A World Without Paper

01/13/2011

Since Submishmash allows publishers to read submissions in any format they want, on any computer or handheld device, people often assume that we are true believers in paperless literature. This is a mistaken assumption. Our application is built to reflect our own platform-agnosticism. We have no particular faith in the current course of technological change or in any of the specific products that are daily transforming publishing (with the exception of Submishmash, of course!). We only know that the publishing industry as a whole can’t ignore these changes and products, and we want to give individual publishers, whether they are Luddites or gadget freaks, tools for adapting to the changing landscape.

If you want to read through your slush pile on the subway using your iPad, we make it possible for you to do that. We also make it possible, if you are so inclined, to print out the submissions you receive through our system and read them the way editors always have. We aren’t sure what the ultimate difference between these methods might be, but the question does get us thinking about the potential for paperless literature in general. So indulge us in a little thought experiment.

Right now, as everyone knows, e-books and e-readers threaten to further undermine an already hobbled publishing industry. It looks like Amazon’s goal is plainly to cut the middlemen–publishers–out of the bookselling game entirely. Maybe this effort will succeed, maybe not. But suppose it does. Suppose that Amazon destroys New York publishing and finds itself in possession of a literary industry in which publishers play no role. Readers purchase directly from writers via the magic of…Amazon? What service, exactly, would Amazon be offering customers at this point? A credit-card processing machine? A storehouse of amateur book reviews?

If Amazon ruins current publishers, in other words, it will only point out the need for new ones. Our culture self-evidently needs publishers, but so does Amazon itself. Without curation, publishing is just printing (or posting), and we don’t need Amazon for that, any more than we need Amazon to process credit-card transactions for us. By forcing a move away from paper, and by weakening the corporate publishers, Amazon will have removed many of the barriers separating small publishers from large ones, without diminishing our and its need for publishers.

A world of paperless books is one, as everyone knows, in which little start-up capital is needed and there are no appreciable distribution costs. If capital dictates less and less of a book’s fate on the front end, it seems to us that more pressure will be on the final product to actually be good. Publishers will have little choice but to compete based on vision and taste, and there will be a rush on editorial talent.

Okay, maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But if anything like the above scenario comes about, then the loss of the printed page and the bound book, we think, will have been worth it.