Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A little humor for your Tuesday

From Cracked.com: "8 Unexpected Downsides of the Switch to E-books"

#3: How will people open secret passageways? Seriously, if you can't pull a cleverly titled book out of a bookcase to get it to swing open, what else are you going to do? You have to put an artifact in a slot or push a really obvious wooden carving every time? Boy, that is going to get old fast.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

50 Million Shades of Grey

I'm not even going to describe what 50 Shades of Grey is-- if you don't know already by all the controversy, hype, and love surrounding it, you can read about it here on Amazon-- but this is to repeat what a lot of people have already heard, which is that E.L. James, the author, is estimated to have made somewhere in the area of $50 million from sales and rights.

Besides the actual e-book content, there is quite a bit to interest in these figures. First, her sales are split almost evenly between paperbacks and ebooks-- 9.8 million and 9.6 million, respectively. Some people have commented that, due to the nature of the subject matter, a lot of people prefer reading her books on their ereaders because no one can tell what they're reading just by looking at them, which may account for some elevated sales of ebooks. Another factor is the fact that her paperbacks and ebooks came out at the same time in the US, allowing people to freely choose which format they wanted to read in. One look at Amazon will tell you that a Kindle edition of 50 Shades is selling for $9.99 and paperback is selling for $9.57. As we have seen in the ebook pricing struggle being waged with the Department of Justice, for a while now publishers have frequently staggered the publishing so that hardcovers were available for weeks or months before ebooks, and once the ebook was published (for example at $12.99 or $14.99) the paperback would be available at a much lower price (maybe $7.99).

Perhaps the most astonishing fact in the E.L. James figures, however, is the speed at which her sales have exploded. All of these sales occurred over the past six months. To put it in perspective, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series (consisting of four books) didn't reach those figures for three years.

It will be very interesting to see whether or not her sales have plateaued in the coming months, as well as if publishers begin to revise their schedules perhaps to mimic her simultaneous ebook/paperback editions. Also, I guess, if there is suddenly a dearth of erotica in mainstream publishing. That would be pretty interesting, too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Get in line with Dante, Keats, and Shakespeare.

Guys, remember when all the monastic copyists got mad because the Gutenberg press became more popular than them?

Project Gutenberg, one of my best friends and also the website that existed even before the Amazon Kindle for giving away free post-copyright books, has now added a digital self-publishing portal. They're calling it the "Author's Community Cloud Library," and it seems that as long as you are willing to post your content for free, you get to upload whatever you want. From what I can tell it requires that the uploader have also already formatted the book for digital download, as opposed to the Kindle site which will provide some rudimentary formatting for you.

While I don't think it will take off like the Amazon self-publishing portal (you can't get paid by Gutenberg, after all), I can see it becoming useful for some niche groups. Academic writers looking for publication and exposure, I think, will find the writer's community interesting, and also authors who are still in some discovery/early writing stages. It's definitely limited in what it offers, but I think people looking for someone to download (probably more erudite/academic texts, too, as opposed to the commercial popularity of Kindle publishing) and give any feedback or commentary will find it worth a second look.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Where are the stats on how often people use their tablets in the bathroom?

According to an illuminating list put out by The Economist (12 stats that matter to digital publishing):

  • More than a third of US adults are expected to own a tablet by 2014.
  • iPad users look at 40 pages of content (unspecified whether web or book) on average per use.
  • The Financial Times has approximately 305,000 print subscribers and 285,000 digital subscribers.
Guess people still aren't reading, though, huh? Maybe we need to revise that line of thinking.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Which side are you on?

I really enjoyed writer and publisher Bob Mayer's article over at Digital Book World: The Great Publishing Wars of 2012. While negativity over the future of publishing and literature has been ongoing for decades now, it seems to have increased since the Department of Justice brought suit against five of the top six publishers for price fixing and colluding. Mayer's opinion piece is refreshingly positive and confident about the future of publishing. His article is very concise and well-written, so rather than quoting and commenting here, I suggest clicking on my link above and going over to DBW to read and enjoy.

