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September 2012

Our Gutenberg Moment

This blog is all about the Gutenberg moment that many (like me) believe we’re in the middle of. This “point in time that dramatically changes the way we read and publish, much like the day Johannes Gutenberg rebuilt a Rhine Valley wine press in the mid fifteenth century to bring moveable type to the west.” (Thanks to Meanland.com for that concise summary.)

How is this technological moment changing the way we create and consume fiction?

One refrain we’ve been hearing for a while, and will continue to hear, is that “Literary fiction is dead.” Or gasping for its last breath. Or at least on life support. Source of trauma? Kindles, say the doom-sayers. They blame self-publishing, too. You don’t see much literary fiction in the Top 100 of the Kindle Store, or in the self-publishing success stories.

But David Gaughran, in a recent piece in the HuffPo, says it's a mistake to assume that things will always be this way, or that literary fiction will continue to suffer in a digital world.

“Literary fiction has never been the biggest seller and has always been dwarfed by romances or thrillers. However, even if literary fiction is doing relatively worse in e-book form than in print, I still don't think that's any reason for dismay."

"There is nothing special about literary fiction readers - they are switching to e-books, and will do so in greater numbers - they just started a little after the romance, thriller, and science-fiction readers. They are coming through, though, and there are enough of them there to push a backlist book by Iris Murdoch up to #5 in the Kindle Store at the start of August.”

Gaughran makes the point that digital media frees literary writers from the constraining economics of print. Writers are no longer restricted to an ever-decreasing market for short stories and novellas. No more the days of that single, against-all-odds chance at publication in The New Yorker—or nothing. And writers, influenced by TV, are experimenting with different forms like serialized pieces, which may be gaining traction.

Many classics are now available at low or free prices, thanks to digital, but that doesn't mean they're being ousted from the canon. Classics have been made available for a lot longer than digital. Gaughran reminds us that “libraries have been providing free books for generations, and that hasn't demeaned books or literature in the eyes of readers.”

So even if digital eventually becomes the form of choice for books, and even if the physical bookstore goes the way of the Blockbuster Video, literary fiction will continue to flourish.