On Publishing Perspectives this morning, there's a great piece by Kassia Kroszer about getting the "fundamentals" of e-books right. What she means by "fundamentals" is essentially the design and function of an e-book as a way of providing access to its content: its technology, in a word.
For all the fretting and daydreaming about the changes afoot in publishing these days, clear thinking about technology is rare. Well, duh: nobody knows what the technology will "do" next, right? Nobody even has the slightest idea what Apple's iUnicorn will be, because it won't be announced until tomorrow!
But that question doesn't make sense anyway, because technologies don't do anything. Technologies may permit certain actions or capabilities, but they don't do anything themselves. So if publishers think that e-books are going to save their asses, they're going to be disappointed. The publishers need to save their own asses; e-books won't do it for 'em.
A lot of the talk and blog traffic I see about "the future of publishing" or "the future of reading" or "the future of translation" conflates or confuses the role of cultures and technologies. Technologies can be invented, but they don't do anything. Cultures do things, but they cannot be invented: they have to grow (or fail and die) on their own. Debates over Kindles and e-books and iUnicorns are using technology as a proxy and gateway for cultural change: new technologies have exposed the possibility of different commercial relationships among authors, publishers, and readers. It may end up that our entire culture of writing, publishing, and reading will change as a result—but controlling the technology will not in the slightest mean controlling the culture.
So I think we need to make a distinction between "technologies of reading" (or publishing or whatever) and "cultures of reading" (and, yes, there are technologies of culture and cultures of technology), and make it clear which one we're talking about in our future speculations. But pretty much everyone in publishing, whether writers, editors, or readers, is powerless to actually affect either kind of future: not the technological future, because they're not engineers, and not the cultural future, because culture can't be engineered. The only thing we can do is try to understand the changes—both technological and cultural—as they happen and position our work for the role we want it to have in the future world. Over the long term, our support (or lack thereof) for cultural changes may lead to their success (or failure), but we can't force the issue.
I think I'll have a lot more to say about this, but I suspect this summer's conference on The Future of Reading at RIT will mark a major advance in the discussion. I hope so, anyway.