Will E-Books Really Bring Back Dickensian Lit? I Sorta Hope So

Time Magazine's Lev Grossman has done what a swarm of New York PR people could not — he's made me sort of optimistic about the future of publishing. Sort of.

Grossman points out all the usual reasons the publishing industry is somewhat doomed-looking, from the waves of layoffs to the unsustainable model based on high advances and massive returns. And then he talks about the rise of e-books, web fiction, POD, self-publishing and other models, and concludes that we'll be seeing

more books, written and read by more people, often for little or no money, circulating in a wild diversity of forms, both physical and electronic, far outside the charmed circle of New York City's entrenched publishing culture. Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.

In some ways, it's a scary thought — it'll be harder for authors to make a real living, for one thing. The jackpot of a big-money publishing deal will get even harder than ever to score. But in other ways? It sounds kind of great.

The novels of the future will be longer and designed to be read more quickly, on a screen or e-book reader, says Grossman. They'll be full of little references and fanfic-esque borrowings that will strain copyright law, and they may be patchable and updatable as the author revises. They'll probably be serialized, and may involve more of a conversation between author and reader, if the author's still writing the book while the readers are reading earlier chapters. Goodbye New York editors, hello online beta readers. Etc. Above all, novels may get trashier and more geared towards hooking readers and holding onto them for dear life.

As Grossman himself says, it will probably lead to mountains of drek. But it could also generate some really fascinating experiments, and some fun reads. And maybe it'll actually bring back the awesome Dickensian model of serialized popular fiction, which may have been the novel's high point. Here's hoping! [Time]