When We Dream About the Future: Digital Ambiguity in 2020

Greetings from the Digital Department here at Ooligan Press. First, a quick query for our more CMOS-centric students and readers. Even before I was given the role of Digital Assistant last winter term, I pondered the correct verbiage for our department. I’ve overheard others call it the Digital “Asset” or “Content” department and feel I must clear things up. “Content,” as a (contemporary) cultural touchstone has become almost ubiquitous within our digital lives: we consume content constantly, daily, minute by minute. The term has even entered popular slang with creatives and business professionals alike in an abbreviated form with “slingin’ ‘tent” popularized by writer and producer Scott Aukerman. Both asset and content connote the objects we are making at the press, yet both fall short of describing the breadth of bringing these works into the world. We don’t often get comments, but if you’ve got an opinion on our official title, we’d love to hear it!

According to Publisher’s Weekly, companies like the juggernaut Penguin Random House “…are producing bespoke events and experiences around their content, and I think we should all be doing that…This has given us all an opportunity to go a little bit beyond that, but also to produce content that feels really authentic to certain groups of people who are hungry for it.”

Along with traditional book objects and newer media like audiobooks, ebooks, and interactive storytelling, publishers are also reinventing the convention space (more often these spaces are virtual). Rethinking our concepts of what is digital, what is physical, and what the grayness in between looks like is the bigger idea that I’d like to cull out of this modest blog post. Inspired by our brilliant professor Dr. Kathi Inman Berens’s Digital Skills course, I’ve set a long-term goal to focus our department’s resources on our stewardship. We are only here for a short time and part of our work is to always improve, innovate, and embrace ambiguity; to work through it. Certainly, this pandemic has highlighted the ways in which our lives have been shaped by our digital landscape and simultaneously prepared us for remote learning, remote working, and for change.

This shift can also be seen in the ever-present space of the library: a wellspring of digital content and a champion for the ebook (a technology that mirrors The Little Engine That Could). “In my opinion, one of the issues libraries face in the digital realm is that the publishers are so deeply invested in twentieth century models. I am hoping this helps shake them out of that,” [Carmi] Parker said. “This opportunity to experiment with different models means that when we start talking again with publishers about how e-lending can work best for all of us, we will have some real data to go on.” The pandemic has in fact amplified a progression of ebook popularity and has lent to a “Watershed Moment for Library Ebooks” according to Andrew Albanese in his article for Publisher’s Weekly. I feel privileged and grateful to be part of such an exciting field laden with meaningful opportunities for cultural transformation.

Typography in 2020: What’s in a Trend?

It goes without saying that typography is an integral part of our everyday lives. We’ve also become accustomed to an onslaught of visual material, both in our digital lives and out in the real world where typography is used both functionally and nefariously. Highway signs and way-finding aids are used ubiquitously in our twenty-first century landscapes and have certain standards that are unique to specific regions. According to researcher Philip M. Garvey at Penn State’s Larson Institute of Engineering, the United States Federal Traffic Signs Regulations indicate that, “with the exception of destination names, all signs must use only upper-case letters. For destination names (i.e., places, streets, highways) using mixed-case legends, the lower-case loop height should be 75 percent of the upper-case height.” Specific research has been done in order to determine proper sign detection and legibility, usually having to do with the reflective materials being used, contrasting levels of letterforms against light or dark backgrounds, and font usage, spacing, and weight.

If typography is out in the wild, it will demand your attention whether it’s effective or not. Even unsuccessful attempts at public graphic design grab the observant onlooker’s gaze. If we continue with this line of thought, we can infer (with the help of Garvey) that “the ability of a driver [or pedestrian] to detect and read a sign is a function of numerous human, environmental, and design factors with complex interrelationships.”

Besides advertisements, which target specific consumer demographics and economic capital to prove successful, there is another graphic style out in the wild with a wide-ranging reach and scope: graffiti. Lindsay Bates, student of cultural heritage and architecture, describes that “graffiti writing has a very specific aesthetic: it’s about the tag, it’s about graphic form, it’s about letters, styles, and spray-paint application, and it’s about reaching different locations.” As graffiti and street art have become more widely accepted (and commodified) in mainstream culture, it’s useful to examine the ways in which this insular and notoriously underground subculture has affected our ideas around type design.

According to the Adobe Blog, the most popular typographic trends of the previous year (2019) include large, bold san-serif fonts that demand attention and improve legibility for brand names or as a graphic center piece for a design. We can return to Garvey’s research on contrast to follow similar trends in high-contrast fonts that employ heavy stroke weights and limited negative space to provide added impact: “The photometric characteristics of the sign, including the internal contrast, luminance, and light design, can also directly impact how well a driver sees a sign.” There is also continued interest in script fonts and letterforms that appear hand-painted or drawn stemming from the work of Stephen Powers, a forefather of graffiti who gained notoriety for his series of public, hand-painted murals titled “A Love Letter For You” dedicated to the citizens of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

With an increase in digital tools for graphic expression, the future of typography includes sculptural and 3D experimentation with new levels of dynamism using motion graphics and kinetic coding and mapping. We are part of a special time and place here on Earth where nostalgia butts up against innovation, simplicity interwoven with nuance and surprise, all happening simultaneously.

