The Literary Web - Introduction

Johan Svedjedal, The Literary Web: Literature and Publishing in the Age of Digital Production. A Study in the Sociology of Literature, Acta Bibliothecæ Regiæ Stockholmiensis, LXII (Stockholm: Kungl. Biblioteket, 2000)

Table of contents


Literature may very well be said to be a world wide web of influences and interdependencies, an intertextual universe of echoes, allusions and similarities – a flow where time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past. The book trade forms another kind of web, a network where corporate ownership, personal loyalties and past history bind people and institutions in complex systems of respect, reliance or revenge. These are the global intellectual networks of the world of paper and ink – the literary webs of the book world.

The “literary web” discussed in this book, however, is something else. With this concept, I allude to the new forms of writing, publishing, distribution and reading emerging on the Internet. The rapid digitization of the literary world is spurring many changes for fiction and poetry in the form of the written word – enhanced printing technology, new kinds of online publishing ventures, innovative methods for selling books, different forms of literary discussions, new ways of structuring literary works in the form of digital hypertexts, hypermedia, interactive stories, what have you.

These changes are transforming professional profiles, as well as the book world as a whole. If the old book world was something of a monosequential literary process, with discrete units linked together one after another (chapter following chapter in a book, bookseller following publisher and author in the book chain), this new book world is much more of a multisequential web, a place where each reader chooses his unique way through hypertexts and where traditional boundaries between traditional professions are blurred or simply break down.[1] This is the literary web referred to in the title of this book: a vast assembly of fragments, literary works, sites and institutions, linked together electronically in a globally accessible digital network. This “literary web” calls for new skills such as programming and linking. However, traditional professional skills are still needed (editing, quality control, assessment, and so on), even if combined in new ways, in new environments, and sometimes, new professions.[2]

Needless to say, this digitization of the book world is part of a larger historical process. As Manuel Castells has pointed out, this process should be understood as a restructuring of capitalism into informational capitalism, a network society permeated with modern information technology working globally and in real time – that in fact, “globalization” is mainly the consequences of advances in information and communications technology. This restructuring of capitalism may be said to have begun around 1970. As Castells shows in a survey of the highly industrialized G7 countries, the period of 1920–1970 entailed the rise of the post-agrarian society (with rising employment in industry), while 1970–1990 saw the emergence of a post-industrial, post-fordist society (with dwindling employment in industry) where routine operations were automated and jobs taken over by machines. Communications technology and media are crucial factors in this new kind of society where, as Castells points out, the rapid change is “at least as major a historical event as was the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution, inducing a pattern of discontinuity in the material basis of economy, society, and culture.”[3] Predictably, the Western World is leading this industrial change. The result is reinforcement of traditional global power structures and further Americanization of economies and minds. In sociological variables, the winning sides are the expected ones – men still dominate over women, the educated over the uneducated, white over non-white, the Western World over the Third World. Such is the larger sociocultural framework of the present digitization of literature.

Worldwide, the number of computers connected to the Internet rose from some two million in 1993 to over 16 million in 1996.[4] This rapid growth is an unparalleled media change. In the Age of the Internet, publishing and literature seem destined to be changed by new forms of technology.

One of the classical theoretical texts in the tradition of the analysis of the impact of new media and new technology on the arts is Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935). Although Benjamin is primarily concerned with the pictorial arts (pictures, films), his observations are frequently referred to in discussions concerning literature. Benjamin’s insistence on the impact of technological changes on artistic techniques has reminded students and scholars that industrial change is a strong material determinant in the literary world. Benjamin wrote mainly about technological changes in techniques for reproduction, i.e., the dissemination of works already published.[5] Now, the “digital revolution” is affecting the very production and consumption of literature: writing, publishing and reading. Many of these changes have already taken place. Desktop publishing, digital bookshops such as and digital hypertexts are already counted among the tools of the trade. Just around the corner, there are signs of new forms of mediascapes – the multimedia society, the Meganet, the Supertext – which are sometimes said to hold the possibility of changing literature beyond recognition. This also holds true for books and works produced in traditional ways (monosequential works in codex format), simply because their relationships to other media are changing. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out: “The history of the arts and the sciences could be written in terms of the continuing process by which new technologies create new environments for old technologies.”[6]

