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Six Selves: Ramifications of a Digital Future
Back from China, and a fascinating visit to the digital publishing conference at Wuhan University. The Lecture.

December 6, 2013 by Paul Levitz

Good morning and thank you for the honor of addressing this gathering. I thank my esteemed hosts, Professor Fang and my friends and colleagues from Pace University, Professors Sherman Raskin and Xiao Chuan Lian.

Allow me to speak to you for a few minutes about a subject that concerns us all, but which provides few certain answers: the impact of the digital revolution on publishing and our lives. If I can’t offer definitive answers, perhaps I can provide some observations from a culture that is at least a minute or two further along in its experience of digital change. For it is important to consider this shift not only in terms of how we sell books, but in terms of how people think.

In the western world, the revolution of movable type and consequent development of widely available books led directly to the Reformation, religious warfare, and more widespread literacy. In the east, perhaps due to the character-based language structure, the effects were less immediate. This new revolution, however, offers no such buffer to you.

I believe that when this transition is done, there will still be a vital role for us as publishers, doing what we have always done: finding creative people, assisting in their development, connecting their work to an audience, and managing the flow of money to finance the projects and reward the creators. Yet on any less abstract level, everything will change, from the definition of the book onward. And neither I nor anyone else can be sure of the results.

There are, however, already significant changes in how people are thinking that can guide us in preparing for these shifts. You may conclude that these phenomena are peculiarly western, and that your culture, deeply steeped in different traditions and philosophies back to Confucius will react differently. If so, the reactions will be as great in other ways.

Let me speak of these in terms of the six selves that are changing.

It begins with self-imagination. From half a world away, I stand in awe of the economic transformation of China in the last 40 years. Yet technology has brought a different, in some ways subtler, transformation to the West. In my childhood, while technology was changing in glorious ways, the changes were on an industrial scale: giant computers, rockets to outer space. In my family’s home, nothing changed.

Young people today have come of age in a time of constant personal technological change. Things that were unthinkable or impossible a decade ago are routine now. While the great science fiction writers of the last generation could look ahead to the geostationary satellite or the personal communicator, it has grown harder and harder to draw a border between the unknown and the impossible.

As a result, young people’s imagination has grown. In the era after Harry Potter, paranormal and ‘magical realism’ exploded to over 70% of young adult publishing, and as that generation aged into adulthood, their tastes have remained imaginative. Themes that were restricted to the then-small audiences for science fiction and fantasy now pervade popular literature, films and television. They are more visually oriented than previous generations, more willing to set mundane reality aside to consider the possibility of the impossible, and more easily bored by what has come before.

But whether a person is primarily interested in the fantastic or the realistic world, the expansion of media channels and availability has allowed them to dive deeply into their interest. Book publishers have long known that there is a potential audience for books on very specific subjects, but that has now been reinforced across a highly fractionalized media. There is a science fiction channel, but also a gardening channel, and diversity is even more extreme on the Internet. Rather than being brought together by common media choices, westerners are increasingly being separated by their personal choices and listen more and more to those media that reinforce their interests. Self-identification, therefore, has become intense.

One young creative friend announced, “I know I care about a brand when I want to tattoo it on me,” a hyperbolic expression of a reality the digital generation share. While relatively few are choosing to tattoo themselves, virtually all are more passionate about their interests and more willing to display them: from a Simpsons toy on a desk in a staid bank, to a Batman t-shirt, to homes displaying statues of Star Trek ships in prominent places, people declare their interests openly, and support them generously. What Americans have called the ‘coffee-table book’ has shifted from lavishly reproducing classical artists’ work to more frequently depicting popular culture, from production designs for movies and video games, even to sports photography.

The depth of these individual interests is facilitated by vast improvements in the potential for self-production. In a single generation, we have reduced the motion picture camera from an expensive, industrial product requiring careful handling and special knowledge, to an inexpensive feature added to the phone in your pocket or the helmet you wear to go riding. I am old enough to have watched people laboriously set cold type, and to have used rubber cement to paste up my first publications. Today’s young people use desktop publishing programs which put design and retouching tools at their fingertips.

