Define “Future”

First, I hope all of my readers in the United States had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I really needed a break myself, so I took last week off from blogging in order to recharge.  Second, I want to thank everyone for the amazing response to my previous post, on e-reading and indie bookstores.  I haven’t had a post receive that much attention in a while.  All the the feedback just goes to show how urgent the situation is.

On to matters at hand: the release of the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.  I don’t know if you’ve been following the story, but in case you haven’t, the New York Times ran a solid piece about a month ago on the marketing campaign surrounding the volume’s release.  It’s quite a blitz, and not cheap.  The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, shelled out $300,000 to promote AHD5.  The volume retails for US$60, so the publisher will need to sell 5,000 copies just to cover the marketing, and I’d guess at least double that to cover production and distribution costs.


But even more interesting to me than the marketing is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to produce both physical and electronic editions of the AHD5.  At a time when we hear over and over again about how the future is digital — and the future is now! — the publisher has decided to take a hybrid approach.  It has released AHD5 in four different formats: a print volume; an e-book; a website; and an app.  The latter three are digital, admittedly, although the disproportion is probably a function of the proliferation of electronic platforms.

The AHD5 e-book is completely overpriced at $60, although I say that not having perused it to see its features, if any.  The app doesn’t come cheap, either, at $24.99, although you get it for free if you buy the print edition.  It’s intriguing to think about how different media can affect the perceived value of language.

The publisher’s decision to offer AHD5 in multiple formats was partly a pragmatic decision, no doubt.  These are transitional times for books and other forms print media, and no one can say for sure what the future will hold (unless you’re Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos).  But the decision was, from a historico-theoretical standpoint, unusually well thought-out, too.

Protracted periods of change — and the uncertainties that surround them — beget intense forms of partisanship, something’s that’s all too apparent right now in book culture.  You might call it, “format fundamentalism.”  On the one hand, we have those who believe print is the richest, most authentic and enduring medium of human expression.  At the opposite extreme are the digital denizens who see print media as a little more than a quaint holdover from late-medieval times.  There are many people who fall in between, of course, if not in theory then most definitely in practice, but in any case the compulsion to pick a side is a strong one.

The problem with format fundamentalism is that print and electronic media both have their strengths and weaknesses.  More to the point, the weaknesses of the one are often compensated for by the strengths of the other, such that we end up with a more robust media sphere when the two are encouraged to co-exist rather than pitted against one another.

So let’s return to the example of AHD5.  Print-on-paper dictionaries are cumbersome — something that’s also true, to greater and lesser degrees, of most such books.  And in this regard, apps and other types of e-editions provide welcome relief when it comes to the challenges of storing dictionaries and other weighty tomes.  And yet, there’s something to be said for the shear preponderance of physical books, to which their capacity to endure is surely related.  The same cannot quite be said of digital editions, hundreds and even thousands of which can be stuffed into a single Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or Apple iPad.  The endurance of these books depends significantly on the longevity and goodwill of corporate custodians for whom preservation is a mandate only as long as it remains profitable.

I could go on, but these are issues I address at length in the preface to the paperback edition of Late Age.  The point is, it’s more useful to think about print and electronic media not as contrary but as complementary, in fact we need to begin developing policies and legislation to create a media sphere balanced around this principle.

But until then, hat’s off to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing an excellent model for how to proceed.


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