Each year, more and more writers who appear at San Francisco’s annual Litquake literary festival present their work by reading it from a laptop, tablet or phone.
People will always fetishize physical printed books as objects. Words and literature will always remain vital to our cultural conversation. But what matters less, increasingly, is the method of delivery.
Ironically enough, in 1999, the Bay Area tech boom provided the impetus for myself and a small group of writers to launch a literary festival. Readers who were around at that time will remember the myriad of billboards advertising Pets.com, Beenz.com and, my favorite, the allergy medicine website Gazoontite.com.
We were writers, but felt our city was no longer paying attention to books and literature. I met a young woman at a party who told me that she was a writer, and when I asked what sort of things she wrote, she replied, “Well, right now I write for Pampers.com.”
To us, it was imperative to launch our own startup, a one-day, all-analog series of literary readings in Golden Gate Park.
Fifteen years later, the Litquake festival is thriving, and has also launched a digital publishing conference that wholeheartedly embraces the Bay Area’s unique tech-startup culture. We now find ourselves working with many word-centric tech platforms, including Yelp, Twitter, Scribd, Medium and Smashwords. Today, digital companies are our literary partners, helping push the boundaries of how people write, how they read and, most importantly, how they can publish their own work and reach readers outside of a traditional publishing model.
Ideas come fast and furious in this playing field of new publishing. Who will come up with the killer concept? Will it be Inkshares, which allows readers to click and contribute donations to writers as they scroll through their work? Or perhaps Booktrack, which allows writers to customize audio soundtracks for their readers? Will e-publishing eventually be subscription-based, like Oyster and Rooster? Or will the elephant in the room, Amazon’s CreateSpace, persevere and become the sole industry standard?
As a medium of expression, the written word dates back thousands of years. Today, we live in a time when a startup based around a handful of laptops may have the potential to significantly redefine how ideas and stories are communicated.
What’s most exciting about this moment in time is that nobody knows what the future holds. Many think that they do, but as we’ve seen so often, certain tech ideas will capture the imagination of the public, and others will quietly fade away, or be absorbed into other companies.
What is most evident, and what e-publishers have been hinting at for years, is that we’ve entered another golden era for writers. As with Benjamin Franklin owning a printing press, or poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti launching an imprint to publish the Beats, or Reagan-era punk-rock kids stealing Xerox time to produce zines, the power is back in the hands of the creator.
One might even venture to say that in this golden era, the culture is awash in e-books. Questions remain about discoverability and proper compensation for authors. But then again, these concerns have always existed with traditional publishing.
What is already proven is that human beings enjoy the convenience of reading from a screen as well as a printed page. And as the publishing industry realigns itself for the future, I’m just happy that we are still reading and writing. Because without the language of storytelling, it would be a sad and ignorant world.
digi.lit, Litquake’s Digital Publishing Conference, takes place June 21 at the University of California Hastings College of Law, 200 McAllister Street, San Francisco, Calif. Conference tracks begin at 8:30 am and run until 5:15 pm, followed by a reception. Admission is $225, which includes lunch, coffee and wine reception. Register here.
Jack Boulware is co-founder and executive director of San Francisco’s annual Litquake literary festival, including its digi.lit publishing conference and affiliated Lit Crawls in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Seattle, Los Angeles, Iowa City, Miami, London, Helsinki and Austin. He is author/co-author of three nonfiction books, including the definitive oral history of Bay Area punk, “Gimme Something Better.” Reach him @jackboulware or @Litquake.