A Yarn About Digital Publishing and the End of the World

A manifesto on community, digital publishing, and Arkana.

by  Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

So, supposedly the world’s going to end, or at least the world as we know it. Modern day prophets preach about Hollywood-induced violence and unresolvable race issues and how soon we’ll be piling garbage all the way to the moon. The nightly news reads like a jeremiad. Shootings. Missing kids. Corrupt politicians. There’s a lot to be depressed about, but don’t worry—we have pills for that.

Such teeth-gnashing has spilled over into the publishing and literary realms. Much has been debated about literature in the digital world—whether e-books will kill our beloved brick-and-mortar libraries, whether online publications (such as Arkana) are legitimate literary journals or will cheapen what it means to be “literary,” yada yada. Are we destined for Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 future, relying on a few brave men and women to memorize books in secret while all paper books are burned away or—gasp—made obsolete?

Dear God, no. Before you start memorizing all the Harry Potter books for posterity, please consider that literature is essentially the art of stories, and a person who isn’t obsessed with stories is probably Google’s latest failed attempt at a humanoid robot.

The people who pit print and digital literature against each other are infected with the terrible disease of bitterness, and they can only be cured with a little bit of imagination. Luckily, as we sail farther into the 21st century, the initial distrust of digital publications is starting to die away, replaced with the question, “So… what do we do now?” Now that we’re still here. Now that printed literature is still here. Now that writing and reading is still flourishing and stories are still being told despite the fact that the digital world has expanded and becomes increasingly easy-to-use, encompassing, and pervasive. We’re at that scary stage where we have to keep coming up with new ideas to progress in this post-Digital Revolution age. We have the technology, but what do we do with it? It’s a thrilling time to be a part of publishing because there is so much left to do with technology and literature, so much potential that can, and will, be realized.

And the farther we get into the 21st century, the more it becomes apparent that print and digital formats CAN and DO coexist, with most people reading both traditional print journals, magazines, and books and also online publications, e-books, and websites.

Bitterness and doomsday prophecies are out-of-date. There is no war between print and digital publication. There is only room for innovation, a universe of unknown possibilities waiting to be explored.

In the article “The Future Value of a Literary Publisher,” Jane Friedman writes, “The literary publisher needs to be a beacon, to offer a strong signal amidst all the noise, and organize ideas, content, and stories within an identifiable and useful context.” Although the digital world has decreased the value of publication—anybody with a Twitter and too much time on his/her hands can publish opinions or experiences—literary publication still holds high importance, placing the right works in the right communities, whether those communities surround a digital or print (or both) publication.

The key word here is communities. That’s another reason publication won’t be doomed as long as human beings walk the planet—they’re social animals, and reading is an inherently social act.

Matthew Stadler claims in “The Ends of the Book: Reading, Economies & Publics” that “reading is open-ended, provisional, conversational. It’s not solitary, but deeply collective.” He goes on to explain that “publication is the creation of new publics” and that books (and any written works of literature) are “especially welcoming public spaces.” Literature requires empathy and reflection, the act of listening to another human being’s story rather than constantly projecting your own thoughts and identity. Therefore, in the age of fast food and selfies, literature is a valuable commodity, offering the chance to slow down and connect with humanity rather than forcing you to look inward, to define yourself and establish your existence. Literature and the publication of literature is as important, if not more important, now than it’s ever been, and it’s not going away.

Jane Friedman argues that community “is imperative in the Internet era.” The Internet allows people to connect more easily than ever before—encouraging networks of people with similar goals and interests.

With Publication Studios, Matthew Stadler shows that networks and community building aren’t just digital concepts. Publication Studios, founded by Stadler, is a collection of publishers across the nation who publish books and focus on the quality of the relationships between publisher, author, and readers. Each book gathers a following one reader at a time, creating a network of people with similar tastes and interests. Publication Studios, founded in 2009—well within the age of speculation about the supposedly terminal publishing industry—publishes print books as well as offering e-books and allowing anyone to read and annotate books “online in a digital ‘free reading commons.’” Stadler has created an innovative way to publish literature in the 21st century, not falling prey to the old, arguably soulless big publishing house system and also not succumbing to bitterness about new digital technologies destroying precious printed books.

Rather than worrying about whether a book is in digital or print format, Stadler and his associates at Publication Studios instead focus on the community around a book and the networks of relationships a publication can create.

Into this age of an evolving relationship between print and digital media comes Arkana—a solely (at least at first) online publication dedicated to “seeking and fostering a sense of shared wonder by privileging art that asks questions, explores mystery, and works to discover and uncover the overlooked, the misunderstood, and the silent.” (That’s our kick-butt mission statement.) Where does Arkana fit into the current publishing world? How can Arkana stand out? How can Arkana be innovative?

Well, those are some pretty big questions. The answer is small, yet powerful—with you. You are the overlooked, misunderstood, and silent. You are someone looking past the fast food and selfie culture, someone craving empathy, someone wanting to reflect. You are a listener in a world of speakers.

You are the community of Arkana, the ones that find and give meaning from work presented here, the ones that allow literature, no matter what form, to move, inspire, and connect to you.

Nothing drastic is going to change in the publishing industry. Technological advances will come, will go, and the industry will have to adapt, as always. What can change are people’s hearts and minds through the experiences and empathy shared through stories—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or none of the above.

So, with Arkana the world IS going to end as we know it. We’re going to look past the humdrum bitterness of old, the dogmatic voices, the dismal news, the streets filled with violence. We’re going to venture beyond, imagine worlds that could be that could never be before. Together, we’re going to embrace individuality and tradition while celebrating community and the billions of possible (or impossible) futures waiting to be explored.

It just takes some imagination. And there’s no pill for that.

Source: Kurowski, Travis, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer, editors. Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century. Milkweed Editions, 2016.

Cassie Hayes is a fiction writer and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program and interns at the Oxford American.