Award-winning author Ayu Utami tells us why publishing firms must evolve to remain relevant in the "industry of ideas".
Award-winning Indonesian author Ayu Utami, Director of the Salihara Literary Biennale, will be discussing how publishing should adapt for the digital era at the upcoming IPA Congress in Bangkok on 24th March 2015. She agreed to set out her position in advance of the event.
I've loved to write ever since I was a child, when I wrote adventure stories. When I was a teen, I wrote my first novel, complete with a cover and illustrations. My aunt, a writer herself, took me to a reputable publishing house, Gramedia. They promised us an answer within 30 days. On the thirtieth day we got a call. Their view: the work isn't ripe, but the child has talent.
Had I been born in this era, I wouldn't have needed to pass through any editorial authority to see my book published. Digital technology enables us to print books in a limited number. While an offset printing house might ask for a minimum print run of a thousand, a digital printer can do it for a hundred. Even if it's a tiny number of copies, we can pet and smell our book—which is lovely.
Now, we have digital books. We may lose the sensation of touching and smelling but we can still read the content. The brightness of the monitor makes it a visual sensation. Digital technology is shaking the pillars of the world of books. Is it also changing the world of reading and writing? Will the change in the physical world bring changes to the world of ideas? Do technological shifts alter the way we think, and—as a consequence—does publishing matter?
If I were a young writer with ambition today, I would have many options apart from going to a traditional publisher. I could print a book with a hundred dollars and promote it for another two hundred dollars. Or, I could publish excerpts in my blog and try to build readers through social media—nearly without cost. Once the hits on my blog skyrocketed, I could bargain with publishers.
The challenge is no longer about access to publishing. Exactly because everybody has the chance to publish, the challenge to the author is how to be heard among the noise. Meanwhile, publishers are acting as if they are sowing seeds in all directions, as many as possible, hoping that varying and unpredictable market needs will absorb the many number of titles, even if sales on each individual title are unspectacular. They are less selective. They hope that the total absorption of various titles will bring them to overall profitability.
We are talking about the business of reading, but most established publishing houses did not begin as completely business-driven enterprises. Many publishers were initially driven by their love of literature or of the world of ideas. I frequently talk with editors in my publisher KPG (which belongs to the Gramedia group), about the direction the business is moving in the future. This company was established by intellectuals and its manager comes from a family of book and language enthusiasts. The publishing house was started with love, but now we have to talk business. How does the relationship between love and business work?
Digital technology is altering many things. We have to switch the way we organize the whole reading business. The biggest anxiety is: when will the era of printed books end? There is a tacit nervousness that the glory of printed books will one day be doomed, just like the fate of celluloid film. We see reputable bookstores close down (Borders) or forced to diversify (Barnes and Nobles [USA], Gramedia [Indonesia]). Many book shops have dropped the "book" from their logo and have started selling other items—gadgets, stationary, music and instruments, merchandise, toys—in growing proportion. Will paper follow where camera film has gone? (In Indonesia, the outlets of Fuji Film became Seven Eleven outlets that combine retail with a cheap place to hang out.) Will the profit structure totally change if books go completely digital, like in the music business? Meanwhile, the publishing business isn't growing comparably with other sectors: digital media overall, or property, or retail.
Ironically, there has been a significant increase in the number of manuscripts received by publishing houses. Established publishers are no longer able to reply to the writers within 30 days as I had experienced. They need months, and some manuscripts risk not being read at all. It seems that the growth of a publishing business doesn't correlate to the supply of content. As people become more and more eager to express themselves in books, the traditional channel for this becomes inadequate. It is like a traffic jam (which unfortunately is a rather normal situation in Indonesia), said my publisher. In this situation, blogs and social media satisfy the desire for self expression.
What does it mean in terms of business? Not every expression can be monetized. Some will remain precious as expressions. Others will stand out and be published as profitable books. A printed book that becomes a byword can find new readers in faraway places through its digital version. Likewise, a digital book that gets a lot of attention can convince a publisher to print it. Merchandise, derivative from a story, may reintroduce the book and attract new readers. We see the various manifestations that are at play ; each can stand in isolation or they can reverberate with one another. There is a potential for echo effect. In the context of Indonesia, a digital book doesn't yet compete with a printed book. Print and digital still act as loudspeakers for each other; mutualism, symbiosis.
