Predictions have an uncanny tendency to come true, just not in the way predicted. Take the early 1990s mantra of "the death of the book" the existentially-laden theme of many a brow-furrowed academic conference, journal special issue, and edited collection. For someone who started a PhD about book publishing slap-bang in the middle of that fin-de-siècle decade, it seemed almost preternaturally bad timing. By the time Amazon had risen to online dominance in the late 1990s, it appeared the die was well and truly cast.

And yet...with the wisdom of a quarter-century hindsight it is now possible to see that, despite the incursions of eBooks, especially in genre publishing, the codex book remains very much alive.1 It is just that printed books are created, edited, marketed, publicized, retailed, profiled, evaluated, and discussed within a thoroughly digital web of stakeholders. How is this seeming contradiction possible?

The problem lies with the either/or, supercessionist logic of 1990s-style electronic literature proponents. Attempting to shift a conservative-minded literary establishment hostile to electronic formats as anything other than tools for print-centric research, writer-critics such as Robert Coover, Jay David Bolter, and George Landow threw out the baby with the bathwater, heralding a revolutionary new era of electronic dominance that spelt the end of the codex book a medium pugnaciously declared "dead as God."2 Such rhetorical overreach amounted to a fatal tactical error. For as wild predictions about hypertext's manifest destiny failed to eventuate by the late 1990s, an always-skeptical literary mainstream gleefully rejected the digital outright. (A more moderate view of print and digital domains' coexistence of the kind long espoused by N. Katherine Hayles would have proved better bet-hedging in case the glorious hypertextual future never arrived.3) Hence, by the time digital technologies and platforms began to make significant changes to the literary landscape by the turn of the millennium, there was scant mainstream academic interest in acknowledging them, and even less goodwill. Be that as it may, a further two decades have now passed and the missteps of an earlier generation of critics are no reason to avoid tackling the issue of the online literary world as it currently manifests. It's time, then, to take stock of the state of bookish play with a list of the top 10 myths about digital literary culture:

1: Digital media will kill paper books

Oh please. Is this 1995 still? Even a cursory glance at the literary internet shows how print and digital technologies have brokered a truce, coexisting and even becoming increasingly interdependent. Just as earlier broadcast media mined books for radio readings, film adaptations, and TV book clubs, the digital and print realms enthusiastically cannibalize each other's content.

This much was foreseeable to more level-headed 1990s critics. Less predictable was that not only the content of books but their very format would become foregrounded in digital environments. The codex book maintains a talismanic presence across all forms of social-media "book talk": from the artfully-arranged-hardback-displayed-in-exotic-setting beloved of bookstagrammers, to Reese Witherspoon's cozy shots of her pyjamaed self curled up on the couch with a favorite volume, to the booktuber's habitual gesture of holding up to the camera a copy of the book being reviewed to showcase its cover design and heft. The familiar codex book serves here as guarantor of the speaker's bookish identity, reassuring book-loving social-media users that the virtual environment, with all its affordances for networking and interacting, is emotionally subordinated to the tactile and affective experience of print.

2: Everyone's an author on the internet

Sure they are, it's just that some authors are more equal than others. Digital self-publishing platforms make it easier than ever to see your work in print, but the spoils of publishers' shrinking marketing and publicity budgets fall to established celebrity authors.4 The midlisters and newbies drum up what digital "platform" they can through Twitter followings, vlogging, or Facebooking. The rhythms of authorship as a profession have accordingly shifted from a largely invisible process undertaken in private in the service of the end result the all-important published book to authorship as an ongoing public performance punctuated by periodic book publications, which serve to reinforce or "reposition" an overarching authorial brand. Whereas once the inferred authorial persona was a creation of the text itself (perhaps fleshed out with a brief bionote or thumbnail author photograph), now the reader is commonly aware of the authorial brand prior to encountering the writer's words. The implications of this change have only faintly registered on academic constructions of authorship, despite the fact that any classroom of students has abundant information about a contemporary author at their fingertips, if not already on their hard drives. But literary studies' inherited author-minimizing schemas persist in denial of its staff and students' lived reality a sure sign of a discipline in need of theoretical and methodological renewal.

3: Social media democratizes author-reader relationships

Again, fine in theory. Having a message from John Green or Margaret Atwood plop into your Twitter feed can make you feel like you're real-time communing with the embodiment of the Zeitgeist or the Great Woman of Letters. Just don't expect a message back.  Among celebrity authors, the ratio of followers to those being followed is around 1000:1.5 Readers largely remain peanut-munchers, vicariously relishing the spectacle of the literati interacting with each other.

