Trust in Digital Publications

By Samantha Raddatz

“The digital audience wants different things,” and according to a recent article Why Big Publishers Think Genre Fiction Like Sci-Fi Is the Future of E-Books on Wired.com, they want fiction. There has been a large push for fiction titles since e-books became popular. One explanation is that the anonymity of e-readers allows people to be more comfortable reading strange books on their commute [e.g., Fifty Shades of Grey (which was originally self-published)] or that fiction lends itself to episodic books that leave the reader wanting to see what happens next as soon as possible. 1 But, maybe digital fiction is popular because it’s being contrasted against the unpopularity of digital non-fiction. Perhaps this is caused by the communal consensus that digital publications are not as trustworthy or authoritative as print.

Is something digital legitimate? It’s easier to copy and share, which is positive because it lowers the threshold to dispersing information. But, at the same time, anyone can post his or her thoughts online in a second, visible to anyone that’s willing to look. Who are these people? Is what they’re saying valid? Supported? We’ve lost the publisher’s role as gatekeeper. They used to be the largest determiner of what was worth printing and distributing. As Derrida put it in his book Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression:

“Why detain you with these worn-out stories? Why this wasted time? Why archive this? Why these investments in paper, in ink, in character? Why mobilize so much space and so much work, so much typographic composition? Does this merit printing?”  2

The logic would follow that if the weight of the decision to publish something is lessened by not having to invest the time and money in printing, less time and thought would be spent determining what is worth printing. Though large firms still manage most e-book publishing, these firms are offering services for individual authors and likely aren’t vetting every title that goes through their system. 3 The risks of publishing digitally are lower and the returns on successes higher; this encourages publishers to not only take chances on new writers and ideas, but also to put books into the world with less thoughtfulness.

Maybe the fact that fiction has taken off in digital form is because we don’t have to trust it. The author’s opinion doesn’t have to be supported; there are no footnotes to link to or glossary of terms to reference; and it doesn’t matter if the publisher actually screened the book or not. All that matters is if the writing is engaging enough and the right subject matter for the reader’s taste.

Another subconscious concern that may be driving consumers to continue buying non-fiction in print is archiving. There is a importance to non-fiction information and a feeling that it is more likely to be needed in the future. Readers want to ensure that they have the book on their shelf to reference later on, and, on a larger scale, to ensure that future generations can connect to past thoughts and determinations contained within. As Roy Rosenweig said, “Digital documents – precisely because they are in a new medium—have disrupted long-evolved systems of trust and authenticity, ownership, and preservation.” 4 Or, to put it more abruptly: “Digital Documents last forever—or five years, whichever comes first.” 5 Even in our own homes, we still want to ensure that factual information is kept around and we don’t fully trust digital media to do so. If your Kindle dies and all your fiction books are lost it is likely to be less upsetting than losing all of your non-fiction.

One possible upside of the ease of digital publishing is that it puts the power more into the hands of the readers. Not only do consumers push the publishers in certain directions based on their download statistics, but they can also share books that they like more easily. If  a book is interesting or important enough to share you can send a link quickly and without too much effort. If you recommend a book to someone and they don’t like it, it wont be thrown out or kept on a shelf forever, a file is just deleted, so the information flow can be stopped just as easily.

Maybe this how it will be determined which published materials to archive in the digital sphere: whatever lasts. Whatever is handed from person to person, device to device, is reformatted with each upgrade. If it makes it through the social/collective hand-me-down for , say, ten years then it’s important enough to know in the future. Kind of a throw-it-out-and-see-what-sticks approach to archiving, similar to the approach the publishers seem to be taking with their distribution: “Digital publishing also allows books to go to market much more quickly than printed books, and offers publishers the benefit of both rapid consumer feedback and the ability to adapt to reader response.” 6

But if that’s the case, that power is still limited to those that can access digital collections, which is likely causing a further increase in the economic gap of knowledge. If you don’t have an e-reader or an internet connection, you aren’t able to consume or share digital-only materials and your voice isn’t a part of the conversation. “When something is rare or limited to a select number of individuals, such as an educational degree or cultural artifact, it has effective symbolic capital and provides the holder with a degree of symbolic power.” 7 So if the power of deciding what to publish moves more away from the publishers, it’s still moving to only a subsection of society, the section that can afford digital readers. Even though libraries now offer e-books to check out, very few of them also check out e-readers.

The popularity of digital publishing is increasing rapidly and encourages traditional publishers and self-publishers to try new things and allows them to receive consumer feedback faster, but readers don’t seem as eager to consume non-fiction text digitally and are favoring the fiction genres in digital form. Over time, as iPads and tablets become the norm, and more textbooks are distributed digitally, it’s safe to assume that non-fiction digital sales will increase. Digital writing will become more trustworthy and authentic as it becomes more normalized . It will be interesting to see how long it takes for non-fiction digital sales to catch up.

  1. McMillan, G. (2013, June 26). “Why Big Publishers Think Genre Fiction Like Sci-Fi is the Future of E-Books.” Wired.com. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/06/digital-publishing-genre-fiction/all/1
  2. Derrida, J. & Prenowitz, E. (1995). “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” Diacritics 25(2): 13
  3. “Self Publishing Sees Triple Digit Growth Since 2007.” PublishersWeekly.com. (2012, October 24). http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/54482-self-publishing-sees-triple-digit-growth-since-2007.html
  4. Rosenzweig, R. (2003). “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” The American Historical Review 108(3): 743
  5. Ibid. 740
  6. McMillan, G. (2013, June 26). “Why Big Publishers Think Genre Fiction Like Sci-Fi is the Future of E-Books.” Wired.com. http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/06/digital-publishing-genre-fiction/all/1
  7. Leckie, G.J., Given, L.M. & Buschman, J.E. eds. (2010). Critical Theory for Library and Information Science: Exploring the Social from across the Disciplines. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries Unlimited
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