The Democratization of Writing and Publishing: Access for All?

So where exactly is the digital revolution taking writing and the publishing industry?

The new issue of The Futurist magazine (July-August 2008) contains the article “The 21st Century Writer” which yet again has me trying to visualize where the publishing industry is headed. In the article, author Patrick Tucker — director of communications for the World Future Society — succinctly summarizes the turning point at which the industry currently finds itself:

“We’re entering an era where the acts of thinking, writing, and to a certain extent publishing are indistinguishable, and where charging money for editorial content is becoming an ever trickier proposition.”*

I remember a college English teacher of mine back in the early 1980s who asserted that the word processor** made it possible for anyone, regardless of skill, to become an author. In retrospect, there is some truth in that claim, and this democratization process now extends beyond the role of the author. Information technology has lowered the entry barrier nearly to zero for almost every role in the process of creating and publishing a book. 

Anyone with a computer now can take a try at writing the Great American Novel. With increasingly inexpensive desktop publishing and graphic design software, it’s become possible for everyone to take their written words and lay them out into something resembling a finished book. And thanks to the rise of print-on-demand technology, a number of third-party services will take that book and print as many copies as the author wants (and can pay for). Or if the author decides to distribute his or her work electronically, it is simply saved as a PDF and the cost of printing is completely eliminated.

You’ll notice that nowhere in the process I just described is there mention of editors or editing. Although there are options for self-published authors to purchase editorial services for their writing, such editing is frequently seen as an optional expense that can be foregone (confirming my college English teacher’s worst fears).

As with most things, however, there is a positive side to these increased options for publishing. For example, self-publishing represents a much needed alternative for writers whose subject matter falls outside of the publishing industry’s narrow definitions for commercially viable content. Books that previously were consider by publishers as “not commercial enough” or “too controversial” are no longer completely blocked from publication. The author now has the option of pushing forward, self-publishing the book and seeking out the audience for that book.

There are a number of other topics that Tucker’s article in The Futurist raises — too many to cover in a single posting — so today I’ve focused exclusively on issues associated with the democratization of writing and publishing. What are your thoughts about the impact of digital technology on our roles as writers, publishers and even readers? Are we approaching some sort of postliteracy where writing has been reduced to the lowest common denominator? Or are we about to experience an explosion of ideas arising from the many voices that previously were classified as “unpublishable” in book format?


*An electronic version of Patrick Tucker’s article “The 21st Century Writer” is available on the World Future Society website.

**Isn’t it interesting how quaint the term “word processor” now sounds?

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