Pursuing the elusive butterfly of book culture

Young, Sherman  2007, The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney. ISBN 978 086840 804 0

I’ve emerged from the cocoon of semi-retirement to become a wet-winged undergraduate attempting a Bachelor’s degree in Publishing and Writing, parts of the profession I’ve pursued all my working life. Oh, look. A haunting memory of ‘Elusive Butterfly’ just floated past my fluttering neurons. (If you too make it to the end of this not-really–a-review there’s a link for the zillions of young and beautiful readers who know nothing of Glen Campbell and his #5 1966 hit. That’s the year Australia went decimal. Yes, I remember it well: there were 12 pence in the shilling and 12 strings on Campbell’s Ovation guitar.)

To return to 2012, one of our subjects is ‘Publishing and Writing in the Digital Age’, presented by award-winning photographer Wayne Cosshall who looks nothing like his photo and puts the human in Humanities. A set text this semester, available in the NMIT library, is The book is dead: long live the book. (Capital letters in book titles are dead too, knocked down by Harvard referencing.)

The author is Sherman Young, back-flapped as ‘a passionate book lover and a digital consumer and producer’. He probably had to write that himself: publishers do like to lighten their editor’s load, especially the pay packet. ‘They’re the bloody writers, let them write the blurb.’

The manuscript morphs into a book, thanks to the printer — human or machine. It’s hard to tell them apart, especially after a missed deadline when neither of them are speaking. By this time, thanks to more unexpected opportunities, the writer has been an editor, a sales rep, a marketer, and a nervous wreck on a talk show — just to prove that there’s no free launch. He or she — or herm for short — is now qualified to call hermself an auther, oops, author. Like I can call myself a reviewer.

Sherman Young is well qualified as an author. I thought his book might be outdated by now, since it was written pre-Redgroup’s blood-letting (vale Angus & Robertson stores and Borders book supermarkets) but no, Young is spot on; if anything, prescient. One of the tags on the imprint page is ‘forecasting’. Five years ago Young was calling for intensive care for quality editing, the sort that turns text into a book, that is the heartbeat of ‘book culture’. It’s still the same. The editors are here; the writers are here, but the publishers who used to get them together have abandoned their matchmaking.

Writers know what they want to say. That’s why publishers who saw the potential in that used to employ editors to help them write what they meant to say. A freelance is even better: someone who owes you, the writer, nothing but their tact and skill will tell you the truth and wipe egg off your face before you go out. Go it alone into print, in ink or internet, and you can forget a second book. Readers turn off at the first wtf.

Young is turned on by what a book can do, by great ideas that will live on in conversation long after the book;s print run. To achieve its potential, a worthy idea needs — deserves — all the editorial help it can get. I can imagine Young at the Academy with Plato, decrying the Sophists for teaching how to tell lies well and selling people short. We’ve done the same with books, it seems.

In Chapter 4, Young contrasts the market-driven present with the golden age of Australian publishing when ‘noble’ books were subsidised for the good of the nation’s neurons, with their veteran editors clucking like hens over dysfunctional but brilliant authors. He’s adamant that still-debatable ideas in a dusty backlist are more important to our book culture than yet another celebrity cookbook or the spin doctors’ latest cash-in cure, another ‘book object’ that people buy to show they’ve bought it — to say they’re with it. You don’t read a book object, you flaunt it. Book objects are about the buyer, not the content. Marshall McLuhan had a phrase for it – ‘the medium is the message’. It still fits.

Young laments the die-back of book culture, strangled by shareholders and an unworkable, unsustainable print economy. In-house editors (where such remain) still probably get less than a minute to pitch a title to their sales staff, who only want to read the bottom line. He concedes that the golden age print-educated and educating philanthropists is gone, never to return, but he is no knocker of virtual technology. He welcomes it as a makeover, a heart and lung transplant for the book as a book, not an object. Words — the plot, analysis, imagination – are its life force, providing the strong, steady pulse of thoughtful communication that defines book culture.

The expense of the virtual book compared with the fixed costs of a physical book is minimal with a capital M. It leaves more for the editor, more for the author, more for everyone. So it’s logically smart for professional publishers to shelve the p-book for interactive digital books, and even smarter to again recognise the value of experienced editors as a way to redeem the publishers’ former authority as gatekeepers of literature. An editor’s careful pruning is vital for Australian books to both flourish and nourish.

Young knows that the creation of an ecosystem in which it matters to us that books bear fruit won’t happen overnight. His book was and remains a provocation to all who share his passion to start the conversation about the future of book culture. It started in 2007 and we must not let it die. Sherman Young gets the first and last word:

“In the same breath that I call the book dead, I make a plea to hold onto the essence of what a book should do.”

I love this book! That essence is what I am pursuing at NMIT.

Speaking of which, here’s the ‘Elusive Butterfly’ lyrics link I promised:


And here are the guitar chords to try it out yourself.


And if you really did read this far, a Linked-In group would welcome you.



About quillpoweronline

I'm an editor at Quillpower PR Publishing. Specialising in 'things that are lovely and of good report'. I work with writers to gently brush away irrelevancies to reveal the buried treasure, or chisel meaning from a block of text. As an accredited editor (Inst. Prof. Editors Ltd) with experience in advertising, public relations, news and feature writing and editing for all media I help communicators put a professional shine on their message. But here on the blog, it's after hours, and I may do an elongated tweet every now and then, point up an absurdity, or simply post one of my ancient scribbles before it and I crumble into dust. BTW, WordPress chooses the ads (if any) on my blog. Quid pro quo.
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