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Q&A with Eve Gray: The Kindle, iPad, WWII and the future of publishing

It is (too) easy to categorise reactionary attitudes like Nadine Gordimer opining that deadtree books are better than screens as a generation thing. It’s easy to assume that an appreciation of new technologies is a generation thing, that an entire generation gets it, but that previous ones don’t.

I don’t think it’s a generation thing, I think it’s a generative thing. There are those who understand the generative potential of new tech and those who don’t. Some of those who don’t are 18, some of those who don’t run tech companies, although perhaps not for much longer. To show that it’s not an age thing, I interviewed South African communications and open access expert Eve Gray, and we spoke about the Kindle, the future of publishing and the Rolling Stones.

Andrew Rens: Eve, I was trying to figure out how to describe what you do. You’ve led an interesting life, teaching and lecturing English, in South Africa, the UK and Luxembourg, translating architectural history books in Belgium, rebuilding the moribund Wits University Press in the 1990s and working as an academic publisher in Cape Town. You then became a publishing strategy consultant, and, most recently, a researcher on open access scholarly communications at the Centre for Educational Technology at UCT. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) regards you as a world expert on open access. I’d say that you are a publisher at heart. How would you define yourself?

Eve Gray: You might say I am a communications expert and leave it at that. But what really drives me is the potential of technology to empower regions like Africa that have been pushed to the margins, the potential to turn the digital divide on its head.

I consult to publishers who are changing their business models, I advise projects on open scholarly communications. A better description of what I do is to look at what is going on and where we are headed, and I pull this together with my experience of publishing and I see what the future might look like.

I think that the reasons I don’t hold on to the same certainties as many of those in the publishing industry, have to do with having a highly intuitive personality and being forced to be a pioneer, growing up in the fifties, coming from Africa (and apartheid South Africa at that), and being a woman in what was then very much a man’s world. Jail break was the only option.

AR: Is the publishing industry doomed?

EG: Publishing isn’t necessarily doomed, but certain types of publishers are. The big dinosaurs are not going to change their business models fast enough, and it has become clear, particularly in the last few months with the advent of the iPad as the tipping point, that e-books and e-distribution are going to hammer bricks and mortar models.

Smaller, more nimble tech-savvy companies are emerging at the edges – look at Electric Book Works and Compress.dsl in Cape Town. I believe the future is likely to be in smaller, multimedia publishing service companies, with a lot more autonomy in the hands of authors.

All this is great for southern Africa, where, if we are honest, we have to ask hard questions about book culture and particularly big business book culture. What will still be needed, though, is access to publishing skills – editing and preparing text, good design, marketing and distribution skills in order to reach readers, in whatever medium, with a message that speaks to their needs.

AR: I am not going to ask your age, but you have seen a lot of changes…

EG: Come on – I am about the same age as the Rolling Stones! But to give you an idea, my father believed that I shouldn’t study mathematics and science because that wasn’t suitable for girls. Instead I had to study Home Economics including ‘How to supervise the Understairs Maid’.

Girls were not supposed to go to university, but somehow I found the money and got there. I encountered these attitudes again in the academy where, believe it or not, scholarships for postgraduate study were nearly all reserved for men. But then the Sixties happened and everything started to explode. I believe it’s made me much more ready to question the established certainties of the day. which has been very helpful as a communications strategist.

AR: Digital technology is a fact of life for the Born Free generation, but it wasn’t always like that was it?

EG: Well, the promise of technology was always there – WWII radio broadcasts, scratchy music on wind-up gramophones, the magic of the first wire recorders, Elvis Presley’s first LP… I wrote my Masters thesis (as a ‘mature student) on a mainframe computer at Wits University that occupied two rooms.

The real epiphany, however, came in 1994 in the US, when, as Director of Wits University Press, I went to the Association of American University Presses conference and found myself at a workshop on electronic publishing.

Pioneer publishers were talking about the potential that was being unleashed; there were a couple of young guys bursting with excitement at having developed Mosaic and Gopher – ‘You can surf the Web!’ – and another team were literally doing a dance as they revealed Adobe Acrobat.

I realised that this could change everything for publishing at the periphery, in Africa. We did not need to be at the periphery any more if we could join a seamless global communication web, across the boundaries of physical borders, distribution barriers, big-publisher dominance.