In just a few paragraphs, he raises some of the most important questions facing publishing today:

  • Must either traditional or digital publishing "triumph" over the other? What does it mean for publishing when people are taking "sides" against each other?
  • Will either of these "sides" ultimately triumph? Or is this a futile struggle that is ultimately damaging to publishing?
  • What can people in the publishing field do now to succeed in a very tenuous industry?

You can listen to the terrific song "Which Side Are You On?" by the Dropkick Murphys while reading...

Friday, July 6, 2012

My eReader is judging me for not finishing "The Mill on the Floss".

If you have a Kindle, you may already have been aware of what the Guardian reported this week: ereader companies are collecting information on your reading habits.

Knowing which passages prompt a book to be thrown aside, which books are read at high speed and which are dipped in and out of is likely to be even more useful, and Humphrey believes this knowledge could eventually affect what's published.
As mentioned in the article, ebooksellers have yet to use or sell the information. Also, while it's not discussed in the article, the data that they can collect only pertains to the sellers' proprietary books-- if you have PDF files on your Kindle or Nook, for example, they are not tracking which items you have and where you leave off in those documents.

It's not the first time that reading habits have been studied without readers' knowing it. In recent memory, the Patriot Act was passed to allow federal agents to track public library users. The Guardian article goes so far as to cite the ever-popular Big Brother of Orwell's 1984 when describing insidious data tracking. Some people-- including some booksellers-- are coming out strongly against collecting reader data as an invasion of privacy. Others-- perhaps very interestingly the publishers-- see the data for its possibilities in improving the market for the reader. If people are buying one book and stopping a quarter of the way through, in the future a publishing house might reconsider purchasing another book from that same author. From another side, authors might fear this kind of data tracking-- if a threshold number of people aren't reading the book all the wall through, their publishing deals might be in jeopardy-- or welcome it, if the data can better direct their editing to better please their audience.

How do you feel knowing that Amazon and other ebooksellers are aggregating data about your reading habits? How do you see this kind of information being used in the future?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Department of Justice Sues Publishers Over E-Book Pricing

It has been speculated for several weeks now that the DoJ was going to sue five major publishers for alleged ebook price fixing and general collusion, and as the Wall Street Journal broke today, they have done just that.

Publishing does not often hit the forefront of business news, so it presents a very interesting and unique case to analyze. Today I am going to present some basic facts and milestones that led to the official lawsuit:

In 2007, Amazon debuted the Kindle and, it is fairly safe to say, single-handedly made ebooks successful for the first time in history. Other electronic book devices and formats had existed before, but never before was it commonplace to see people reading from them, or finding that they sometimes preferred ebooks to print books.

To promote Kindle device sales, Amazon began selling ebooks at low prices. Amazon arguably has the best selection of content among the top tablet makers (including powerhouses like Apple, Samsung, or Sony) and that is also arguably the biggest draw to purchase those devices. Making a wide range of content suddenly very affordable is a huge draw.

Publishers were alarmed at this practice because, although they were used to selling their books wholesale to Amazon, they saw low ebook prices as threats to their hardcover and even paperback sales, through which they still make a majority of their revenue. Why would someone buy a new John Grisham novel for $27 in hardcover when they could get it on their Kindle for $9.99? Some publishers began to see Amazon's new practice of discounting bestsellers and new books in the electronic format as predatory pricing.

Predatory pricing is one of the more difficult anti-competitive cases to prove because true proof can only be shown after the practice has already done its damage; competitors must already have been driven out of the market. A company will price something so low, at a loss to themselves, that they drive other companies out of the market. That company has to expect that they will be able to succeed even after taking hits on extreme prices. Even if the company is sued at that point, simply ceasing predatory pricing will not bring back the competition-- they may even already be a monopoly. There must also be high costs to entering the market for the strategy to have any hope of success, and a lawsuit would also have to prove that the pricing was in fact staggeringly low, rather than the product of common price competition. In short, even if Amazon was ever investigated for predatory pricing, it would be almost impossible for the charge to hold water.

