E-Publishing: A Flash in the Pan?
Feature by Harriet Zaidman.
"Publish or perish" is the phrase that haunts most writers, but it's the publishers who may feel like they're perishing since the invention of the word processor. Writing is now easier for everyone, the good writer and the bad. The world of electronic publishing has created an even greater number of authors whose works can be read by anyone with a modem, anywhere in the world. The possibilities are limitless. An examination of the World Wide Web turns up a whole panoply of types and quality of writing.
Both original and previously published works are found on-line as well as on CD-ROM format. In the category of classics, the surfer can find anything from Shakespeare to the Bible to the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Inputting such heady material is no easy task, but groups like Project Gutenberg have taken it upon themselves to make important works available to the widest audience possible. Their noble goal is to give away one trillion text files by December 31, 2001. The availability of classics on-line is a wonderful way to introduce them to the uninitiated or for the researcher to access information or quotations. But these works are difficult to read from a screen. They are long and require slow, serious attention, and they do not lend themselves to being scrolled quickly. One of the drawbacks of Project Gutenberg is that the screens are slow to download even though the material is divided into chapters. Downloading them to your hard drive may be a long process and use up all your available memory. CD-ROMs come with their own specials needs. The illustrations on the CD-ROM often use up a lot of memory and make the CD operate slowly.
Web browsers can find writings on almost any topic: historic speeches, essays, writings about and from the Holocaust, by Edmund Burke, on various hobbies, home hints, cookbooks, and biographies, etc. North Americans looking for new types of literature can read books from Australia and New Zealand. Many scientific works are published on-line. This is a big advantage in a field that is changing constantly and which thrives on input from the international community. Some of these e-publications offer the user the ability to process data related to the subject matter, calculate models and analyze statistics.
One field of writing that has blossomed on the World Wide Web is children's literature. There are innumerable sites where children and writers for children can self-publish. The stories range from short paragraphs or poems written by the smallest of toddlers and transcribed by their parents, to serious writing efforts by school children. Teachers e-publish their students' works on school home pages or on literature sites. Many adults publish bedtime stories, or stories for each day on the WWW for anyone who chooses to access them. Some writers are now trying to market their writing without having to go through the time consuming process of approaching conventional publishers. The surfer examines an excerpt, and, if he or she wants to read the book, follows instructions for making payment in order to receive a password and be able to retrieve the full text. The quality of writing is generally mediocre. So, is the giant new world of electronic publishing a boon or a bane to mankind? Consider that there is potential in us all and that many great writers' first works were at best mediocre. The act of seeing one's own material e-published may be an inspiration for a writer to study the art of writing and improve his or her work. What is obviously often missing is the editing process, the act of criticism and rewriting to make the written work better. A completed story does not necessarily make a good story, but the solitary process of writing is made even more solitary if the writer is communicating to the world mainly via computer. Few people who are accessing these sites have the time or interest to send the writers critiques of their works. They just zip on to another site. As the use of computers and electronic information transfer has grown, many people have predicted that printed books will become obsolescent. But while electronic publishing has its place, it is doubtful the book will go the way of the dinosaur. Electronic works are interesting to browse - there are discoveries to be made and excellent research that can be done. But it is not pleasurable to read material off a screen, to wait 30 seconds or longer for the next page of a novel to appear. It is annoying to have to scroll back up to check a detail or a a bit of dialogue, or to exit a chapter to click on a previous chapter to reread a passage. Curling up to enjoy a good book is preferable to sitting transfixed in front of a glaring screen and is probably healthier, too. Reading from a computer in bed is possible but not yet that popular. Printing out the text of entire works takes time and is generally considered wasteful.
Electronic publishing is here to stay. It's up to the writers, themselves, to raise the standard of writing through conventional means - writing workshops, analysis and rewriting - that will draw readers to their sites again and again. In the meantime, don't throw out that library card.
Below is only a partial list of sites for those interested in checking out the new world of e-publishing:
Harriet Zaidman is a Winnipeg teacher-librarian.
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Copyright © 1997 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
The Manitoba Library Association
TABLE OF CONTENTS FOR THIS ISSUE - OCTOBER 3, 1997.
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