Granted, the skeptical may retort that Twitter appears to be past its peak with its number of users having crested some years ago (White House enthusiasts excepted). But the still-expanding Facebook relies on the same illusion of para-sociality: the technology offers the potential to interact directly with a celebrity author but the celebrity rarely avails themselves of the opportunity to reciprocate. Even when they do, there's no assurance it isn't some PR flack posting on their behalf fannish messages to celebrities often assume that this is the case and that the vaunted interpersonal intimacy on which the platform trades is at best a serviceable illusion, given credence only by the most naïve neophyte.

4: Literary community still exists, it's just moved online

On the contrary, literary community is often the creation of online portals. This is well and good for those quirky literary subcultures only viable in the geographically-agnostic digital domain. But the dominant online-born literary communities are commercial in their inception and, beneath all the talk of bookish fellow-feeling, in their motivation. Jeff Bezos, I'm looking at you.

We've of course had some decades by now to get used to the phenomenon of co-opting bookish community. When big-box bookstores expanded during the 1990s, it didn't take You've Got Mail's Kathleen Kelly to point out that their furnishings, ubiquitous cafes, and "shelf talker" staff recommendations were an ersatz replication of independent bookstore environments. Even Amazon's earliest incarnation as an online bookstore attempted to emulate virtually the atmosphere of "your beloved indie bookstore, full of hip, book-loving people," in the words of its first literary editor, James Marcus.6 The difference is one of degree: when a book browser entered a Barnes & Noble outlet the management was only able to capture data about their book-buying tastes through point-of-sale data, and even then usually de-identified, or through the hazy categorization of an opt-in customer loyalty program. With a platform such as Amazon, every title viewed, purchased, reviewed, or clicked away from yields data points which, in aggregate, build astonishingly detailed consumer profiles, especially when cross-matched with data drawn from other Amazon services. Literary community here is not generated by the pre-existing relationship of one reader to another, or the serendipitous encounter when browsing the same shelf, but the fact that "customers who bought this item also bought...." Community is thus solely the creation of the platform and has no prior or equivalent offline existence.

5: On the World Wide Web, all book publishers are equal

Another instance where digital disruption promises to revolutionize an industry but, when the dust settles, the 800-pound silverbacks still dominate proceedings. Small publishers can score big with a viral book trailer, but inertia-prone purchasers will likely still buy from the tried-and-tested retailing behemoths. After all, why go through all that palaver of registering your credit card with yet another website?

This reality necessitates rethinking of political economy critiques of the book publishing industry long since standard.7 Such critics have decried the increasing concentration of book publishers and called for a greater diversity of book producers. Post-colonial countries with vast geographic areas such as Canada and Australia have long argued that disproportionate focus on production was mistaken when distribution was the real hurdle to smaller players participating in the marketplace of ideas. Hence the creation of scaled-up book-distribution alliances such as Australia's Small Press Network.8 But with Amazon, the problem is that the retail platform itself behaves monopolistically, courting small publishers in its early days to expand its inventory and then squeezing them ever harder for discounts as a greater proportion of small-publishers' sales became Amazon-based.9 Independent publishers might push direct sales on their own websites hard, but consumers routinely favor the convenience of one-stop shopping at "the everything store."

6: Digital media make writers' festivals redundant

With a plethora of past performances viewable on YouTube, why stump up the cash to see Great Writers in the flesh? And yet readers in their tens of thousands continue to do so. We still crave the undeniable frisson of authorial presence. The lure here is spatiotemporal simultaneity: sociological jargon for being in the author's presence. It's the same desire audiences feel to see a great rock band live or to witness a major sporting event from a seat in the arena. But notice that, in both those cases, mediation has long been used to amplify, rather than cancel out, the live experience. The live feed relaying the performer's facial expressions for those in the far seats, or the immediate big-screen replay after a goal serve to underscore that this event is really taking place in the here and now. Doing away with an unhelpful binary distinction between liveness and mediation allows us to understand how the live writers' festival encounter can be suffused with digital mediation Twitter posts, Instagrammed selfies, blog updates without losing its spatiotemporal immediacy. Such digital archiving of the event serves to expand its audience both geographically and in time music to the ears of cash-strapped arts organizations going cap-in-hand to government funders. But the relationship between live and digital audiences gives rise to its own inbuilt hierarchies. By all means let us enjoy the dress-circle of live attendance, but let's also live-tweet proceedings to the hoi polloi relegated to following things en remote.