The publishers thought they had such a case on their hands. And if the DoJ's lawsuit finds what it's looking for, then they will find evidence that the next step was to collude and create their own anti-competitive strategy.

It's not terribly hard to find, though. In fact, I found it a few months ago when I read Walter Isaacson's popular biography of Steve Jobs.

In a discussion that the author had with the computer tycoon, Jobs revealed that, prior to unveiling the iPad, he had a meeting with the largest publishing houses in the United States, known as the "Big Six": Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, and Random House. Jobs wanted to let them use a retail model known as "agency pricing" for the iBooks store and corresponding app that would open with the iPad. Unlike the wholesale model that had originally allowed Amazon to set its own prices once it purchased books from the publishers, the agency model would force a retailer to allow the publisher to set its own prices and retain a larger portion of the sale. Publishers, as they have been doing on the Kindle book store, could set their ebooks at $14.99 or higher, in theory to match whatever the print book price is. In order to get Amazon to change to such a drastically different model, however, they would have to force their hand.

One publisher couldn't withhold their books; they would just get blacklisted by Amazon in all likelihood. A collusion of publishers, however, could threaten to withhold the most sought-after book titles, essentially forcing Amazon to allow the new pricing model in order to sell the best content. It had nothing to do with perceived "value" of ebooks versus print books-- multiple authors have already sold millions of dollars worth of ebooks on Amazon, often by self-publishing and selling at $1.99 or even lower. And it led to higher prices in ebooks, so it wasn't about getting better prices for the customers. It was all about getting a larger cut of the sale for these massive publishing houses.

In Walter Isaacson's book, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying, "We'll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway."

And so the E-Book Price Fixing Scandal was born. Of the Big Six, only Random House stayed out of the alleged collusion, at the time willing to continue with the traditional retail model, and they alone remained free of the Department of Justice investigation. Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster settled with the DoJ and agreed to break their price fixing contracts with their retailers-- Penguin, Macmillan, and Apple (the supposed competing retailer looking to get an edge on their Amazon rival) are willing to fight it out.

I will continue to follow this case as more details of the settlement-- and potentially the visible changes to Amazon ebooks sales-- begin to come to the surface.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Are ebooks easier to read than print books?

I missed this Guardian op-ed response to Jonathan Franzen’s assertion that ebooks are making us dumber and less attentive to reading, but I am glad I found it now. Check out Henry Porter’s piece for a polite, thoughtful, and factually-supported refutation of Franzen’s claims against ebooks. Of particular interest: “…the information passing through our minds has risen threefold in the past 30 years and increases by about 6% every year,” which is to say that people are consuming more and more information, rather than less and less.

I would wish to add to this as well the idea that ebooks also make reading more potable and accessible, which could cause an increase in reading. We read tens of thousands of emails every year because it is so quick and easy to use email as a primary source of communication; we send them because we can. Why not expect reading to increase if a book becomes easier and faster (and someday cheaper) to acquire, and to carry around? Neil Gaiman, eminent author and blogger, last year wrote about his newfound ease of completing The Count of Monte Cristo, now that he could carry such a lengthy tome on his lightweight ereader or smart phone, which he could pick up and read at any spare moment.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Harry Potter has come to eReaders

I definitely missed the midnight premier party this time around.

 Yesterday was the debut of the Harry Potter ebooks, and in truly grand style Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other major ebook retailers displayed screenshots of the books on ereader devices on their home pages. Author JK Rowling teamed with OverDrive to sell the ebooks exclusively on her personal Pottermore site, which means that even when you find the books displayed on Amazon, you must buy them through the external Pottermore link. While setting up a new account was a little inconvenient when compared to the Amazon “One Click” buying experience, the book file is sent instantaneously to your Amazon account (or Barnes & Noble account, or wherever you store your elibrary) for your downloading pleasure.