Poetic Communication: What it means for writers and editors

There is a narrative we tell ourselves about writing and writers that kills me. It is the myth that good writing, Literature (with the coveted capital l) is the stuff of mystery and magic, a spark of inspiration, that can not be taught. I say this with great love for my creative writing professors, who were all brilliant writers. But when they say great writing can’t be taught, I find myself refraining from calling bullshit.

Framing the writer as a conduit for the story or as someone who merely receives a spark of inspiration removes the creator from their creation. Why would you do that? Let me explain.

In my undergraduate years, I experienced a series of writer’s blocks because I felt that without that spark, I was not a writer. Even if I couldn’t create, in order to be a productive writing scholar, I began studying linguistics and philosophy. I wanted to understand Literature and how it was created. I had the opportunity to explore this topic in a Philosophy of Language course, and it has taken on a life of its own in both my scholarly and personal life. It is an obsession of mine that I wish to communicate in this post.

First, let’s talk about poetic communication and how it can help the communication between writers and editors.

Poetic communication is an intriguing branch of the philosophy of language because it involves the work of literary criticism, linguistic theory, and cultural studies. To define certain aspects of poetic communications, I will be quoting Roland Posner’s Rational Discourse and Poetic Communication.

Posner would definitely disagree with my findings that poetic communication plays an important role in Literature, as he sees Literature as the “secondary automatization” or “de-poetization” of poetry. Meaning poetic technique becomes a part of Literature after it has fallen from the pedestal of poetic communication and becomes “a mere element of literary style.”

To keep this brief, let’s focus on two features of poetic communication. Function one: “Poetic communication de-automatizes the recipient’s relation to society and reality.” In other words, Posner says poetry makes the reader aware of an action that would otherwise be automatic or unconscious. To use a literary term, poetry takes an otherwise tired convention and makes a new experience out of it, thus causing the reader to react to it. In doing this, we come to function two: “[Poetic communication] brings the recipient into contact with characteristics of reality which…usually remain hidden.” In creating a conscious experience out of an otherwise automatic action, the poet reveals a hidden aspect of reality. This hidden reality is the magic of poetry; it reveals our lives in a way that makes us conscious of the human experience. Their stories and their words are never automatic, but keep a reader checked into the story.

But what exactly does this mean for writers and editors?

Creating an original voice, going against the grain of convention, has little to do with the spark we have been told about in our writing workshops or by other successful authors. Rather, it is a conscious effort to know the rules and when to innovate. A young man pursuing his B.A. in writing told me the other day that he heard Stephen King say his ideas come from a spark. And even though I couldn’t verify King mentioning this with a quick Google search, the myth perpetuates itself.

So, to writers and editors alike, when you come across a tired metaphor, a line that goes past your eyes as swiftly as the scenery passing in a moving train, consider it. Consider what can be done to give it life, to give it consciousness. That is where the capital L can be found.

A final note to editors: we are the first readers of a writer’s story. It is important to identify and respond to moments of convention and innovation in a writer’s text. At times, writers will unknowingly use conventions or something they picked up while reading. When this happens, it’s important to explain the conventions so that writers can more effectively utilize them.

I will leave you now with a line from Mark Turner’s The Literary Mind: “Our core indispensable stories not only can be invented, they must be invented if we are to survive and have human lives.”

DRM: To Prevent Piracy or Secure Loyalty?

The debate over the pros and cons of Digital Rights Management (DRM)—a layer of security that ties copyrighted works to a user in an effort to prohibit unlawful use or distribution—rambles on into 2018.

What started as a clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to protect the infringement of copyrighted works such as movies, books, and music, has blossomed into a full-fledged debate on who owns, who can modify, and who can repair the products consumers purchase. These products range from cell phones and cars to children’s toys and ebooks, making it almost certain that everyone has at least one DRM-protected product in their home. The companies who place the DRM on these products control who uses, modifies, and distributes the copyrighted works and products.

A popular example of DRM in children’s toys comes with Sony’s robot dog, Aibo, which was recently re-released in Japan for $1,740 with a monthly subscription fee. Sony’s original robot dog, released in 1999, faced a boycott after the company forced a customer to remove the modifying code that made the dog dance and perform other tricks not found in Sony’s code. The company made sure to “double down” on DRM for the recent release, barring all modifications and ensuring consumer loyalty through subscriptions that allow the dog to operate only on Sony servers. And yes, the new Aibo does dance.

How does this relate to publishing? DRM is commonly used to deter unlawful distribution of an ebook purchased by a consumer. However, the debate circles around if DRMs actually prohibit piracy of an ebook or simply serve to keep the company relevant. Just as Sony uses DRM to stop modifications that enhance their code and ensure customer loyalty through subscriptions, DRMs can prohibit consumers from seeking other companies to support their digital ebooks.

