Blurring boundaries, artificial walls: A discussion on digital versus print

IMAG0016-2

On Friday night I attended a discussion panel on “print or digital: literature finds its way”. It was put on by Ocelot, the Berlin-based bookstore which recently celebrated its first birthday and (re)launch of its brand new, customizable online shop, in cooperation with the neighboring Phillip Schaefer library for the Lange Nacht der Bibliotheken.

For the Print or Digital discussion, three author/publishers represented print (Hendrik Rohlf from diaphanes, Markus Feldenkirchenn from KEIN&ABER, Peter Graf from Metrolit Verlag) while the other two participants – Nikola Richter (mikrotext) and Wolfgang Farkas (shelff) – spoke from a perspective of e-publishing. Although nearly all participants represented an indie publisher, the moderator more or less divided them into two camps – and two sides of the stage – to discuss the pros and cons of digital publishing, reading and the changing meaning of the book as an object. It was a shame that the moderator wanted to turn it into a debate at all, since it would have been much more interesting to let each indie publisher talk about what they are up to in e-publishing. Instead, only Nikola Richter (Mikotext founder) and Farkas (Shelff Cofounder) really touched on how focusing on digital changes the process of publishing and marketing books.*

Wolfgang Farkas (Shelff), who also founded the German independent press Blumenbar in 2002, was surprised how freeing it is to be an e-only press. It reminds him of the living room literary salon evenings he and his colleagues had when they were starting Blumenbar. Digital publishing enables editors to “return to a fresh, direct way to produce books”, says Farkas.

Nikola Richter of Mikrotext agrees. Richter, who is herself a blogger and published author, explains that she publishes with the author’s perspective in mind. It’s also freeing to have a much quicker turnaround with ebooks, which can be produced in a matter of weeks or months. In addition, a lot of the German ebook presses are focusing on shorter, hybrid forms of literature (some of which I outlined in this post). In this sense, Richter considers that Mikrotext is publishing the short form prose that may have otherwise never been published – at least not in book form.

Whereas the defenders of print regressed into platitudes about what constitutes a “real book” and scoffed at the low number of ebook sales in Germany, the ebook publishers weren’t afraid to admit that they’re on unfamiliar ground. Farkas explained that his initiative Shelff had a longer incubation phase because “at first we didn’t really know exactly what ‘digital publishing’ meant”, or all the possibilities that e-publishing opens up.

For Richter the answer is the ability to leverage the online presence of her author,s who write by and large online, such as Jan Kuhlbrot, whose prose pieces incorporate the input of his blog readers, or the Syrian writer Aboud Saeed, whose ebook (The Smartest Guy on Facebook) consists of a series of Facebook status updates. By making the most of these authors’ already existing readership, Mikrotext’s books can have a far reach based on word of mouth alone. Saeed’s book will now be the first Mikrotext to be transformed from pixels to pages, since the press will be releasing it as a print book. In digital form, “these books have already found a readership,” says Richter; once they’ve proven their worth, it’s only natural that they will likewise reach readers in print.

In short, although this was by no means a proper debate, from my perspective the e-only presses nailed some of the key advantages of digital. They are excited about the flexibility of publishing both short and long formats, fast turnarounds and reaching readers in a variety of places. And whatever the future holds for digital reading in Germany, these initiatives have the advantage of being small, with little overhead, low production costs and of course no physical storage costs. Assuming they find their readers, these e-only start-ups could very well be the trailblazers in a much bigger movement to publish more off-the-beaten-path literature digitally. At least a reader can dream …

*aside: I really hate to neglect discussing the incredibly cool Metrolit, Kein & Aber and diaphenes publishers in this piece, since each has a very interesting focus; Metrolit on cosmopolitan culture and history, also in literature and illustration; Kein & Aber produces books, ebooks and CDs; and diaphenes, which puts out a number of books on literature, art, philosophy, essays and more, including a series of “eTexts” – individual articles which the press sells or offers for free as open access.