“As long as there is a good story, there will be a book,” says Vivienne Roumani, a former librarian and director of the independent movie, Out of Print, which made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York on April 25.
Narrated by Meryl Streep, Out of Print explores — via the film’s participants including late iconic author, Ray Bradbury, president of the Author’s Guild, Scott Turow, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin — whether books, as we know them, are dead and, if they are, questions if it matters in an always-on, digital world. Loren Kleinman sat down with Vivienne Roumani and asked about the inspiration behind her movie, if books are really dead, and if so, what’s next.
Loren Kleinman: Talk about the inspiration behind the movie. Why books? Why now? What’s the film’s thesis?
Vivienne Roumani: I wanted to invite more people to join the discussion. I was struck by the plethora of books and articles predicting the death of the book. Is the book really dying? If so, what did that mean? Secondly, I had been in library management at three major research libraries, and I had been directly involved with digitisation. We librarians were toggling between the two worlds very well — we felt that neither had the full exclusive benefits. Thirdly, and most importantly, I am concerned about our children and their ability or motivation to take the time to engage in deep, long text that leads to independent thinking and true knowledge.
LK: Do you really think “the book is dead”? Or do you mean the means of delivery has changed?
VR: As long as there is a good story there will be a book, although the format may be different from the familiar bound-paper pages. My concern is whether people will read books and other long-form text on whatever format they exist. Anecdotes and statistics are not promising. Anil Dash (New York blogger, entrepreneur and technologist) publicly stated that he reads more on Twitter than to his two-year-old child. I am concerned by the discussions in the interviews about the difficulty that people have concentrating on complex material. I have asked myself numerous times, minimising preconceived ideas, is reading long-form (book-length stories on any format) important? I always end up with the understanding that if the answer is no, society will suffer.
LK: How do you think digital books will affect brick and mortar libraries? What about independent and major bookstores?
VR: We are literally talking about brick and mortar. Books are heavy, and they require stacks strong enough to hold them. Architects used to build stacks as part of the foundation of the library, which is pretty clever. Now libraries are designed as open, lightweight structures, which mean we can never bring books back to the library in the same way. Some libraries and bookstores will close certainly, and others will evolve providing different services. Environment does matter. A tween told me recently that she went to her school library intending to get a book, but all the computers distracted her and, since she could not see any books, she settled for electronics. Kids almost always prefer to read a book in the traditional format. Who is pushing otherwise? For what purpose, for whose good — Qui Bono (whose benefit), asks one of the participants in the film?
It is important, though, to distinguish between digital books and other forms of digital media. The “book” is the content. It may be aesthetically more pleasing to read the text in the old-fashioned format, but the content is what matters. My concern is less the e-book than the impact of other forms of digital material, especially the amount of time that young children spend in front of screens every day on non-textual activities.
LK: I’m a writer. Traditionally published. I just finished my second collection of poetry, and I can’t help to mention that in my quest for publishers I found the following: no longer accepting submissions, only printing e-books, 404/Not Found. What’s left of the publishing industry these days?
VR: We have seen big changes in the music, film, and book publishing worlds. Economic considerations will determine how the publishing industry develops, but the issue is not just electronic publishing. Amazon and “big box” stores were putting pressure on independent bookstores for the sale of printed books before the rise of the e-book. We are in transitional times — perhaps it is the beginning of constant transition, and we have to get used to that. Self-publishing is becoming an option for a small number of writers.
LK: I’m not sure what it means to be a writer in the digital world these days. Do you?
VR: We have seen a glimpse of it: Anyone can publish anything. There is no professional vetting. Was professional editing and publishing over-rated? Not entirely. Professional writers I know tell me it is the end of writing. An accomplished young writer pondering on the issue told me that there is a good reason that he and his colleagues suffer from insomnia these days about the future livelihood of authors.
The rise of social media, like Twitter, has allowed previously under-represented or unknown writers to make their presence known among readership. Is this a good or bad thing? Is there something more promising about traditional routes of exposure through publishing houses and small writer’s/artist’s circles?
It cuts both ways, as such things often do. I ask myself: if I were producing something of great quality, would I want it vetted by professionals who are trained to help me improve my product and for whom this is a serious profession? This is, of course, the argument that is being made by traditional publishers to justify keeping the traditional system. I know writers who feel strongly that the traditional publisher brings a great deal of added value to their work, and I know others who feel strongly that it is best to put things out and let word of mouth and the marketplace decide what is good and what lasts. We are currently running the experiment, and I don’t think that we have experienced the changes for a long enough time to see if one approach will prevail, or if we will keep a hybrid system.
