Busy Being Born or Busy Dying? : The Internet and new combinations of traditional professional functions in the book trade

Johan Svedjedal


The first part of this article is concerned with functions in publishing of codex books. The traditional job profile of publishers (or editors) is discussed in connection with a description of profiles of different media. This description uses six variables: text (sequential or multisequential), sound, and pictures (illustrations or moving pictures). There is extensive discussion of different kinds of relationships between authors and publishers, focusing on the "gatekeeping" processes, which are primarily viewed as instances of the publisher's creative influence. After a discussion of the unspoken rules of publishing, the concept of literary responsivity is introduced as an overall term for the author's reactions to comments or expectations from others.

The second part examines ways in which functions in the various professions in the traditional book trade can be described. The main functions of the different groups in the traditional "book chain" are analyzed. A new model of functions in the book trade is introduced, providing a new way of describing "the literary process," i.e., the production, distribution, and consumption of literature. This model focuses on functions rather than individuals and institutions. Using a list of twenty-eight crucial functions, it demonstrates how the professional profiles of different groups often overlap. It also provides a checklist which facilitates comparisons between traditional and new jobs in the book trade. ("Clusters of functions of individuals and institutions in the book trade," Table 1A.)

The third section begins by highlighting different kinds of quality control in the traditional book chain, then discusses several new kinds of Swedish literary enterprises on the Internet. The section comprises various initiatives in writing, publishing, distributing, selling, and discussing fiction.

Two noncommercial sites for publishing fiction are discussed: Wet Warlock and Novell på nätet. A few Print On Demand projects are examined (Swedish authors Peter Curman’s, Jan Myrdal’s and Lars Forssell’s project with Arkitektkopia; Mart Marend’s Books-on-Demand), with a background on the historical roots of self-publishing (or "vanity publishing"). These enterprises are shown to combine functions from traditional publishing, printing, and bookselling.

A passage on traditional publishers shows that they mainly use the Internet to market their books, not to publish literary works or sell books on-line directly to the customer. A section on Internet bookshops begins with an analysis of book trade functions and marketing strategies at the American on-line bookshop Amazon.com. This leads into to a similar investigation of Swedish Internet bookshops, focusing on four of them (AdLibris, Akademibokhandeln, bokus.com, Internetbokhandeln) and includes a comparison of consumer prices for a selection of books in 1997 and 1998 (Table 2-3).

The concluding section discusses some of the ways in which information concerning Swedish literature is organized on the Internet. Finally, there is a study of the Usenet news group swnet.kultur.litteratur, comprising the total of 113 messages posted there from November 8 to December 10, 1998. Profiles of the discussions and the participants are analyzed, and the social interaction within the news group is related to the concepts of the "public sphere"’ and the "virtual community."

Throughout the third section, the new model of clusters of functions in the book trade is used to describe the profiles of the Internet enterprises in question (Table 1B). It is shown how they recombine traditional functions in inventive ways, representing new ways of doing things in the book world, but generally sidestep questions of quality control.

The research for this article was mainly funded by the project Nya vägar för boken, with additional support from Axel och Margaret Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse för allmännyttiga ändamål.

Nya vägar för boken (New Ways for the Book Project) (http://www.kb.se/Nvb/english.htm) is the Swedish contribution to the larger European project New Book Economy – Building the Information Society. NBE-BIS was initiated by the European Council and is partly financed by the EU program ADAPT. It is currently implemented in six countries: Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Netherlands, and Sweden.