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“Technology...the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it,” wrote Max Frisch, Swiss novelist and playwright, in Homo Faber.

They’re a foursome: author, publisher, printer and distributor/retailer who bring books into the world. All have benefited from the rapid advances in computer and communications technology in the past decade. The entire process of producing a book and its distribution has been speeded up and the sheer drudgery of routine functions of the pre-computerized days almost eliminated. But has the consumer benefited from the books that are published day after day? Has the author, publisher and wholesaler learnt anything new about what the consumer wants? Or have they become cogs in a mechanized world without experiencing anything new?

The situation has an upside and a downside. Before checking the pros and cons, look at the upside first. The word processor has certainly made the author’s work much simpler: he can chop and change, not just words and sentences but entire pages from one corner to another; he can also have at his command a whole range of reference books — from dictionaries, thesaurus to google search — relevant to his field of work.

For the printer, the setting up of the manuscript according to design specifications that could be switched around at the touch of a button has become a lot easier than the old moveable types with blocks for illustrations and diagrams. Type faces and type sizes can be varied, inter-linear spacing changed, and many other details spun around to make the book reader-friendly. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the new emphasis on design and layout has come about because of the availability of sophisticated computer software.

Finally, for the distributor, who has to handle a great many more titles now, inventory control and monitoring the movement of stock have become a lot simpler. This has made accounting for hundreds of titles possible: without computerization, a whole army of clerks couldn’t have handled the number of titles that have now flooded the market. Distributors buy books in bulk, but ‘bulk’ can vary from hundreds of copies to just a few tens and twenties, depending upon the nature of the title and its sales potential. Such niggardly details can only be registered by computers, not by clerks.

But there is more to life than increasing its speed, as Mahatma Gandhi famously said. Look at other side. While authors can revise their works-in-progress as often as they want, the ease with which they can do it leads to what has been described as “word-i-tis”— verbal diarrhoea of “words, words, words” that could well have been left out.

It can be argued that desk editors can delete these useless words and sentences while preparing the final copy for press, but, often, it doesn’t happen for two reasons. First, many authors believe it is their call, not the editor’s, what goes in the final copy. Because it is difficult to argue with recalcitrant authors, editors take the easy way out and let it pass. Second, editors don’t have the time to go into the minutiae of manuscripts because they have to fulfil their production quotas at the end of the year. Increasingly, publishing has become a numbers game; it is quantity, not quality, that matters now.

And this quantity is possible because of computer applications in publishing. But more than production targets to be fulfilled, it is the imaginative impulse that is somehow smothered by the computer. Whether it is the ease with which a work can be churned out or because it has fallen to machines, not men, to do the job, the sad fact remains that there is a failure of imagination in many books that are now being published.

It is hard to cut free of technology, but it should not be allowed to dictate what goes in and what stays out. Sadly, this is what is happening more and more with a deluge of books which makes it difficult to decide what to take or what to leave out.

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