LK: Free and 99 cent books promote “a what the hell, I’ll read it” attitude among readers, too. I know I download books that are free or 99 cents in my genre (poetry) just to get an idea of what’s out there. I have to admit, I’m always surprised. Most of the time the writing is pretty good, well edited, and there’s an audience. I actually feel more empowered: I’m picking what I want to read, and not what publishers tell me what to read. Do you feel that the digital age gives more power to the reader? To the writer?
VR: The writer has more power in the abstract: it is simple to post something on the Internet, whereas it used to be necessary to have access to a printing press or at least a duplication machine. I don’t think that we know yet whether this model is really better for spreading ideas than the old one. The reader has new power to choose from among offerings that are free or inexpensive, but I think that the nature of electronic media makes that power more apparent than real. Just think about your daily interactions with electronic media: your bills, your phone reception, your online shopping experiences, the search algorithms that chose for you what they think you want.
The digital environment tracks what you do, then guides your searches and tells you what to read. This is the case that, if individually one feels that he/she has more power, maybe that’s enough. Having been immersed in technology for decades, straddling equally between the two worlds, I can tell you I rarely feel more empowered and certainly feel more frustrated at times with what seems like false promise. Do I enjoy the power and speed with which I can connect with others and find information? Of course I do.
LK: As a result of the self-publishing craze, do you feel publishers are getting more competitive in terms of what they publish? Are they getting more protective of what they publish? Protective of their traditional publishing philosophy?
VR: I think there are those who have embraced the new, multimedia digital publishing, like Jane Friedman, who is interviewed in the film. She was the CEO of Harper Collins. She is now the CEO and co-founder of Open Road Integrated Media, an electronic publishing company; she had a vision of the future and is helping to shape it. Traditional publishers in recent years have come to look at the bottom line, which often meant that they became less daring. Electronic publishing has less risk, and we see every major publisher becoming involved in some way in electronic publishing. But of course the publishers still want the next Harry Potter.
LK: You’ve included some well-known commentators in the film like Jeffrey Toobin, a journalist with The New Yorker and CNN; Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com; and Meryl Streep, who narrates. How did you get their support? What interest do they have in the movie?
VR: The issues in this film affect everyone, and the people whom we approached were all very gracious with their time. I’ll give you two quotes, from very distinguished people, when I thanked them for participating: one said, “I am happy to help a fellow artistæ, the other, “just so glad to be of help”.
In some cases we were introduced by people whom we knew, in others we simply approached the people directly. Hardly anyone turned down our request for an interview. John Perry Barlow, who is one of the founders of Electronic Frontier Foundation, and once a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, said that he is a “pronoid: somebody with a pathological belief that the universe is a conspiracy on our behalf.” (Yes, he has a way with words.) I think that all of the helpful participants, who gave me their time and thoughts, including Meryl Streep, believe this, as I do. We will find our way.
LK: What do you hope for in terms of interest in the movie from the consumer end? The academic front? And the media?
VR: My greatest hope is that the documentary will continue to inspire discussion cross-generationally and on all levels, as it has done in focus groups. I hope these discussions will help shape direction and policy, and enable us to use the digital world, of which we are so fortunate to be a part, in a most constructive way without giving up the patience and engagement required for the deep critical analysis needed for knowledge rather than data or information gathering.
LK: Complete this sentence:
VR: In 10 years, books will be…”a very secondary aspect of entertainment”… bookstores will be “ very specialised, or retro”, and writer’s should… “insist that society continue to understand the value of readers of all ages, and find a way to reward good stories, which are the bases of our democracy and civilisation.” As Maryanne Wolf says, this type of deep reading is at the base of the very conscience of society.
Loren Kleinman is an American writer and poet. Her collections of poetry include Flamenco Sketches, and In the Heart’s Open Road. She is a columnist for IndieReader.com (IR) and her interviews also appear USA Today and the Huffington Post. This article first appeared in IndieReader.com Visit her at lorenkleinman.com or follow her on Twitter @LorenKleinman. For more information on the film, go to: http://outofprintthemovie.com/