AR: So you came back to South Africa with a bunch of cutting edge ideas, what happened?

EG: They thought I was mad. One publisher, about seven years later admitted this and said ruefully that, given that I had been proved right, he had to start taking seriously the crazy things that I suggest now.

I came back to Wits University and suggested that they should put their best research on a website and then start attracting the best research from other African universities, so that Wits could profile itself as the leading African research university in what was the birth year of a democratic South Africa.

That was my vision of where we were heading. The leadership of the university was uncomprehending. What shocked them most was the idea that they should give their research away for free rather than selling it.

Leadership at Wits has changed. Wits now has Derek Keates as Deputy Vice Chancellor, Knowledge and Information management, and he is a well-known personality in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community, who can hopefully transform things at Wits.

AR: Only 10% of South Africans have Internet access, how important are new technologies?

EG: Changes in technology became widespread far quicker than policy or business models develop. To pick up on something mentioned earlier, South Africa became a constitutional democracy at about the same time as the Internet took off, but South Africa’s ICT policies are drawn from the early 90s before the rise of generative technologies.

It’s important to remember that as Africans we have advantages for using new technologies, being less tied to outdated technologies and business models. We also come from a cultural tradition that is built around networking and sharing. Look at how well we do in cellphone technology and how we have taken the lead in building social networks using cellphones.

In fact, for years I have been saying that the icon for an African school child is a child with a slate, not a child with a book. Now we have digital slates emerging, with iPad the new hot media idea.

AR: What do you mean by generative technologies?

EG: I mean technologies that have the potential to disrupt received ideas and break down the walls that confine us to the role of bit-part players on a stage dominated by huge and greedy corporations.

Technologies that enable us to reassert the fact that it was Africa that gave an impetus to modernist art in Europe, inspiring Matisse and Picasso, and that provided the foundations for jazz and rock music. There is a wealth of African knowledge and stories that we and the world need. Old technologies and old business models have not succeeded in releasing that potential.

AR: What is your latest tech toy?

EG: A Kindle from Amazon. Not because I like their business model that much, but because they are the one company that has addressed the biggest barrier that we face – the territorial rights deals that mean that new tech toys like the iPad are for the big boys in the North.

Amazon has cleared rights for a good number of books, so I can buy titles for less than they would cost if they were available locally (which they are mostly not) without delays and without high shipping costs.

It’s not just that we need a FOSS Kindle, but that we need to deal with the question of territorial rights – a business deal, effectively, masquerading as an IP right, that allows publishers in the North to dictate where we are allowed to buy our books. And, for communication, it is built on cellphone technology, so it can work in our environment.

That said, the Kindle is a useful little slate, slim but clunky in its technology interface. It reminds me of those early, deadly-beige IBM desktops. But I love the freedom it gives me to access books and it is wonderful for travelling.

AR: What are you reading on the Kindle at the moment?

EG: William Patry’s “Moral Panics and the Copyright Wars”. It speaks directly to the myths and manipulations that keep us as cultural underdogs. An important book, as we need our policy-makers to open their eyes and make more informed choices for our communications and IP policies. I hope that my next purchase will be China Mieville’s new novel, due to be published in a week or so. After “The City and the City”, I have high expectations.

AR: To wrap it up, what is going to happen to publishing in South Africa?

EG: That is a big question. The government is getting restive about schools publishing. Will they move to open access online? This is a strong possibility I believe. University students are increasingly using online learning environments.

At UCT, we are part of the open source Sakai consortium and the Vula system has proved hugely successful, very popular with students, who feel that it gives them a voice, and with lecturers who find it intuitive and flexible because it is Open Source. That is the way academic textbooks will go, I am sure, probably combined with e-book readers for resources. No more lugging around bagfuls of books.

Trade books? There has to be a move towards a wider readership, Books are still too tied to traditional middle class, mostly white, markets. Cellphones will certainly be a growing reading tool. E-books again, I suspect, (after all, they are just big-screen cellphones) with more of a continuum between book publishing and other media. Or perhaps it is, as someone said at a Zimbabwe Book Fair some years ago – “Right now the stories of Africa are in our music.”

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