Time has an interesting article on the state of publishing in the 21st century. Technology has made publishing on the web and print-on-demand services accessible to people wanting to be authors. The landscape of publishing is now faced with very, very different challenges than say, a monk losing feeling on his right arm and the dog running away with the quill.
Just how different?
"Four of the five best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 belonged to an entirely new literary form called keitai shosetsu: novels written, and read, on cell phones. Compared with the time and cost of replicating a digital file and shipping it around the world--i.e., zero and nothing--printing books on paper feels a little Paleolithic...Those cell-phone novels are generally written by amateurs and posted on free community websites, by the hundreds of thousands, with no expectation of payment. For the first time in modern history, novels are becoming detached from dollars. They're circulating outside the economy that spawned them."
I wonder what sort of stories are in those novels, and more importantly, how much of it is mind-boggling perversity that only Japan seems to be capable of?
In other parts of the world, cell-phone novels haven't caught on yet. In the U.S. they have something else: fan fiction, "fan-written stories based on fictional worlds and characters borrowed from popular culture--Star Trek, Jane Austen, Twilight, you name it. There's a staggering amount of it online, enough to qualify it as a literary form in its own right. Fanfiction.net hosts 386,490 short stories, novels and novellas in its Harry Potter section alone."
But the question is: How much of the self-published stuff out there is garbage? Surely, one can only read so much Harry and Ron couplings. Imagine a world where all the books are reimaginings of the doomed Bella and Edward-look-at-me-I'm-sparkly-Cullen. If everyone with a computer and an internet connection could publish his own book, what would the library shelves look like?
Lev Grossman gives us a glimpse of reading in the future: "Like fan fiction, it will be ravenously referential and intertextual in ways that will strain copyright law to the breaking point. Novels will get longer--electronic books aren't bound by physical constraints--and they'll be patchable and updatable, like software. We'll see more novels doled out episodically, on the model of TV series or, for that matter, the serial novels of the 19th century. We can expect a literary culture of pleasure and immediate gratification. Reading on a screen speeds you up: you don't linger on the language; you just click through. We'll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life."
There is hope yet. Vanity publishing used to be frowned upon, a sure sign that one is a talentless writer no publisher wanted to risk on. But things do change. A case in point would be Chrisopher Paolini, who published his own dragon tales before being picked up by a major imprint. With content showing up in blogs, websites and publish-on-demand services, publishers have a new role to play. Whereas before they act as gatekeepers, filtering literature so that only the best writing gets into print, they now scout the blogs and self-published titles and offer the most popular a contract to bring them under their own imprint. Publishing in the days of Web 2.0 has become a very Darwinian process.