What does this mean for ebooks? Sales figures will be interesting to see—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is famously the fastest-selling book of all time, with 11 million copies distributed within 24 hours back in 2007—but it will be particularly interesting to see how many copies are sold and how quickly considering the vast amount of print copies sold in relative memory. If millions of people already have their print copies of Harry Potter, are they willing to re-buy them for their ereaders? Or will these ebooks signal yet another, new generation of Harry Potter readers, for whom the ebook will be their first Potter experience?

Are you buying your Harry Potter ebooks?

Friday, March 9, 2012

eReaders don't want you to read eBooks.

You guys, I love the internet!

I went on the Atlantic website to read an article about Amazon this week and found a link to another article responding to this piece from the New York Times: "Finding your book interrupted... by the tablet you read it on."

It is such a good article. Citing a single survey of publishers showing that a decreasing number believed that multipurpose tablets were ideal for reading ebooks, and a few quotes from publishers and general readers, the article tells us that it is harder than ever to pay attention to what you're reading because tablets offer too many distractions. Those minxy iPads and Kindle Fires "tempt" us with too many more interesting apps and emails and other alternatives to book reading. While they quote one reader who finds the struggle to pay attention to a book a kind of welcome challenge, and one publisher who thinks multipurpose tablets encourage ebooks for people who might not normally purchase a single-purpose ereader, the general sentiment is that tablets make it too hard to get into the "reading experience."

While the comments section of the article, as well as the Atlantic piece of hilarity: "Books on paper fight analog distractions," point out that this is not the most scientific of behavioral findings, there are a number of commentators (and the subjects from the NYT article) who are strongly on the side that tablets are too distracting. That reading is not the "same immersive experience" on a digital reader as it is in paper, etc. As I continue to follow publishing news, I find it's the same argument in the comments sections over and over: "I like books on paper that I can touch/I like being able to carry a thousand books in my hand." So, I encourage you to go over and watch the eternal argument play out.

But my favorite part of this is the guy that they're quoting saying that his tablet is too distracting for reading, saying he gets distracted by all the apps, which are just "beg[ging] you to review them all the time."


Is that a thing? Do people spend hours and hours reviewing apps? Is that a popular activity of which I have been mercifully ignorant for years? I have a Kindle, and iPhone, a PC, etc., I feel like I am "with it," so to speak. I am unaware of this "app reviewing" black hole that people get sucked into. I mean, what happens when you start reviewing "review" apps? Like when you review the Yelp app? And then someone reviews your review of that review app? Okay, maybe this could be interesting...

See, I feel like that is not a real thing. I feel like maybe he means "using" his apps, or "reading" emails. And I think that miss-spoken phrase is symptomatic of the problem with this article, which is that some people are going to read books all the way through and some people are going to get distracted. Some people are going to prioritize their tablet so that they're not jumping from app to app, and some people are going to get distracted "reviewing" all of them. And sometimes you're one of those people, and sometimes you're the other; everyone gets distracted when they're reading, whether its on an iPad or a paperback book. Everyone gets distracted when they're working, when they're talking on the phone, and even when they're driving. I got distracted from reading one article by reading another article, which distracted me from writing one blog post to writing an entirely separate blog post. It's the "immersive experience" of life, and perhaps, ultimately, not the most newsworthy of news items.

Happy Friday, guys!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

State of the Book Union

The Atlantic posted a brief, informative article on the current state of affairs in publishing called "The Amazon Paradox: Coming to Terms with Publishing's Colossus." It is extremely brief, actually, just posting the general book sales results from last year, showing that ebook sales rose 117% and that mass market paperbacks were down almost 36% when compared to 2010 sales. It is interesting because it introduces the idea that, now that ebooks are close to dominating total book sales and Borders has gone out of business, publishers are "coming to deal with" Amazon, describing it almost like a gauntlet. Ebook sales are on the rise, but Amazon grows more powerful as a result, which causes some traditional publishing houses to look at them with skepticism. At this point in the evolution of publishing, they don't have much of a choice but to deal with the biggest book retailer out there.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Follow me @Book_Landing!

