Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.
Using the words “advertising” and “books” in the same sentence seems to cause panic among fans of literature. Recall when Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury Publishing, lashed out at Google Books for the “predation” of their “silly ads” over a year ago. In the intervening time, our favorite works of literature have not been overrun by ads, but some publishers, aware of the value of their Web presence, have begun to experiment with advertising, according to the Wall Street Journal.The WSJ article takes Frommers.com as a case study. The travel imprint of John Wiley & Sons drew at least 728,000 unique visitors in May and, along with the Web sites for its Dummies do-it-yourself series and CliffsNotes educational books, brings in $10 million to $15 million annually.For publishers of reference books, guides, and manuals, the compatibility with advertising is pretty obvious. After all, newspapers and magazines have loads of this sort of content – particularly in the form of reviews of films, music, restaurants, travel destinations, etc. – and they do quite well selling advertising against it. With loads of original content, there’s no reason why a site like Frommers.com shouldn’t experiment with making more of that content free to readers and ad supported.Moving away from the more utilitarian publishing categories, however, the questions become a bit more challenging, a fact that I think is betrayed by the confused identity of many publisher Web sites. Typically they offer what seems to be a hybrid of a catalog and original content, though neither end up being terribly useful. On the Web, people want access to all the available information. Why would readers browse for a book on the HarperCollins Web site when they could go to Amazon or Google Books (or even the library) and see everything that’s available on a particular topic. Likewise, there is plenty of free, ad supported, quality original content available online from magazines and newspapers.While selling ads against an excerpt from the latest Philip Roth novel is not likely to be a winning proposition (though the New Yorker manages just fine), publishers could ratchet up their original content offerings in order to promote their own products as well as to bring in ad revenue and highlight their brands.Publishers have dabbled in this sort of thing before. Random House once had an online literary magazine called Boldtype, but cut it loose in 2003, and the site has enjoyed a second life as a part of the Flavorpill Network of sites. Bold Type in its current incarnation may not be the perfect model for publishers looking to create a new revenue stream on the Web, but the point for publishers to remember, I think, is that they are purveyors of content, and with a little creativity publishers could easily extend their expertise in this area to the Web.
Remember the fear that Google would start a print on demand business and put all the publishers out of business? Well, Google appears to be getting into the bookselling business, but there’s no printing involved, nor are they cutting out publishers. Google’s new service will allow publishers to set their own price for online access to books. Readers won’t be able to save copies of the books on their computers nor will they be able to copy text from the books, and the books will only be viewable within the browser window. This looks like a great opportunity for publishers to provide online access to their books without having to set up their own systems. (via)Update: Some good comments on this at Booksquare.
The sky is falling. The king is dead. And, oh, by the way, the barbarians are at the gates. Or at least, that’s what a recent spate of opinion pieces bemoaning the increasing morbidity of literary criticism would have you believe. Although the whinging and general hand wringing has been going on for years now, the trend seems to have picked up steam in the last few weeks (perhaps as a result of blogs celebrating their ten year anniversary?), with a panoply of blustering critics and journalists thundering to decry the downfall of civilization as they know it.Are the reports of literary criticism’s death an exaggeration? There is no question that the space devoted to book coverage in traditional print media is in decline. With a number of papers, including such stalwarts as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, reducing or entirely eliminating their book sections, it’s understandable that the old guard would set up a hue and cry about the fate of literary culture in the modern age. But the recent comments by critics Morris Dickstein at Critical Mass and Richard Schickel in the LA Times, rather than confront the real problems facing book reviews, amount to little more than a bitter rearguard action against the rise of literary culture on the Internet.The problems faced by book reviews are not unique. Rather, they are a manifestation of a problem confronting all forms of traditional media: the Internet as Shiva, creator and destroyer of business and cultural paradigms. Is it any coincidence that the recent spate of articles bemoaning the loss of book reviews across the country is paralleled by articles bemoaning the death of the music industry? As uber-producer Rick Rubin points out in a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “…the world has changed. And the industry has not.”Of course, old guard naysayers will continue to say their nays, unwilling, or unable, to accept the fact that the world is moving on without them. And no doubt, manufacturers of