Production in the community of books shared a long and intimate association with the world of mechanized industrial production, with machine presses and freight trains. In the world of e-books and Internet publishing, the very concept of the book (the codex format) seems challenged by new media. As the argument in the rest of this book shows, I am convinced that the traditional printed book, manufactured of paper, ink and covers, will survive and prosper in the computerized, digital future. The book world will most certainly benefit from the new media, as it always has done in the past. However, the digitization of the book world has already had a deep impact on how we think about and read literature. It has shattered many established narratological models and made old ways of describing the book world irrelevant or obsolete. In some ways, this new digital environment seems to embody (or verify) many of the ideas associated with poststructuralism. This is the world where works are de-centered; texts have anonymous authors (or a multitude of authors), and seem to dissolve into bundles of intertexts. This is the world where different parts of such texts contradict, intrinsically challenging the very concepts of truth and authority, blurring the line between fiction and fact, medium and reality. Many poststructuralist statements about literature find true relevance when applied to open-ended digital works, rather than printed works intended to be read monosequentially from beginning to end. Poststructuralism seems to have worked better as a prediction than as a description of the literature written in pre-Net days. In some ways, the Internet is the redemption of poststructuralism.

Yet literary theory, somewhat paradoxically, trails far behind the events of the digital world. One reason is that the new literary web is characterized by media convergence (the combination of the written word, sound and pictures into one artistic entity), while literary theory still restricts itself to the written word.[7] Another is that the entire “literary process,” the production, distribution and consumption of literature, is being restructured by the digitization and remediation of literature.

Everyone involved in the world of books has reason to reflect on how the written word and the book trade are affected by the digitization of society. This book is an attempt to discuss some theoretical aspects of this change from the viewpoint of the sociology of literature and publishing history. The focus is mainly on the relationship between the Internet on the one hand and narrative fiction in book form on the other. Many of the examples given of developments in publishing and in the book trade are Swedish, but the aim is that the theoretical discussions of different functions in the literary process will apply to other countries as well. How will the Internet affect the writing, publishing and reading of narrative texts? What are the main functions of these activities? These are the main questions behind this study.

The more precise research questions concern the history of publishing from the late 18th century to the present day, that is, during the era of novels and modern market economies. What is a narrative text? In what ways can the Internet change how texts work? What are the main characteristics of publishing and how have they evolved and changed? What are the economics of publishing on the Internet? And what are the effects of online bookshops on the book trade in general?

Even this restricted perspective may perhaps seem too broad (narrative fiction including everything from esoteric avant-garde experiments to mass market paperbacks), but I believe the changes in publishing in the digital age cannot be understood in the same ways for different forms of fiction. “The novel” or “narrative fiction” are abstractions which must in reality accommodate forms of literature which have very little to do with each other except on general narrative levels. In the business of publishing, they live under very different economic rules, almost like separate countries with their own languages.

The theoretical inspiration for this book comes from various sources: the history of books and publishing history, narratology, textual criticism, the sociology of literature and various other materialistic traditions, including the sociology of literature as practiced in Sweden since the mid-1960s. In this study, I have tried to bring together these different theoretical perspectives to advance the understanding of how fiction and publishing will change in coming years and decades.

These changes have already begun and some trends are clearly discernible. Yet I would not have undertaken this research task if I were not convinced that certain patterns within the book trade tend to repeat themselves. At the beginning of the new century, we are glimpsing a brave new world of publishing, but much may be more brave than new. Although history tends not to repeat itself, it sometimes approaches a state that a world-weary voice in the sixties stamped as “all this repetition.” There is every reason to look backward in time and compare previous media revolutions to the one we are living through now.