Book Landing is now on Twitter!

Check out the Twitter feed on the right-hand side of this blog for my latest tweets and to see which great digital publishing voices I'm following.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Forest for the Trees

Mark O’Connell, contributor to The Millions and fellow Borges enthusiast, published an article last August titled “The eReader of Sand,” an article I have only now had the good fortune to read. To summarize for all of my Teal Deers out there: he does not believe it is possible to become attached to an ereader the way one can become attached to print books, and he comes to the conclusion that ebooks will never measure up to the quality of print books. To summarize my reaction: I disagree with about half of his points. Point by point, however, his article makes a great conversation piece for the “book object” arguments. In that vein I would like to break down my rebuttal in the style of a DVD commentary:

To begin with, O’Connell is a self-professed bibliophile with “shelves… all two rows deep, stuffed with a Tetris-like emphasis on space-optimization , and pretty much every horizontal surface holds some or other type of reading material.” First, HA about the Tetris description, and second, I have experienced the same phenomenon myself, so I totally get where he’s coming from.

He has also loved books “almost as much for their physical properties as for their intellectual ones.”

"I like the way a well-made paperback flops open in the hand, the briskly authoritative slap of its pages as it closes. I enjoy the feel of a hardback, its solidity and self-enclosure, its sober weight, the whispering creak of its stretching spine. I like the way they smell, too: the slightly chemical tang of new books and the soft, woody scent of old ones. (If you’re picturing me crouched in a corner of your local bookstore like some sort of mental case, a Library of America edition of [italicize]Pale Fire pressed to my face, you can stop right there: it’s an incidental pleasure, not something I pursue with any kind of monomaniacal intensity)."

My whole point here is the point I have been making all week: the book object has no intrinsic value (assuming it’s not made of gold). What if the only books that existed were Calculus books? I don’t think people would have the affection for this fragrant paper object that they do. Therefore, the object holds extremely little value—it is the book content that means so much. For reading and publishing to survive and thrive, the print technology will give way largely to the digital technology. It was Bill Gates who once said, “Content is king,” and that was never more applicable than in the publishing industry of today.

O’Connell then recaps for us the Jorge Luis Borges story “The Book of Sand” (El libro de arena), which you can read in English in its entirety for free here. He says that the Kindle (or Nook or other ereader) is like a real life “book of sand”; a (for all intents and purposes) neverending collection of literature can be contained inside a single volume. He also, paraphrasing the Borges description, calls the book of sand “monstrous” and “obscene.” The (e)Book of Sand corrupts “the natural, Godly order.” For one thing, I am thinking at this point, “Yes, this is like when they say the title of the movie in the movie,” and for another, I am non-plussed by the dramatic style. O’Connell is quick to point out that he is certainly not “frightened” of the ereader, but he is sad because he knows it “can’t even hope to compete” with the historically enormous invention of the book.

The problem with statements like these is that they are not properly defining what a “book” is. Is a book the content or the paper? Does a book only exist if it is content printed on paper? If the latter, then yes, I guess books are going away. Funny, I could have sworn I just really enjoyed reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides on my Kindle, but I guess I must be mistaken—real books are only on paper, after all.

Next, O’Connell concedes to a number of benefits from ereaders, such as size and ability to download something instantly. On the second part, he does delve into the “we don’t know how to wait for things anymore” criticism that places ebooks on the “instant gratification cult” shelf, but he does note it as a convenience. And, to circle back around to the beginning of his article, he does note the convenient simplicity of containing many books on one small device. He ends the article reluctantly conceding that ebooks are the way of the future, saying, “Ultimately, you’re never going to win an argument against convenience, no matter how much you love the anachronistic, heavy, unwieldy, and beautiful thing you want to save.” Ultimately, I agree with his concession that the ebook technology has proved to be a success.