7: Cultural hierarchy is incompatible with distributed technologies

While we're on hierarchy, Amazon reader reviews promised everyone could be a critic a form of radical cultural democracy clothing a commercial need to increase users' website stickiness. How quickly though born-digital classifying systems emerged: "Top-50 reviewers"; reader coteries receiving sneak-peak galley proofs; "best bookbloggers" listings. In this regard, the internet has been its own worst enemy with the profusion of available content requiring filtering mechanisms for any ordinary person to navigate to material worth their limited time and attention. These same twin drivers of saving time and maximizing consumer satisfaction were, after all, behind the emergence of the book review in early periodical culture as readers struggled to keep up with an exploding print realm's profusion of available content. Hence another false distinction of the digital literary sphere is thrown into high relief: it is not that print is synonymous with expert curation and digital with an anarchic free-for-all. As enumerated above, the internet exhibits many varieties of born-digital cultural classificatory tools. Equally, off-line forms of cultural expertise have been grafted onto the digital domain with success, such as Literary Hub: a clearinghouse of "the best of the literary internet," with content drawn eclectically from academic publishers, print mastheads and digital outlets.10 The site's tone is informed but unpretentious, smart but fun.  Crucially, each LitHub article has a comment function appended, for a class of digitally-empowered readers who take for granted their right to enter into critical conversation with established cultural authorities.

8: You can't bluff your way in an online book club

No lying low and scoffing the hors-d'oeuvres on Goodreads, eh? Not true: online book clubs are replete with elaborate rituals of self-fashioning and bibliophilic preening, from carefully curated "bookshelves," to whimsically allusive profile names and icons, to the blatantly performative reviewing spat. Disembodiment opens book talk to a more geographically and perhaps socially diverse audience than the typical suburban book club, but carefully stage-managed self-presentation ensures that views continue to be filtered through constructed personae. After all, how could a business such as the UK's Literary Gift Company, an online-only treasure trove of book-themed clothing, accessories and home décor, stay in business if bookishness were solely a matter of intellectual communion over text?11 The pitfall here would be to assume that book clubs were at some prior point outside of the capitalist marketplace, an assumption immediately disproved by the long history of publisher-hosted book clubs or commercial subscription enterprises such as the Book-of-the-Month Club.12 The new challenge for political economists analysing the neoliberal ecology of contemporary publishing is that formerly it was the codex book itself that was commodified, not readerly discussion of it. But avid readers on sites such as Goodreads offer up their bookshelves, ratings, reviews, conversations, and social networks as commercializable data, representing an unprecedented acceleration of reading's incorporation into capitalist systems.13 Here the very stuff of digital sociality is rendered commercially fungible.

9: Online we can finally see what real readers actually read and what they think of it

Try this for a disabusing exercise: peruse Amazon's Conditions of Use. Readers have no legal rights whatsoever to the content or profile they create, yet are solely liable for any loss or damage arising therefrom.14 The vast readerly voluntariat generates licensable data, while handily classifying themselves into evermore algorithmically-targetable demographics. As critics working in media studies traditions have outlined since at least the turn of the millennium, the rise of big data changes the terms of political economy debate: the product being sold in a regime like Kindle Highlights is in fact the reader, the consumers are Amazon's third-party advertisers, and the finite resource is consumers' attention.15 This vertiginous shift doesn't diminish the relevance of political economy critique but it does necessitate substantial digital recalibration.

10: Resistance is a viable option

So, should you sit out the literary internet, Jonathan Franzen-style, refusing to participate in its webs of commercialism and data-harvesting? (Even Franzen doesn't actually do so though, as witnessed by his book-trailer cameo for Gary Shteyngart's Little Failure).16 No, after all, why miss all the diverse book talk, grassroots creativity, and pulsing interactivity the digital literary sphere offers? A political economy perspective on the book world becomes more, not less relevant in the neoliberal era. But the terms of old-school political economy critiques, with their predominant focus on the consolidation of Big Publishing, the feminization of lower levels of the workforce, and the disproportionate power of London and New York in the global publishing order don't, as they stand, illuminate new digital realities. In the digital literary sphere, the producers, consumers, channels, commodities, and values in circulation have morphed, and formerly distinct elements have blurred while new intermediaries have emerged.17