the horse-drawn buggy had a hard time coping with the advent of the automobile. But their objections didn’t serve to stay the tide of transformation, for better and worse, that cars brought with them.What the book review Cassandras, with their predictions of the death of American literary culture, seem to forget is that it is the traditional newspaper itself, not just the book review, that is fighting for its very existence. When complaining about the diminishing coverage of books in print media, book critics and reviewers (and writers) are simply fighting over the deck chair with the best view of the iceberg. As Max pointed out in an earlier post, it’s not what readers want that matters to today’s newspapers, it’s what shareholders want; and book reviews, for all of their merits, don’t add much to the bottom line.To the critics, however, this isn’t a sign of a changing economic reality, but an omen of literary apocalypse. Book culture in freefall. But writing on books has not dried up or disappeared. It has simply pulled up its stakes and moved to greener, electronic pastures. And this, to the critics, is precisely the problem. The Internet, as a medium for written expression, is in their minds inferior to the printed word.One would think that critics would welcome the advent of a medium where the cost of publication was not proportional to the amount of paper used. Yet many find it impossible to separate journalism, whether literary or otherwise, from the physical artifact of the newspaper or magazine. The success of popular online magazines like Slate and Salon (both of which publish frequent and useful book reviews) should prove that one can exist without the other, yet many critics see themselves locked in a Manichean struggle between “print journalism,” and the “Web.” On one hand, they concede the need for newspapers to find a new business model (and almost invariably insist this model must be electronic – although if not Web-based, then what, telegraph?), but on the other they see journalism as “mortally threatened by the Web.” How can the average person brook such cognitive dissonance? One can almost see the smoke billowing out of their ears as they write.Many old-guard critics, like Dickstein and Schickel and even writers (Richard Ford, with his dismissal of bloggers as “sitting in a basement in Terre Haute,” comes immediately to mind) don’t have much patience for new media. Shickel, for his part, declares blogs are not true writing, but mere “speech”:The act of writing for print, with its implication of permanence, concentrates the mind most wonderfully. It imposes on writer and reader a sense of responsibility that mere yammering does not. It is the difference between cocktail-party chat and logically reasoned discourse that sits still on a page, inviting serious engagement.What, I wonder, does he make of US Weekly? Or the book reviews in Maxim? Surely even a mind as “superior” and possessed of “disciplined taste” (and those quotation marks aren’t just for show) as Shickel’s can conceive of an online world where, as in the print world, good writing exists alongside bad. And what claim to permanence, I wonder, do his movie reviews for Time – Does Time even publish legitimate criticism? – and other print venues really have? No more, I would hazard, than the immortality conferred on a blogger’s writing by Google.These objections, however, only serve to direct attention away from the critics’ real complaint: the increasing democratization of criticism and the accompanying arrival of a new generation of literary gatekeepers. The problem for them is not that literary discourse has disappeared – if anything the Internet has served to deepen and expand it – but that anyone can participate. Certainly, as critics are quick to assert, all opinions are not equal (although one does wonder who has anointed their opinions superior), but it is unwise to mistake humble origins for lack of merit. Although not everyone has had the luxuries of upbringing and education that might have allowed them to become professional literary critics, humble origins do not necessarily denote a lack of discerning taste or cultivated knowledge. Content, as Steve Wasserman, former editor of the LA Times Book Review, very rightly points out in an excellent article about the mystery of the disappearing book reviews, is king. The beauty of the Internet, and the threat that it poses to the professional establishment, is that it allows readers access to that content regardless of whether it was written by a trained literary critic on paid assignment or by an auto mechanic who has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Proust.And who serves as the gatekeepers to this kingdom? Increasingly, the answer is bloggers, who have come to serve as the Internet’s editors, directing readers to original content of note and, yes, importance. It would seem to go without saying that all blogs, as with newspapers, are not created equal, but many of the critics who are so quick to criticize them, seem to be under the mistaken impression that readers have no means of distinguishing one from the other and assign equal value to the ramblings of the proverbial subterranean Terra Hautean and a post by, oh, I don’t know, Morris Dickstein.Of course, critics will criticize. It is, as with Aesop’s fabled scorpion, in their nature, if not their best interests. By insulting web savvy consumers, after all, they only risk driving away potential readers, hastening that which they fear most: the waning importance of their own contributions to a conversation that is rapidly leaving them behind.