The argument that O’Connell has overcome, but one that is extremely common (and especially on the Internet) is that “ebooks are ruining publishing, and everything else, and I don’t want them.” There are many people who not only do not ever want to read ebooks, but who also hold out hope that the print book technology will eventually win out. Unfortunately for many people, the print publishing model has already been shown to have many flaws. Ebooks will become more common than print books. So why is there still an outcry against them, if we know there is no stopping them? Why the rejection of what has been shown to be a more convenient technology? Why the demand that the publishing industry keep printing books that are losing them millions of dollars?

While the transformation of the publishing industry requires a complex analysis that I hope to break into as my blog progresses, from the “book as object” standpoint of this week, I think it’s the all-too-human, all-too-simple resistance to change. Print books are easy to use, and hey, they served us just fine when we were in school, didn’t they? The rejection of ebooks is part and parcel of the cult of nostalgia that has become very popular of late. In photography there are people who miss lomo cameras and will do everything to avoid using a DSLR. Many music fans still collect vinyl records, attesting to better sound and quality than cassette tapes, CDs, and MP3s (check out that dedication!).

In the end, who is to say what is truly the" better" technology? Does not the survival of the written word, whatever package it comes in, ultimately prevail over all?

I hope you've enjoyed these last couple of entries on the "book" as an object. I will absolutely revisit this in the future, although I plan to begin next week by delving into another of the wide range of topics in publishing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Accumulating Books

The infatuation that many people share for the book object is deceptively complex. It would seem fair to assume that people who are into book buying must also be voracious readers, but mere accumulation does not mean the object is being used for its intended purpose. Everyone has bought some item at the grocery store in a moment of impulse only to throw it out weeks later, unused and beginning to rot; so do people buy books, thinking at the moment of reading them only to discover them months or years later still stuck in the “to-be-read” pile.

In fact, to be a “bibliophile” technically means to have an affinity for collecting books, and has nothing to do with reading them. There is an English word for people who have a passion for the book object, but not one for people who have a passion for reading. People who work the “look, feel, smell” facets of reading into the overall concept of what a “book” is can thus be said to be bibliophiles. This does not exclude a potential that these same bibliophiles may also be voracious readers, but the two are not mutually inclusive.

Bibliophilia can lead to some problems… Sometimes the object supersedes the content and you become a book collector rather than a book reader. Sometimes no one else seems to understand your spending habits and it can ruin relationships. Sometimes you find yourself tripping over stacks in your home and realize you need to make a change in your book buying habits. I myself moved into a small apartment a year ago and found myself having to give away approximately a quarter of my existing book collection. I had to make decisions on books I loved and would not part with, books I had bought and never read, and books I had read but hadn’t loved but might need someday in the future… you get the picture. Once I had filled a few boxes that were to be taken to the local library, I couldn’t bear to look at them anymore for fear of reconsidering.

Getting rid of a significant portion of the collection, however, drove home for me the importance of the book content over the book object. If all of those books had been on my Kindle, there would have been no heart-wrenching few days of parting with cherished (and expensive) books. There is no way I could ever hope to own a physical copy of every book I will ever read—why not make digital books a significant portion of my reading purchases and be able to contain my vast library in a manageable and attractive way?

There is a certain charm for bibliophiles in a vision of a vast physical library, full of dusty old books stacked floor to ceiling. I, too, have lingered for hours in used bookstores amid the moldering tomes in a state of pure happiness. Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentine writer, is frequently quoted on book blogs and in book stores saying, “I have always imagined Heaven to be a kind of library.” But for most people, it seems that reality eventually hits: sometimes you just have too many books. The modern home is rarely just a repository for reading material, after all—sooner or later, every bibliophile comes to the sad prospect of culling their collection for propriety’s sake. If you have reached that sad stage, take heart: here are 5 Strategies for Reducing Book Clutter.