Mutualism and symbiosis in one context may not exist in another. Publishing houses and especially printing houses are nervous about what will happen to their business in the future. Some publishers are taking steps to diversify or connect to other fields within the creative sector. The Kompas Gramedia group, which started with newspaper and books and then established the upstream to downstream businesses—newspaper, publisher, magazine, printing, bookshops—is stretching out further: television and a production house ready to film its bestselling novels. A number of smaller publishing houses have started to set up divisions for merchandise and derivative products. Those steps seek to anticipate the dissolving of walls that so far have separated segments of what we now call creative industries. Books are connected, not only to films, but to their digital and non-digital derivatives of any kind. It is no longer enough for publishing business today to think only about books. As books contain ideas, they have to think about how those ideas can reincarnate in other forms (for profit), or how ideas outside a book can support the book. Whether the publishers choose to diversify or partner is a matter of choice.
What about the authors?
An author can take a traditional position: she can care about language, she can protect literature so it is not subjugated to political interest or commercialization. That is a valuable choice. She can maintain her laboratory or glasshouse, where art is for art's sake, where idea is equal to form and form to idea. But an author can also see herself as an agent of ideas within society. The ideas that she brings transcend forms. Ideas can be assembled into forms or carried by forms, but are not the form itself. The author is interested in spreading her ideas. Here, there is a meeting point between the author and the publisher. Both have an interest in the distribution of books and the number of copies sold.
Books, like films, contain mostly narrative. But particles of idea within a book can be replicated or assembled in new forms, like merchandise, toys, games, icons, and others. Here, I find Dawkins' concept of meme very helpful. Meme is gene at the cultural level. If gene is in the physical realm, meme is in the conceptual world. It is a particle of idea that can replicate itself, assemble, or mutate. I imagine that a book contains psychological-rational chromosomes that are constructed from bits of meme that are able to self-replicate endlessly. Its success in replicating itself probably relates to the compactness of the structure. An idea with a compact interior structure and a simple exterior form will likely replicate faster than one which is loose and amorphous.
An author who assumes the role of the bearer of ideas runs the risk of becoming too programmatic. She can lose her poetic spontaneity and genuineness, turning into an ideolog or a barker that cares only about the effect of propaganda or, worse, the rating system. That is not good for the quality of literature. However, if the author is aware of this she can try to avoid it, this choice can save her from the alienation that is happening as we change eras.
The changing of an era reveals that various seemingly contradictory phenomena are occurring concurrently. On one hand, some readers are hungry for mass amounts of reading materials and will happily swallow a thousand pages. On the other hand, we hear more complaints about a young generation who are less able to concentrate on a long text; they are so used to images, short messages, twitter, instagram, myspace and online news that cuts articles to fit mobile screens. Is there a change of direction? Are people getting more visual and less linear?
I would say that there is nothing new here, in essence. Research has told us that there is a left brain and a right brain, a linear and a visual way of thinking, differentiating the capacity, faculties, and tendencies of an individual brain. Societies are made up of individuals. What we see now could be the result of manifestations of different capacities that are made possible by technology. What is happening is not an alteration, but rather an augmentation.
The survival of old technologies
A new technology often completely substitutes the old one, but not always. A number of ancient technologies still survive. Language is one of the first ancient technologies. Language organizes a consciousness which is unstable like clouds—to use Saussure's words—with a sign system that makes possible a common deposit and exchange of ideas and memories. When people were still living in oral traditions, traditional rhymes like pantun in Indonesia were an effective technique to transfer ideas. There, ideas were packed within short verses, equipped with prosody to make memorizing easier. Later on, people developed writing, enabling them to follow or repeat ideas in the form of long discourse. Writing makes possible registration beyond an individual's capacity to memorize, making way for a new organization of ideas. Not everybody has been able to read and write, so we have made visual narrative since ancient times; cave paintings, temple reliefs, and later films. Now, with new technologies we can combine all forms. Some of the traditional forms survived. Some become nostalgia, like rhyme; it is loved but it is no longer needed. In the visual era, images cannot completely replace discourse.
