I had the pleasure of taking in a showing of the new documentary Out of Print during the Indianapolis International Film Festival. The topic is understandably important to me thanks to my publishing background, but as a devotee of reading books on the printed page, it also sparked my curiosity.
Now, I’m no Luddite. I believe there’s room in this crazy world for reading books, magazines, newspapers and comics on the illuminated screen and on the printed page. However, I do worry about our world shifting into an all digital society. There are advantages to e-readers, but there are a number of disadvantages which deserve a closer look as well. The Out of Print documentary by Vivienne Roumani does a wonderful job at taking that closer look and asking all the right questions.
The movie begins with a brief introduction into the history of the literary tome from a Eurocentric perspective. I emphasize Eurocentric because the history buff in me tends to bristle every time someone mentions Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press as the first of its kind. To be fair, it changed the literary world significantly in Europe, but alas, it was not the first. (A printing press had been invented in China 400 years prior.) Nevertheless, the intro does provide a stable jumping off point for the audience to delve into the world of print.
From there, the film moves from subject to subject without leaving the viewer feeling disjointed or confused. We hear testimonies, complaints, praise and rebuttals to the faults of both print and digital publishing. From Scott Turow, award-winning bestselling author and president of the Authors Guild, to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com and new owner of The Washington Post, both sides of the coin are given their chance to speak on how they feel the world of print has changed us for the good and bad.
But it’s not only the big wigs who get a say on the topic. We hear from teachers, book club participants, high school students, parents, self-published authors, and literary historians from each side of the Atlantic about why digital publishing is more of a boom than a bust. The documentary tries its best to present a neutral face, but can any documentary ever truly be neutral?
You get the clear sense that there’s a definitive bias toward the preservation of printed books, but not only for the sake of museum pieces or archival evidence. As one historian pointed out, digital publishing gives many the impression of longevity, but they are mistaken. When a book is only captured in a world of 1’s and 0’s, the slightest corruption of one line in that file renders that book inaccessible. On the other hand, today, we still have books from the 1400s that are as legible as the day they were printed.
Yet, the digital world is not without its defenders. Jane Friedman, former CEO of HarperCollins, has made the leap into a publishing company where 90% of her acquisitions are digital. We learn from Darcie Chan, a New York Times bestselling author, that self-publishing in a digital format can be a successful route for writers who find navigating literary agents and traditional publishing houses an impossible feat.
The film acknowledges that Chan’s success is incredibly rare in self-publishing, but they make it clear that the rarity of her situation is not necessarily due to the new digital aspect of the process. We also see the fate of struggling brick-and-mortar bookstores like the Strand in New York who dare to compete against the Amazon.com juggernaut.
Digging below the surface, the audience also learns of what happened to the Google Books project and the issue of copyright, which helps keep food on the table for authors everywhere. We even get a glimpse at the devastating effect e-book rentals are having on local libraries, but are, conversely, helping keep college students from going broke due to the exorbitant costs of hardbound textbooks.
I suppose the saddest moment of the documentary for me hit home when a high school student spoke with such great pride about cheat devices like SparkNotes online. I’m not being judgmental, mind you. I too remember the days as an English major at my university with a novel, a play, 3 short stories in an anthology, and 4 chapters in a Literary Criticism textbook assigned each week. I understand the temptation. But I assure you, I knew the difference between learning from the CliffNotes and the real thing.
Many of the parents (and thankfully, some of their children) admitted they see the drain on their attention and time due to the abundance of information and constant exposure to screens. This has left teachers at the grade school and high school level adjusting their methods. Not only must they teach their students the material and how to analyze the authors’ work, they must now also teach them how to find credible sources. Why? The ease of locating information online has led some younger minds down a path of failing to question the accuracy of their information.
It was refreshing to see some in the documentary hoping to create a world of harmony between the page and the screen, one where both formats can co-exist peacefully. However, by the end of the film, you’re not left with a sense that everyone is on-board.
The digital publishing realm is changing our society — a reality that can’t be denied. Out of Print brilliantly addresses a variety of concerns while allaying fears that page-turners are a dying breed, at least within this generation. The next generation may follow a different path. Roumani’s documentary asks us to examine how we consume information, whether for business, education or pleasure. She — along with so many advocates — wants us to ask ourselves what are we losing in exchange for what we are gaining.