If physical books are something that we know we must eventually give away, why not pre-empt that by “culling your collection” from the start? Why not purchase some books on a digital reader and purchase physical copies only of books that you cherish, have a vested interest in, and know might survive a house move or two? Why can’t the heavenly library be the never-ending Labyrinth that can be held in the palm of your hand?

Is it really worth it to buy only paperbacks, knowing you will likely get rid of them at some point, instead of buying ebooks that you can keep forever?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Revolution Will Be Digitized

Evening bliss-- a mug of tea and the latest Jeffrey Eugenides novel on my Kindle.

Printed books have a dedicated, passionate following that often seems to rival that of digitized books. For the reading public, this passion is derived largely from emotional memories associated with books. As I previewed on Friday with the link to the articulate essay at the New York Review of Books, this week I will be writing from the other side of the aesthetics argument: in praise of ebooks. Forgoing the economic or business arguments in favor of epublishing, it is time to focus on the benefits that the general reader can get out of ebooks.

Considering that ebooks have only risen to popular use in the last decade, I, like everyone else, grew up reading printed books. I enjoyed reading as a hobby and was (and remain) a frequent visitor to the local public library. Memories of my formative years are interspersed with plots from my favorite novels, some of which I read over and over until they became a part of my own past. Having moved away from my hometown and favorite book-reading spots, I look back fondly at those times and places, and I associate that happiness with everything involved in the memories. I remember perusing the library aisles for hours at a time, waiting for just the right book to capture my attention. I think back on the many nights I stayed up far later than I should, turning page after page under a burning-hot reading lamp. And when I visit a used bookstore, or a library, or return to my own bookshelves, it is fun to riffle the yellowed pages of an old paperback, to gaze at a beautiful or funny book cover, and even to smell the mustiness of decaying paper, comforting in its familiarity.

Nevertheless, those memories mean nothing if not for the books—the stories and histories and freely-given knowledge—associated with them.

My battered copy of Malafrena, which I laid out for maximum shame viewing. Note the enormous tear on the back cover, now held together by clear duct tape. Also believe me when I say I bought this book in pretty bad shape as-is because it is long out of print-- I would never treat my books like this.

Libraries can be rather unpleasant, after all, if they’re too crowded or noisy or cold. I often turned down plenty of books that I might have enjoyed because the cover was so horrendous I couldn’t believe the actual book would be any good (witness the impetus for this hilarious website "Good Show, Sir: Only the Worst in Sci-Fi Book Covers"). And that musty, dusty smell and those yellowed pages are actually signs of the damage we have done to these beloved books, now full of bacteria and old water stains. When I pull the sense away from the memory, I strip it down to what I really remember fondly—the book itself.

I didn’t really like my fluorescent-lit college cafeteria all that much, but I find I occasionally dig up pleasant memories of the cafeteria when I think of lingering over The Secret History with a cup of tea after lunch. My copy of Ursula Le Guin’s Malafrena is rather malodorous and hanging on for dear life due to some emergency duct-taping, but I keep it around due to my appreciation of the beautiful story that plays out within its pages. It is the content that makes these places and pages special, not the pulp and glue (and tape) that contain them.

Now that ebooks and ereaders have become so popular, I predict that future generations, including the one growing up now, will have similar sense memories, just of the digital age. They might not think back fondly to the bright bulb of their reading lamp, but instead the warm glow of their ereader screen, perhaps projecting the text of the well-received novel The Hunger Games. They can collect beautiful covers and skins for their ereaders that they carry with them everywhere. Perhaps someday, they will stay up late refreshing their readers over and over again, waiting for their pre-ordered J.K. Rowling book to “magically” appear on their library screen.

