out a high quality product written by paid professionals. Personally, Davis finds herself as a bystander intrigued by today’s cheaper production of newer magazines and quarterlies – be it online or print – that have an “art house feel” or niche feel to them.
Allen Jones, the founder of Bangtail Press in Bozeman, likened the new phenomenon of easier access to be published to the “democratization” of publishing, a term also used by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, who greatly influenced the easy and free ebooks via the Kindle publishing platform.
By Bezos’ logic, there were no middlemen to stunt creativity. If writers want to get read, now they can easily do so without being looked down upon by the “gate keepers” of literature on the East Coast.
No more countless queries to agents and months of waiting for rejections. It was theorized if you had something you knew readers wanted, now you had as good a chance as anybody to become the next writing sensation.
Jones said that in 2000-2001 ebooks accounted for some 0.01 percent of the book market.
Now that number has risen to 25 percent and will continually rise, although he doesn’t believe their market share will ever eclipse print books.
“There are more books out now than ever before,” said Jones. Because of the competition and money for books being so spread out, he noted about major publishers, “If you’re Random House, that’s not good news. If you’re Bangtail Press or a smaller independent press, that’s good news.”
Regarding the fate of print journalism and the internet, Billings Gazette editor Darrel Ehrlick joked, “Newspapers have seen no real change.”
He said many tend to focus on the death of newspapers with many publications going bankrupt and defunct. Although he admits newspapers have gone through hard times, he calls the fear of newspapers going extinct “greatly exaggerated.”
He optimistically said, “We’ve got a better audience than we’ve ever had. And part of that is being driven by the internet. You can be anywhere in the world, and if you have an app you can access The Billings Gazette or any number of papers. So that’s given us the best audience we’ve ever had and what we want: a wider audience.”
Ehrlick said that the faster internet age has also forced reporters to change the way news is written. “We all say we like change until it happens to us,” he said.
For instance, he said, gone are the days when lengthy articles were the norm.
Now, for better or worse, reporters must immediately get to the point lest they lose the audience’s attention and they move on.
“There are more media outlets than ever vying for your attention now,” Ehrlick said. “That’s made us better writers, and journalists have to become more engaged with the public because we have to ask, ‘OK, what do our readers want, what do they need to captivate their already overactive lives?’”
Acclaimed local author Russell Rowland pointed out the harsh realities of the book publishing world.
“It’s not warm like I thought it was going to be,” he said. “It’s a business, and editors don’t put their arm around you and comfort you about your reviews.”
In spite of the increasing popularity of ebooks, he also can’t imagine printed books going by the wayside. The “democratization” and popularity of free and easy to publish ebooks, however, has led to what Rowland called the “muddying of the waters” for books in general since there’s now a plethora of them flooding the market written by amateur authors.
Be it journalism or writing books, “Just because you have words on the internet doesn’t make you a good writer,” Ehrlick said. “Writing is hard and something that takes practice that you do again and again – that’s no different than playing basketball or playing an instrument. Writing is a personal process – a godlike process – to go and create something from this white screen where there was nothing.”
Rowland notes, however, even though there are a lot of ebooks out there that used to make up what was once the so-called slush pile of the traditional publishing world, “Good books still tend to make money and find an audience. The ultimate goal and dream of a writer is not an ebook, but having a hardback out by a major publisher.”
In spite of how it’s delivered, whether by ebook or in a regular printed book, Rowland said the bottom line of what readers always crave is good writing.
“The novels that speak to people will always be ones that speak from the emotional heart of the human existence,” Rowland said. “That kind of writing will never go away no matter what goes on with all of this other stuff, and it’ll always be hard to accomplish that.”