Tribeca Talks: ‘Out of Print’: Discussing the Future of Publishing with Filmmaker Vivienne Roumani
The publishing world is constantly evolving in the digital era, be it in book publishing or magazine publishing. From Newsweek making the move to going all-digital earlier this year (a future that might await all magazines in the next decade or so, as tablet devices become more and more accessible to the average consumer), to New York Magazine combining their tablet issue with access to their Web site within the app interface, to Forbes Magazine embracing the sharing capability within their tablet app through the creation of a fun and creative clipping component that works much like tearing out a page of an actual magazine, the interactive elements and innovative ways of telling stories are endless in the journalism domain. But as mentioned previously, the magazine industry isn’t the only one that is changing — books are also facing a big evolution in the realm of tablets and e-readers, and one that many might argue publishers aren’t yet fully embracing.
Showcasing this ever-present change in the publishing business, specifically concerning books and e-books, is filmmaker Vivienne Roumani’s documentary film Out of Print, which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival. Through various interviews with key figures in the publishing industry, among them bestselling author Scott Turow and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Roumani examines the shift in media and the end of print books as we have come to know them, as well as the future of bookstores, libraries and the traditional sense of reading. But despite discussing the modifications of the industry, the documentary is also an exploration into a bigger problem: the constantly growing number of individuals who simply do not read at all, as well as the decreased attention span of individuals who read consistently on electronic devices, due in large part to the various distractions that they have available at their fingertips. However, her documentary shouldn’t be taken as a negative view of what is yet to come, but rather as a word of advice on what publishers, writers and editors should take into account when creating the new platforms to tell stories and attract new readers — finding the right dose of interactivity without losing the reader’s ability to connect with the written content in and of itself.
GALO had a chance to speak with Roumani about her film, discussing the challenges that bookstores face, the impact that technology is having on children, and whether she herself prefers to read books in print or in a digital format, among other things.
GALO: As a writer, editor and publisher, I found your documentary very interesting and informative on the publishing industry today and going forward. I specifically found the various viewpoints of great value. What was your inspiration for this documentary film, and why did you decide to focus it on the book publishing industry for the most part and not magazines, for instance?
Vivienne Roumani: I had been a librarian at Johns Hopkins, the Library of Congress, and UC Berkeley, where I was involved in the move to digitization, so I reacted rather strongly to headlines like “Web to book: Drop dead.” Knowledge transcends format, and I wanted to understand the impact that changing modes of access to information was having on the development of knowledge, and whether apparent progress might actually be limiting us in some ways. My initial thought was to chronicle the life of the book with all the villains that historically aimed at its destruction: fire, water, censorship, and ignorance, but as I began my interviews I quickly found that the book was a part, albeit a very important part, of a much broader issue. That is what led me to people as varied as traditional authors like Ray Bradbury and Scott Turow and self-published author Darcie Chan, “new” booksellers like Jeff Bezos and traditionalists like the Strand’s Fred Bass, cognitive scientists like Maryanne Wolf and John Gabrieli, as well as scholars, librarians, educators, and parents and those wonderful students. This diverse group of participants allowed me to bring all aspects of the publishing and print worlds within a unified narrative framework. I chose to stay away from newspapers and magazines because, given that their economic model relies primarily on advertising revenue, the story would have taken a completely different direction. I did allude to magazines and newspapers occasionally, but broadening the scope would not have helped in establishing the storyline, which takes us on a journey from the book to issues of publishing and reading, and ultimately, to the role of education in the digital era.
GALO: I’m sure many of our readers are curious as to what form of reading do you prefer (digital or physical books) and why?
VR: I do a good deal of my reading electronically — on my iPhone Kindle App, in fact –– because of the ease of “picking up” a book anywhere, any time, especially on the subway. But, being a visual person, I prefer physical books, where it is easy to have a visual memory for referencing a particularly appealing sentence. I also enjoy the aesthetic of the physical book, and the tactility that allows me to move about easily, but I don’t distinguish in my own mind between printed and electronic books in terms of content; as the documentary illustrates, however, I do worry very much about our ability to read electronically in the same way that we read from print, and the evidence is pretty clear that we do not. The delivery tool and its distractions can be very problematic, for me as well.
GALO: Your documentary discusses the impact that technology has on children outside and inside of the classroom. One teacher says that students want to get things done quickly, but she seems to imply that children today are losing out on analytical skills, almost as if they were computers themselves, taking something in and then spitting it out. Not to mention, how attention spans seem to be simmering down. Can you talk a little bit about this in regards to the documentary and what you yourself had noticed whether when filming or through personal observations?
VR: The kids themselves spoke about their problems with attention, and, in clips that unfortunately couldn’t be included, so did some of the adults. Maryanne Wolf described how difficult it was for her to get back to reading literature when she realized that she had stopped reading books for pleasure. Let’s be fair: kids have always looked for shortcuts. Before SparkNotes, we had Cliff Notes in hard copy. But I believe that there has been a marked change when students from the very best schools rely so heavily on shortcuts and even see nothing wrong in doing so, no shame in admitting, “I haven’t read a book all year.” Knowledge requires patience, time, thought, engagement; knowledge is not having a question to which we can quickly get an answer. Rapid access to information has its benefits, but letting the questions develop, come to us in their own time, that is what “critical thinking” requires. We know that a nation’s greatest economic indicator is the level of literacy of the population — and we are not talking about the lowest levels of literacy.
GALO: There is an instance in the film in which one of the interviewees says that the bigger problem is that people in America aren’t really reading at all. What, in your opinion, should publishers and writers strive to do to try to fix this problem?
VR: The most important thing that publishers and writers can do is to keep on writing and publishing the very best works possible; having said that, the reading statistics are certainly a cause for concern. The number of Americans who did not read a single book of any type, in any format, during the previous year continues to increase and has now reached one out of four adults. There is a large part of the population, of all ages, that does not want to read long-form text, and it is necessary to reach them and keep them reading. Amazon and others are trying to address the reading needs of this population through shorter works, such as novellas and extended magazine-type articles, and that is a positive development. We can continue producing shorter works, but we must also train for long-form reading. This type of reading is trainable, and it is essential to our development as humans and as a society. Everyone now agrees that reading on electronic devices that can be connected to the Internet is prone to distraction, which in the long run affects attention spans, and people of all ages need to learn to shut out the distractions if they truly wish to read and to take advantage of the great books that are still coming in all formats.
(Interview continued on next page)