The author with the ancient form. Its technology is very basic, which is language, especially in the form of narrative discourse. As mentioned earlier, an author can choose to stay in the laboratory or glasshouse, making experiments and nurturing forms as ideas. He does not occupy himself with the possibility of manifesting ideas in forms other than poetry or prose. However, every published idea will, theoretically, be set free from its author. The idea becomes a meme, to be replicated and assembled and to take new forms. An author who chooses the role of the idea bearer will be open to these possibilities. (To be open does not necessarily mean to eager for. And the choice between "staying in the laboratory" and "becoming the bearer of ideas" is not an either/or choice.)
Back to the original question: does publishing matter? Yes of course, but with qualifications. Technology will continue progressing. There will always be new forms and new modes. An author who takes the role of the bearer of ideas will see possibilities. He probably prefers to stay in his room, nurturing prose and poetry, but his ideas are roaming out there, ready to be reassembled into different forms. He can take part in the reassembling if he wants, or he can let other parties take it over. Publishing is one important form, but not the only form.
Likewise, a publishing house that closes itself within the boundary of book publication, whether printed or paperless, will see itself munching on an ever smaller piece of the creative industries cake. But if it is able to see itself as part of, or connected to the whole 'industry of ideas', it will see opportunities. Publishing may not grow as fast as before, may not develop at the same pace as other business segments; it is only a part of the industries of ideas. Take care, these industries are growing fast. What need to be done is to tear down the blocking walls while recognising the areas of each specialization.
At a philosophical level, this phenomena shows that idea is non-identical to form. There is idea that transcends the form, which can reincarnate into many forms. Idea of this kind has the character of being open and replicable, but that is a discussion better elaborated elsewhere.
Let us go back to the previous paragraph. If we succeed in demolishing the walls, there is still danger lurking, even if we know the area of each specialization. The danger is related to a matter mentioned earlier: the relation between love and business. The love of reading has given birth to the publishing business. The love of the world of ideas has given life to the industries of ideas. Beware. As the Greek story Oedipus or East Java's legend Sangkuriang warn, a child can kill its father (or wed its mother).
If the business has completely subordinated this love, the world will slowly lose its soul. The industries of ideas have to be aware that they need many laboratories, glasshouses, springs and loving parents between whom love is nurtured as it was between those who gave birth to them. Commodification should only happen downstream, not at the spring. And the author: a big part of him belongs to that upstream, except when he has decided to become completely commercially driven. Authors bear the soul of the industry. The soul is the ideas. The perennial question is, who will take care of the sources and how?
The importance of ideas
In running publishing activities we face various challenges, from the problems of copyright, piracy and technological change to the possibility of extinction. But it's most important to know that we are serving the life of ideas. Ideas are becoming more and more consequential in this era. The world is no longer shaped by geography or nationality, but by ideas. Digital and information technology has demolished the traditional boundaries of states, geography and nationalities. Google translate—even though far from perfect, we see it progressing amazingly—has started to demolish the language barrier. The collapse of old walls enables new associations. Those new bonds are formed by ideas, which in turn establish movements and institutions which reshape the world. Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist and now a candidate for the UK parliament, provides a good example: the global terrorism organization has produced a new network with tremendous impact; and it is transnational and transgeographical, shaped by ideas and narratives that spread very fast through channels provided by information technology. Ideas are shaping the world.
Unfortunately, global terrorism is a terrible example of the destruction, rather than the recreation, of the world. Meanwhile, we are a congregation of people who work in the publishing industries (specifically), and in the industries of ideas (generally). This industry may have started from a very simple thing : a child who loves stories and who wants to create her own stories. There are billions of children who, like me, try to create stories. When we create a story, we create the world. We need to realize that the whole industry plays a big role in giving birth to, nurturing and spreading ideas. Our ideas will shape our world.