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Is Paperback Extinction Looming? Reading and Writing in the Transition Era

If books in traditional book form die, it's not the end of the world

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     The scientific community literally can not function without publishing. Doing science means getting it out to other scientists, so knowledge can be reviewed, challenged, built on, recorded... Scientific publishing is a specialized niche, with contradictory impulses. Science can't be done without the free exchange of information - but control of that information determines priority, credit, and standing. That free exchange still has to be paid for some how. The current system  is not pretty.

     Scientists have to work really hard at submitting papers for publication. There's the question of finding a journal that will be receptive to the work, one rated high enough to make the effort worth it. Then there's getting it past peer review (typically three other researchers in the same field, one of whom will like it, one who may not really understand it, and one who hates with a passion the underlying principles of the work. There's also the problem of reviewers using that advance look at a paper to 'enhance' their own work.) There's writing and re-writing. There's the long wait to get it into print - during which the scientist can't talk about the work to anyone. And they have to hope no other journal runs a paper by someone else on the same discoveries while they wait for their paper to appear...

     After publication, the author's control over the publication is limited - as is access by others unless they have a subscription to the journal, or are willing to pay for every article they want/need to read. Considering that science papers generally have list of all the papers referred to in the publication, and the researcher needs to have copies of those papers in turn... Well it all adds up. A number of scientists are not happy with this situation, and are taking steps to change it to an  open access model. It's still developing, and there are several variants out there.

   But, as with traditional dead tree newspapers, print media savvyness is no longer sufficient to communicate. Some things simply can't be reduced to printed words on a page, like this time-lapse movie of star formation from years of HST photos. (After you watch a commercial first!)  New Scientist routinely features science videos on its website.  The Scientist is doing what it can to encourage scientists to  spiff up their communications with the  information tech now available. And why shouldn't they? The science print publications have been moving to the internet for some time now.

      • Position Report

   So, where does all this leave us now? The decline of the mass market paperback is occurring as a plethora of new ways ways come into use to let authors create works, find an audience, and broaden the experience beyond words on a page. Is this a good thing? How many new readers will there be in the future, when the threshold to readership entry is obtaining a device of some kind? What kind of barriers to entry will there be for novice authors - and how will they get started? Will traditional publishing houses be able to keep a secure foothold in the dead tree world while expanding into the e-world? Yes/No/Maybe - take your pick.

       There's a broader spectrum of opportunity here; a wider range of economic niches to seek and occupy. There are plenty of amateurs, creating for just the pleasure of the experience, sharing their works freely. There's the equivalent of freelancers, going it largely alone at whatever level of profit/loss they're willing to tolerate/surmount. There are new mechanisms of support, web-based services and such, online merchandising, online communities. There are still the more traditional artists, working with publishers offering editors to nurture new talent, publicity, financial advances, etc. It all overlaps, competes, and otherwise concatenates in ways that are still evolving. You can't beat  Sturgeon's Law, but if there's a large enough pool of talent at work, that 10% can add up to quite a bit - especially as people each have their own criteria for sifting out that 10%.

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