From the point of view of traditional print culture there have been several waves of digitization of the book trade. The first consisted of book clubs using address databases for targeted marketing to various demographic groups, gradually identifying smaller and smaller segments of the market, increasing cost-effectiveness in advertising and enabling book publishers to discern prospective groups of buyers. This fine-tuning of the distribution process has since continued with various ingenious computer systems for facilitating orders from bookstores and digital systems for monitoring sales from publishers and bookstores. There is a story of how the legendary Swedish publisher Johan Hansson in the early 1930s used to visit his warehouse at the end of every working day, checking how well various titles had sold by estimating the height of the book piles.[8] Not many publishers in those days were as sophisticated in their monitoring of sales (most of them waited for the yearly – or quarterly, or whatever – sales figures), but nowadays, information on the exact number of copies shipped and sold is conveniently supplied by computer programs, crunching numbers and generating pie charts, graphs, and tables.

The second wave of digitization in the book trade was the computerization of the production of literature. This restructuring of how printed matter is manufactured fueled bitter struggles between traditional compositors and other occupational groups, but ultimately ended with modern technology winning hands down. To make a long story short, the outcome was modern publishing as we now know it: designers edging out compositors, authors submitting their works as computer files rather than manuscripts, printing from PDF files, digital printing (including Print On Demand) – and Internet publishing, CD-ROM, and all other forms of distribution of the written word via media other than the book. The new digital formats sometimes enable authors to use non-traditional artistic forms. The artistic structure known as “hypertext” may be perfectly possible to achieve in the traditional printed book. Nevertheless, it generally exploits the technical possibilities inherent in the new digital media, using their improved means for linking, interactivity and randomness to create multisequential literary forms. To write a hypertext is to take the digitizing of text production to the very core of literary creation.

The third wave in the digitization of the book world is the use of the Internet to facilitate book distribution. This is a contemporary, updated form of selling books by mail order. The American online superstore is the most obvious success story in this particular branch of the book trade, as well as late 1990s e-commerce in general. In June 1999, it was reported that sells 75 percent of all books bought online (presumably in the U.S.). Amazon’s ascendancy has been so rapid that the firm’s name has been turned into a new phrase – “getting Amazoned” – to describe what happens when a traditional business is worsted by an online entrepreneur.[9] All over the world, online bookstores have tried to emulate, and the “amazoning” process has begun to restructure the distribution of books in a way not seen since the advent of modern book clubs.

This book will focus on the second and third waves of the digitization process, placing them in a historical perspective and attempting to create new theoretical models for describing the new digital world of books and textual narratives – the literary web accessible through the Internet.

[1] I have chosen to use the term “multisequential” throughout this book, since each discrete unit of the text (“scripton;”; see below) is generally intended to be read sequentially, but the sequence of textual units (“scriptons”) is ever-changing. By “monosequential,”, I mean a fixed temporal order of these units. For a further discussion of these concepts, cf Chapter 3.

[2] Cf Ian M. Johnson, “The Need for New Qualifications for New Products and Services in the Electronic Environment,”, Laboratory of Future Communication: New Book Economy. Conference Proceedings. International Conference, Berlin, 26–27 October 1998 (Berlin: International Book Agency, 1999), 70–79.

[3] Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, 1, The Rise of the Network Society, repr. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), Chapter 4, esp. pp. 208–16 and 242 (first ed. 1996). Quotation from p. 30.

[4] Medie-Sverige: statistik och analys, eds. Ulla Carlsson & Catharina Bucht, NORDICOM-Sverige, 11 (Göteborg: NORDICOM-Sverige, 1997), p. 71, Figure 1.

[5] Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”, Illuminations, ed. and with an intr. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn (London: Fontana Press, 1992), 211–244 (orig. publ. 1935).

[6] Marshall McLuhan, Essential McLuhan, eds. Eric McLuhan & Frank Zingrone (New York: BasicBooks, 1996), p. 276 (quote from 1964).

[7] Cf Mikle D. Ledgerwood, “Hypertextuality and multimedia literature,”, Semiotics of the Media: State of the Art, Projects, and Perspectives, ed. Winifried Nöth, Approaches to Semiotics, 127 (Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997), 547–558, esp. pp. 547–9.

[8] Georg Svensson, “Hur man blir stor förläggare,”, Natur och Kultur 50 år: ur ett bokförlags historia (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1973), 9–29, p. 27.

[9] Warren St. John, "Barnes & Noble's Epiphany," Wired 7.06, June 1999, 132–144, pp. 132 and 134.