The longing for the “feel, touch, and smell” of books is not really about the book content, but about the book object. Not many arguments that “books are going away” have gained much traction thus far in the digital publishing conversation—more and more books are published every year, after all. It is the book object that we will see less and less of, and that is the argument that I see every day in publishing news. So how do we link the appeal of the “book object aesthetics” to the rising popularity of ebooks?

I predict that it will become easier to print on demand. Most best-selling books today are publishing both digitally and in print-format, and perhaps in the future they will be published primarily in digital format with an option to have a copy printed. The technology for print-on-demand is constantly improving, as popular publishing sites such as Lulu and Blurb will show you, and the option has become vastly more cost-effective. In that way, I don’t think that printed books will go away entirely, at least not for the next few generations—if you want a hard copy, you will be able to get one.

On another note, there are plenty of printed books in existence already. As I commented on NYRB, the printed books that you own will remain your own. Your cherished books won’t disappear or be taken from you Fahrenheit 451-style, and as such I think that used bookstores will have a market for some time to come, likely beyond the lifespan of regular bookstores. These books aren’t all going to get sent to the recycling center—you (and I) will have years and years to snap up those funny little 50-cent sci-fi paperbacks that liven up a rainy weekend.

Furthermore, the book-as-cherished-object argument falls flat when you consider the fact that most people do not personally own every book they have ever read. I know I don’t—I have given away far more books than I currently own, for hoarder risk reduction reasons in some cases (yes, I have bordered on bibliomania—it’s a constant struggle) and sometimes because I bought a book, read it, and didn’t like it enough to ever want to read it again. What is the point of requiring all books to be printed if you cannot ever hope to contain all of them? At the same time, I wonder which of those books I might have kept if they had only taken up the space of a scant few kilobytes on my harddrive.

I don’t share a vision of a future where the only books I have are on my (now, admittedly, beloved) Kindle. I see a value in printed books as art objects of a sort; visible dedications to my favorite authors, or souvenirs of memories, or even just as beautiful objects (hardcovers like art prints, and famous editions as prized possessions).

Like my beautiful hardcover of Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber. Also fully illustrated with color photographs and with a personalized signature from the author. Deeeeefinitely not giving this one up any time soon.

But as I have loved printed books, so can I love digitized books. To be able to carry a vast library inside my purse, wherever I go, is, to put a literary spin on it, like having a power akin to something out of Harry Potter. When I received my Kindle two years ago, I forgot I was reading text on a screen mere minutes after I began doing so—the technology is sufficiently advanced to have now removed the “glare” of a screen that is the most common complaint for digital text. Now that bookstores are shutting down all around the country, I frequently rely on my Kindle to get the latest books without having to wait for a package or pay a hefty shipping fee. I have even found it easier to read some books on the Kindle than it was to read them in print format—I find myself picking up books like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series much more easily when they’re on my slim Kindle rather than in a hefty paperback or hardcover tome.

Will I get rid of my beloved old, illustrated copy of Misty of Chincoteague? Not any time soon. But as my personal library grows throughout my life, do I hope I can curate it on my digital readers, that can expand like Mary Poppins’ bag to reveal contents so great it’s difficult to believe they can fit inside something so small and unassuming? Absolutely.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Surviving 451

There are a lot of articles out now lamenting the demise of paperback and printed books. A very vocal sector of those in publishing, as well as general readers, do not want to let go of the aesthetics of printed books, nor the sense-memories associated with them, and as such there are plenty of passionate essays in praise of print.

Finally, there is one in praise of ebook aesthetics. Or rather, the lack thereof. Eloquent and without reproach for print-purists, I highly recommend reading this brief article-- "Ebooks Can't Burn"-- over at the New York Review of Books. I don’t think I’ve seen any other piece that lauds the simplicity of ebooks quite like Tim Parks does here—if any of you readers out there have recommendations for articles in this vein, please comment with links as I would love to read more.

I will be expanding on ebook and print book aesthetics and the unending “preference” battle on Monday. Until then, have a nice weekend!