The Print on Demand Revolution in 21st Century America

A few weeks ago we discussed Elizabeth’s Eisenstein’s book and came to a class consensus that the printing press was not just a neat-o invention (although, yes, it was also clearly neat-o). For starters, it changed readers’ interactions with the word, became a key factor in the scientific revolution as well as the Reformation, and it made texts more accessible than ever. Of course, Eisenstein acknowledges that all this wonderful access was both good and bad. After all, I wonder how many copies of the “wicked Bible” went out before people realized that it negated one of God’s commandments—kind of a big deal. More than a book about the past, though, Eisenstein’s work brought back memories for me that are printing-press related and very 21st century.

Just a few years ago, I worked as an editor in an open publishing house linked to My job? Well. Edit. (For example, I would point out that geez, Mandy, you rely a lot on fragments and parentheses when you blog. Do you realize that this is ungrammatical/tacky?) But more importantly, I was to offer feedback to Average Joes paying to publish works using Amazon’s print on demand/e-book services. If you had cash, you could write a book, receive editorial services, and have your book featured on Amazon. Drum up enough publicity for it, and you could possibly enjoy some monetary compensation. It was the market at its best, “print on demand.” This previous gig was definitely on my mind as I read Eisenstein, but I had to break down and blog about it when I caught this news story on CNN yesterday:

(apologies, I can’t get the video to show up with the add video feature.)

Some guy uses the capabilities of print and the web to write a guide for pedophiles, and the book, its author, and Amazon make the news. Color me not shocked.

But let me clarify.

Definitely, it makes sense that news organizations would report on this story, but that’s not why I’m unfazed. I’m not shocked that someone felt that it was ok to not only write this book but to sell it in a public space. At about the 23 second mark, A.C. essentially asks, “What else is Amazon selling?” Oh, Anderson. Sit back, and let me tell you a story.

Here’s just a smattering of comments I remember offering Average Joes, loosely translated. I was much more rhetorical on the clock:

“The problem with your toilet humor book is that once you write about flatulence outside of the bathroom, the book ceases to be funny. Use the bathroom as your setting. It’s your strong suit.”

“You may be overgeneralizing when you assert that all unmarried African-American males over 40 are gay. ”

“You say that there is one man for every four women in the U.S. and as a result, women should lower their standards in order to get a guy. You may want to double-check the make-up of the U.S. population.”

“While you seem to greatly respect Native American culture, please note that your guidebook about the Indian way of getting in touch with nature to find one’s purpose in life could be read as essentializing instead of complimenting Indigenous Peoples.”

“You may be overgeneralizing when you assert that gay marriage is the reason for all natural disasters.”

“While I recognize that you’re going for authenticity in writing about the Antebellum South, your rendering of slave dialect could offend some readers.”

I could go on for days, but you get the point. The worst experience I had involved a book that discussed rape in a cavalier manner, arguing that the real victims of rape were rapists—not the women attacked (the author clearly assumed that only women were rape victims). When I voiced concern over this to the powers-that-were, I learned that there was no ethics clause to address works like this, a phenomenon that A.C. talks about in the clip (3:30 and then again at 4:38). Freedom of speech in the age of print on demand. I find it interesting that Amazon censors what it considers to be offensive images—yet it sees removing text as a violation of free speech (until there is bad press, then apparently the policy is “screw freedom of speech”). Hm. So text is protected under free speech, yet images are not? <Insert profound statement about the relationship among text, visuals, and intellectual property here.>

Now, I have a love/hate relationship with print on demand. Up to this point, I’ve emphasized the sexist, racist, homophobic (and just for kicks, silly) texts that were sent my way for feedback and edits, and I’ve tried to be light-hearted. In reality, though, I read lots of really offensive stuff. Just to complicate matters, though, I also read some truly moving works by amateur authors, who would not have had a voice without print on demand. In particular, I loved receiving memoirs, and I edited quite a few powerful pieces that made me truly love my job. Also, how awesome is it that individuals who may not have access to a university press can have a voice? How incredibly democratic is it that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. to share your ideas? I acknowledge of course that print on demand ain’t cheap—not everyone has access. Average Joe is probably not working class in the print on demand world.

Is there a way for print on demand to honor the first amendment while also responsibly addressing the fact that a book on child pedophilia could be as offensive as pornography, which it presently censors?

Clearly, I don’t assume to have the answers, but it seems to me that there is much work to do to address the ethical questions that arise with not only print, but print on demand in particular. Clearly it seems that interpretations of the first amendment have not caught up with the technological capabilities of print on demand. Then again, freedom of speech always generates debate (take for instance, Fred Phelps’ right to protest at funerals). As comp/rhet folks, are we in a unique position to contribute to this particular discussion about print on demand and its effects on the way we read/write/research? Hm….

One final word:

When our students search Amazon for research purposes, they will have access to university press books, which have undergone intense peer review, and they will also have access to books that look reputable but have received maybe a copy edit, if that. Some of these books are really good. Some are incredibly . . . well, review the A.C. clip. The “publisher” line on is more important than ever. I tend to preach this in class just because I have been one of those unnamed folks behind the scenes who had to contend with the good, bad, and ugly of this printing phenomenon.

The “wicked Bible” seems like child-play by comparison.

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2 Responses to The Print on Demand Revolution in 21st Century America

  1. kerwoodcomp says:

    I’m really glad that you blogged about the ‘guide for pedophiles’ as I was pretty outraged by it, and I love how you tied it into Eisenstein. I appreciate you including the perspective you have from your work experience as it really added some insight into the issue, and now I’m really thinking about the ethical implications of print on demand and such. I might pick your brain sometime!

  2. Siobhan says:

    I know I’m getting to this a bit late out of the gate, but I really enjoyed this post. I’m in a similar sticky feeling here–how do we compromise between free speech and something like a pedophile playbook? It’s scary. I agree, whole-heartedly, with its being pulled–but what troubles me is how there are scary, scary folks out there who could use these incidents against free-thinking, “amateur” authors. (Please, don’t anyone on the Internet misunderstand–I am NOT calling the author of the pedophile guide a “free thinker.”)

    Does that make sense? I’m not even sure. But what I’m trying to say, I think, is that I’m worried about where we draw the line. What’s good, and what’s bad? Who gets to decide?

    BRB reading my Foucault…

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