One effect of the availability of these tools is a lessening of the barrier between amateur and professional. Self-production gives everyone the potential to see themself as a writer, artist or filmmaker more easily and seemingly more professionally than ever before. The “rules” of our crafts are at best only guidelines in their mind of the young, as they charge ahead with these new tools that are provided to them with little or no training, guidance or restriction.

The ability to produce these works would have little meaning, though, were it not for the fact that we also are in an era of increased self-connection. The means of distribution have been thrown wide open in the western world, and although more carefully monitored and controlled in China, are still more open than before. In the era of youtube, a self-produced piece of video can reach millions. And in America, a piece of fan fiction that debuted on the web can be reshaped into the best-selling “50 Shades of Grey.” Whereas before aspiring creative talent had to go through a series of what we term “gatekeepers” to reach an audience, now they can go directly to their audience. Literary agents, editors, publishers and booksellers can all be bypassed.

The most immediate effect of the weakening of gatekeepers is an overwhelming increase in material being offered to the public, and an equal increase in the difficulty of drawing attention to any single piece of work. While there are many virtues to the near-infinite offerings of new, used and self-published books available on, it is also a bewildering marketplace with thousands of voices clamoring for attention as they hawk their wares. This is a new reality for marketing, requiring new tools and new priorities.

Less obvious, but equally related to the new marketplace is that we are entering a time of self-pricing. For a very long time, the prices of books were set by publishers, based principally on the cost of production of the volume. The demand side of the supply and demand equation had minimal effect on pricing for books, magazines or other forms of entertainment, because the consumer’s choices were principally based on the content, not on the price, as long as it was set in a broadly competitive range. But in the infinite marketplace, there are many offerings that are free in any category, and since there are no marginal costs of production for additional copies, free is actually a sustainable price once the work has been created. And if the work was created—whether brilliantly or not—by amateurs using inexpensive tools of production, there may have been no fixed costs of its creation to be amortized either.

As a result, new pricing models are evolving. The music industry faced this first, with the collapse of the long-standard “album” model of selling recorded music, and the pressure of piracy forcing a retreat to a “per song” pricing model that generated far less profit. The film industry is looking at this now, with the DVD model weakening, and being replaced both by video “on demand” and online. Most telling, I believe, is the increasing presence of “buffet” pricing for “all you can eat” entertainment. This kind of subscription model has already proved successful in music, delivered by companies like SiriusXM or Pandora, in video, delivered by Netflix, and in print publishing of comics, by Marvel. As we negotiate with a generation of consumers who have walked away from the value models that rationalized pricing based on the physical format content was delivered in, and have instead got a deep belief that “content should be free,” we need to revise our models.

Children’s books, in the format of simple interactive digital apps for tablets and smartphones, are already adopting subscription or library models of pricing. It seems a natural evolution for this to move to genre categories where readers devour book after book with little regard for individual authors, like Harlequin romances. Beyond that, will we end up with pricing that offers access to complete libraries for modest monthly fees? Search engines like Google have already made much of the world’s knowledge accessible for free, making some categories of books unprofitable to publish, beginning with the classic encyclopedias like Britannica.

Finally, the result of these changes is the dawning of an era of unprecedented self-expression. In the west, we already have millions more reaching out to share their writing, their photography, their videos. People are attracting audiences for their thoughts as expressed in the simple epigrams of twitter feeds, building loyal customer bases for their art on deviantart or their crafts on etsy, and experiencing the joy of being on the digital stage with a virtual spotlight on them. All of us who have spent our lives in publishing know the joy that sharing your creativity can bring, and now that is spreading like wildfire.

We must find ways to adapt to these changes, and find economically viable ways to continue our roles as publishers in this new digital world. I am confident those roles exist, and that we can continue to find ways to connect creative people to audiences, but like you, I do not know exactly what they will be. I hope that my description of these six changes in how individual selves are acting in this new era is helpful to you in finding the ways your culture may adapt, and I look forward to learning from the answers your wisdom find.

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