For example: if a customer purchases Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders for Amazon’s Kindle, they can only read this ebook for as long as they have an Amazon Kindle account (or the free app). If another company comes out with a newer, better ebook reader, the consumer cannot simply take their lawfully purchased Lincoln in the Bardo and consume it on the new reader, as DRM prevents this file maneuver. Writer Craig Mod aptly states:

The potential power of digital is that it can take the ponderous and isolated nature of physical things and make them light and movable….This is where DRM hurts books most….It artificially imposes the heaviness and isolation of physical books on their digital counterparts, which should be loose, networked objects.

In this instance, DRM locks files not only to prevent redistribution, but to prevent customers from moving on to the next big product down the road. The Kindle user may think twice about investing in the newest ebook reader, as that may involve losing their perfectly curated collection of sci-fi novels or giving up numerous files of crime dramas.

If copyright laws (as many judges have claimed in their copyright rulings, including the Authors Guild v. Google, the lawsuit over Google Books) are in place to promote innovation, DRM should do the same. Lawmakers should turn their ears toward consumers that wish to transfer lawfully purchased files across devices owned by different companies. The law was made to protect copyrighted works, not inhibit lawful consumer access. Infant companies should be able to strive for better readers and better ways to transfer purchasable files without worrying about big players like Amazon crushing them before inception. Innovation over monopolization!

Loans from Big Brother: There’s Hope for Small Publishers

“Publishing is a dying business” is the mantra I’ve been trying to ignore since the seed of working in publishing was planted in my idealistic brain. “People don’t read anymore,” people say—and without an audience, how can an industry survive? In the capitalist United States, how can a business thrive if demand for a product is at its lowest?

In “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real)”, Will Self asserts that the great literary fiction novel is falling from popular demand and will only continue in society as a source of entertainment for a select few. History preserved in the present, like “easel painting or classical music . . . a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” In a world where big publishers absorb smaller publishers at an alarming rate, I’ve started thinking perhaps he’s right, but what is an aspiring publisher to do?

According to Clark and Phillips, the focus on the bottom line is fairly new in the publishing world. The change in publishing culture from being product-led to being market-driven happened at the turn of the twentieth century. Alan Bartram speaks to this as well in his book Making Books: Design in British Publishing Since 1945, where he talks of the prestige and morality book publishing used to have, wherein publishers would take a hit financially if they believed the book important enough to publish. He even goes on to say that this moral high road was considered normal practice in its day, and now it’s almost disappeared.

The old soul in me is crippled by this assessment of the publishing world, mostly because I know it to be true. It will continue but in a different, most likely digital or multimedia form. Then again, how could the industry not adopt this dog-eat-dog mentality when Amazon, the leading retailer in the industry, uses the bottom-line model?

Joe Wikert blames the failing traditional business model of the publishing world and publishers’ continued dependence on Amazon, the industry leader, to create technological innovation that would revamp the industry. Wikert says that smaller publishers simply wait, paralyzed, for the next big thing (such as ebooks and ereaders), too afraid to try something new because they are struggling to “survive revenue shortfalls and staff downsizing” while trying to avoid “doing anything that might be perceived as a threat to the key retailers.” They don’t have the time, money, or staff to dedicate to innovation, so they wait and imitate newly released publishing technology instead of getting ahead by investing in research and development themselves.

However, in their article about research and development in creative industries, Benghozi and Salvador say this is the problem. Technological innovation is the key to industry growth in the digital age; without it, companies can’t keep up with a dynamic and global economy, and smaller publishers can’t compete with larger publishers. Because of this, Niel de Young of Hachette Book Group has developed a digital team outside of Hachette’s traditional publishing sphere. By embracing a startup mentality, they focus on experimentation and finding new ways to meet consumer’s needs.

This is easy enough for a company like Hachette, one of the Big Five, because they have money and resources to spare, but what about smaller publishers? They’re left to fend for themselves or be rebranded as a Big Five imprint. That is, until 2015 when Ingram Content Group, an industry leader, mustered up some of that pre-20th-century publishing altruism and decided to start their 1440 Accelerator program.

The program is dedicated to “accelerating” the success of promising startups in various areas of publishing, offering them fourteen weeks of intensive courses designed to train them for success in business and then fully financing the start-ups Ingram deems most likely to be useful to them and the publishing industry as a whole. Since their first cohort, Ingram decided to halt the experiment, but their example led to another accelerator program run by Börsenvereinsgruppe (The Group of German Publishers and Booksellers Association) called “CONTENTshift”.

This is something that rarely happens in business, but Ingram considers it an investment. These companies are trying to revitalize the publishing world, redefine it. Why not have a bunch of techies on your side, especially when your biggest competition is coming from technology companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google? I guess what this all means to me is, perhaps Will Self is right, but that’s what an aspiring publisher can do.