Publishers have long commandeered respect for the quality of their work. Traditional processes may be cumbersome, reliant as they are on an infinity of minute, specialised steps, but they have helped maintain consistently high standards, at ever-lower prices. Authors may sometimes hold fantastic positions, but publishers have largely upheld their part of the bargain: giving them a clear, intelligible voice.
Thus, today still, we feel safe in the knowledge that what we are reading in a published book cannot, must not, be utter rubbish. We expect words that are properly spelled and a text that is properly structured. We also expect a minimal amount of fact-checking and clear labels to help us distinguish fiction from reportage.
The transition to digital books has greatly improved our industry’s efficiency. Pages can be laid out automatically, spelling and grammar can, in part, be entrusted to robots, and the editing process is greatly lubricated by the magic of word processing.
Publishers focusing on speed need barely touch a document before it is packaged and sold. In fact, companies are now working on algorithmically producing content that could be created, edited and sold by machines.
In parallel, the very tools that facilitate the life of professional publishers have enabled independent entities to produce professional-looking tomes and reach global audiences with no external oversight whatsoever.
Technical constraints alone do not guarantee quality but they provide strong incentives: producing something costly and time-consuming only makes sense if the resulting product stands a chance to sell reasonably well. Professional eyes are fallible but will, given sufficient time, catch the most egregious errors.
Naturally, standards for the book have begun dropping. Reputable digital booksellers often peddle second-rate editions of nonsense, scraped wikis and public domain texts. Even well-known houses tend to recycle material on the cheap, transforming a great print edition into a mis-hyphenated, poorly typeset mess they would never dare ship to booksellers.
It is time for the industry to agree on maintaining certain standards.
We cannot, and must not, prevent the book from changing. We also must encourage self-expression: the solution does not lie in committees, censorship or a restriction of self-publishing. It lies on mutual agreement, gentle self-policing and better labeling of online content, modeled on traditional imprints and series.
We must stop treating every work as a bona fide book. Works can be published or self-published as articles or whitepapers, on weblogs and websites. Ideas can be expounded on forums and mailing lists. These are valid, public platforms that fit into our cultural landscape. They are ideally suited to works of a certain length, tone and structure, works that cannot — and should not — be packaged as books.
Being published in book form should remain a privilege — a privilege earned on merit, not money or connections. The transition to digital empowers us to implement and self-regulate such a vision of giving everybody a voice while helping the best stand out. We should grasp this one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.