For a long time, a version of Marx's "base and superstructure" model has lodged itself at the back of political economists' collective mind, in which relatively tangible means of production such as factories, capital, and labor have produced a seemingly distinct superstructure of cultural effects. Marx's key, indispensable innovation was perceiving that art is heavily influenced by economics rather than being aesthetically autonomous. But now the formerly identified "cultural" phenomena are themselves the source of wealth, with cultural content supplied gratis by unwaged users and the trails of their data representing new-economy companies' chief asset. The platform becomes the source of wealth: it denotes control of the tollbooth on the digital highway (to use a favored 1990s metaphor) where users must pay with their data in order to pass through. The algorithmic formulae that constitute FANG businesses' chief assets are not as readily cognizable as "economic" base in Marxist terms, given their immateriality and shrouding in black-box secrecy.18 But the comparative advantage these algorithms lend such businesses and the market imbalances they generate are recognizably along the same lines as historical landlords enclosing the village commons.

In the face of such contemporary book-world realities, the most counterproductive response would be a gesture of Romantic refusal, as though swearing off digital literary platforms would guarantee the purity of one's critical position. Though superficially tempting for its dramatic air of adolescent renunciation, this would ultimately be tantamount to burying one's head in the sand. Literary culture is, by the third decade of the twenty-first century, digital culture. The distinction between print and digital mediums that certain 1990s electronic literature enthusiasts sought to assert was always a false one. My point is the impossibility of standing outside digital literary culture to analyze it when every website you visit or book you search changes the display and ranking of that content. We are all already, ineluctably part of the digital literary sphere. It is time to understand what, for better or worse, that means.

Simone Murray is Associate Professor in Literary Studies at Monash University, Melbourne and an elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She is the author of Mixed Media: Feminist Presses and Publishing Politics (2004), The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation (2012), and The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era (2018).


  1. Alexandra Alter, "The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far from Dead," New York Times, September 22, 2015; Leonid Bershidsky, "Books Stubbornly Refused to be Disrupted, and It Worked," Bloomberg, January 27, 2017. []
  2. Robert Coover, "The End of Books," New York Times Book Review, June 21, 1992. []
  3. N. Katherine Hayles, Writing Machines (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002); My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008); N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, eds. Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).[]
  4. See Joe Moran, Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 38-39; Claire Squires, Marketing Literature: The Making of Contemporary Writing in Britain (Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 36-39; John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-first Century (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2010), 243-251.[]
  5. Simone Murray, The Digital Literary Sphere: Reading, Writing, and Selling Books in the Internet Era (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), 50, 184.[]
  6. Qtd. in George Packer, "Cheap Words," New Yorker, February 17, 2014. []
  7. Dan Lacy, "The Economics of Publishing, or Adam Smith and Literature," The Sociology of Art and Literature: A Reader. Eds M.C. Albrecht, J.H. Barnett, and M. Griff (London: Duckworth, 1970); Thomas Whiteside, The Blockbuster Complex: Conglomerates, Show Business, and Book Publishing (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1981); Mark Crispin Miller, "The Crushing Power of Big Publishing," The Nation, March 17, 1997: 11-18; Edward S. Herman and Robert W. McChesney, The Global Media: The New Missionaries of Corporate Capitalism (London: Cassell, 1997); André Schiffrin, "The Corporatization of Publishing," Corporate Power in the United States. Ed. Joseph Sora (New York: Wilson, 1998), 145-152; The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London and New York: Verso, 2000); Words and Money (New York: Verso, 2010); Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004).[]
  8. See The Small Press Network's website.[]
  9. Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (New York: Little, Brown, 2013), 243-244; George Packer, "Cheap Words," New Yorker, February 17, 2014. []
  10. See LitHub's website.[]
  11. See The Literary Gift Company's website.[]
  12. Janice A Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).[]
  13. Kari Paul, "'They Know Us Better than We Know Ourselves': How Amazon Tracked My Last Two Years of Reading," Guardian, February 4, 2020. []
  14. See "Conditions of Use" on Amazon. []
  15. Tiziana Terranova, "Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy," Social Text 18, no. 2 (Summer 2000), 33-58; Lisa Nakamura, "'Words with Friends': Socially Networked Reading on Goodreads," PMLA 128 no. 1 (January 2013), 238-243.[]
  16. Random House, "Little Failure - Book Trailer," YouTube video, December 14, 2013. []
  17. Padmini Ray Murray and Claire Squires, "The Digital Publishing Communications Circuit," Book 2.0 3, no.1 (2013), 3-23.[]
  18. i.e. Technology companies Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google considered collectively.[]