Breaking the Gutenbergian Chain

Since the fifteenth century, writers produced manuscripts, publishers paid for them, printers made them into books, distributors stored them and conveyed them to points of sale, and booksellers sold them to readers. But if you interrogate each of the elements in this chain, only two them of them are actually essential: somebody writes and somebody reads. And then there were electronic readers and all of a sudden the great Gutenbergian chain was broken. (Rick Gekoski, The Life and Death of the Book)

However, Gekoski points out that the broken “Gutenbergian chain” of print media is being reconstructed in the digital space, but this time by a smaller number of players (namely Amazon, Google, and Apple).

In a saturated market that swallows most works into a vacuum of obscurity, the retailers — and, more importantly, their algorithms — become the link in the chain that arbitrates the relationship between the writers and the readers. Now more than ever, writers need a third-party platform for exposing their work to potential readers, and readers, in turn, need an adjudicator to tease out the wheat from the chaff.

In other words, breaking the Gutenbergian chain has only created a new chain: in version 2.0, the great mediator between writers and readers is not a publishing house staff or an individual editor, but an algorithm. Or, more precisely, the corporation that owns the algorithm.

Little surprise, then, is the ever-growing tendency that we writerly folk have to obsess over ratings, reviews, likes, and shares. In the post-Gutenberg era, successful publishing is not about impressing a manuscript reviewer — it’s about impressing a search engine.  We, authors, are dancing into a brave new world where we no longer gain an audience by winning the interest and respect of human beings, but by tripping a digit in a mathematical equation.

Breaking the Gutenbergian chain did not eliminate the role of book promoters. It turned authors into book promoters. To get to the people, we feel like we have to promote ourselves to a computer.

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