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How to Save Books from Extinction

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Last week the publishing world was shaken by word of layoffs and reorganization inside some of the top publishing houses. While the written word is still a mainstay in our culture, we're finding new ways, outside of books, to gather our information more efficiently. Some attribute the effective destruction of the publishing industry to the Internet's growth and popularity.

Rather than allow books to become a casualty of the digital age, publishers are trying to find new ways to market books. For small, independent publishers, who were already grappling with survival against larger and more prominent competitors, things might seem bleaker than ever. At the 21st annual Indie and Small Press Book Fair on Sunday, writers, publishers and designers for independent publishing houses participated on a panel prognosticating about the future of books.

There are those writers who have always believed that the smaller publishing houses provide a better opportunity - despite less lucrative contracts - because of their intimacy and genuine desire to produce the books they've chosen to publish. Free from having to be driven by sales numbers, these publishers have long emphasized the creativity, art and aesthetic value of books. So rather than perceive the Internet as a threat to their craft, many of the smaller publishing houses have embraced new media and technology as opening up new possibilities and fervent discussion about the different ways we read.

For instance, some Web sites now offer full texts of books online and request that readers chime in to the ongoing conversation, a virtual book club in the margins of the pages. Other sites now offer you a virtual preview of sections of the book, along with pages where Web users can play around with digital elements that relate to aspects of the story. And writers are also beginning to ask readers to respond to their works via correspondence, one writer even leaving the end of his book blank and open-ended in hopes that readers would submit original sections to complete the book as they wish it to end.

All of these examples are being treated as experiments since nobody, including the writers and publishers who conceived the ideas, knows whether they will succeed or help enable the book industry to stay afloat. No matter the results that come out of these experiments, small-time publishers know they're making the effort to bridge the gap between old print and new media.

For those who wish to philosophize about the role of the books in our society, there's also plenty reason to worry. One publisher, who comes from a background in film, mentioned that books demonstrate an interaction between form and content. It's a relationship that's been there since the first books were published, and something that publishers consider. The size, the spacing, the font, the cover artwork are all aesthetic decisions that affect how you select and read a book.

In this era where we're getting more of our news and information online, it begs the question of whether Americans appreciate the artistic side to books. These small publishing houses have been fighting this battle for many years, forced to market their books a bit differently in the face of the bigger publishers. After news of the publishing world's decline, the more well-known publishers may wind up having to borrow a page from their smaller counterparts.

I agree with one of the panelists who suggested that the first step toward revitalizing the book industry is through redefining the role of the author. Traditionally, once a book is released, the writer will do interviews and book readings to help promote the book. These provide access to the author. But part of our overall shift to the digital world has included a burgeoning appetite for increased access, to see what we've never seen before. The mainstream music industry, for one, now gives us unreleased tracks, film from the studio, uncensored material, raw cuts, handwritten lyrics with edit markings and more. The same could be true someday for books.

Hearing a writer speak about a full body of work after it's finished, you might walk away without a full understanding of the process that went into the book. But catch a glimpse of the rough drafts, notes from the publishers, hand-written notes, and scrapped material, you'll see the writer's frustrations and the triumphs up close. This is all material that would otherwise be either thrown away or filed away, never to be looked at again. If we truly wish to see the author as an artist, this material becomes an essential component of the craft.