Today, the Publishers Lunch newsletter pointed to a post at Engadget indicating that Apple might make eBooks available through its iTunes Music Store.How would this work? Well, it wouldn’t work on current iPods, but speculation is rampant that the next generation of iPods, likely out in time for the holiday season, will have a much larger screen, one that takes up the entire face of the device. (There’s a mocked-up image of what it might look like in the post linked above.) When turned horizontally, the iPod would allow for a screen four inches wide and almost two and a half inches high, not a lot of real estate, but then again, people watch movies on video iPod screens even smaller than that. Some further details:A separate trusted source let us know that the next iPod will have a substantial amount of screen real estate (as we’d all suspected), as well as a book reading mode that pumps up the contrast and drops into monochrome for easy reading. It’s no e-ink, sure, but a widescreen iPod would be well suited for the purpose, and according to our source, the books you’d buy (presumably through iTunes) won’t have an expiration — kind of like Apple-bought musicNow, I know from previous posts on the topic of eBooks, that this news will likely make many readers of The Millions say that they will never read books this way and that they would miss the look and feel that books offer, but I’m curious as to whether this effort would take off amongst the less-discerning broader public.What interests me in particular is that this offering would differ from previous eBooks that I’ve talked about. In earlier posts (here, here, and here) about various incarnations of eBooks, I’ve talked about how useful they might be for textbooks and technical books but also how challenging it might be to get customers to embrace them.The iPod, however, as it has in other realms, would change the rules. Some thoughts (sorry, but I’m thinking in bullet points today):By offering books through iTunes, publishers would suddenly be able to put their books in front of young readers who perhaps never go to book storesThe marriage of the book and the iPod would launch old-fashioned books into the twenty-first century. The iPod association would up the cool-factor for books big time.One of the problems with eBooks is that nobody owns the devices to read them. Obviously that would no longer be an issue.Apple already has a distribution system in place, iTunes, that lots of folks are already comfortable using.Anyway, I’d love to hear thoughts anyone might have on this. I don’t own an iPod and probably won’t get one any time soon, nor can I imagine myself ever being a serious consumer of ebooks, but I still think it would be cool to see kids (and adults) walking around reading books on their iPods. Actually, maybe I will get an iPod after all.
For several years, it seemed as though the book industry was getting a reprieve. As the music industry was ravaged by file sharing, and the film and TV industry were increasingly targeted by downloaders, book piracy was but a quaint cul de sac in the vast file sharing ecology. The tide, however, may be changing. Ereaders have become mainstream, making reading ebooks palatable to many more readers. Meanwhile, technology for scanning physical books and breaking the DRM on ebooks has continued to advance.
A recent study by Attributor, a firm that specializes in monitoring content online, came to some spectacular conclusions, including the headline claim that book piracy costs the industry nearly $3 billion, or over 10% of total revenue. Of all the conclusions in the Attributor study, this one seemed the most outlandish, and the study itself might be met with some skepticism since Attributor is in the business of charging companies to protect their content from the threat of piracy.
Nonetheless, the study, which monitored 913 titles on several popular file hosting sites, did point to a level of activity that suggested illegal downloading of books was becoming more than just a niche pastime. Even if the various extrapolations that led to the $3-billion figure are easy to poke holes in, Attributor still directly counted 3.2 million downloaded books.
For some, however, the study may inspire more questions than answers. Who are the people downloading these books? How are they doing it and where is it happening? And, perhaps most critical for the publishing industry, why are people deciding to download books and why now? I decided to find out, and after a few hours of searching – stalled by a number dead links and password protected sites – I found, on an online forum focused on sharing books via BitTorrent, someone willing to talk.
He lives in the Midwest, he’s in his mid-30s and is a computer programmer by trade. By some measures, he’s the publishing industry’s ideal customer, an avid reader who buys dozens of books a year and enthusiastically recommends his favorites to friends. But he’s also uploaded hundreds of books to file sharing sites and he’s downloaded thousands. We discussed his file sharing activity over the course of a weekend, via email, and in his answers lie a critical challenge facing the publishing industry: how to quash the emerging piracy threat without alienating their most enthusiastic customers. As is typical of anonymous online communities, he has a peculiar handle: “The Real Caterpillar.” This is what he told me:
The Millions: How active are you. How many books have you uploaded or downloaded?
The Real Caterpillar: In the past month, I have uploaded approximately 50 books to the torrent site where you contacted me. I am much less active then I once was. I used to scan many books, but in the past two years I have only done a few. Between 2002-2005 I created around 200 ebooks by scanning the physical copy, OCRing and proofing the output, and uploading them to USENET. I generally only upload content that I have scanned, with some exceptions. I have been out of the book scene for a while, concentrating on rare and out of print movies instead of books because it is much easier to rip a movie from VHS or DVD than to scan and proof a book.
I have downloaded a couple thousand ebooks via USENET and private torrent sites.
TM: Do you typically see scanned physical books or ebooks where the DRM has been broken?
TRC: Most of what I have seen is scanned physical books. Stephen King’s Under the Dome was the first DRM-broken book I downloaded knowingly.
TM: Why have you gone this route as opposed to using a library or buying books? Do you consider this “stealing” or is it a gray area?
TRC: I own around 1,600 physical books, maybe a third of which were bought new, the rest used. I buy many hardcovers in a given year and generally purchase more books than I end up reading, so I have not chosen to collect electronic books as opposed to paper books but in addition to them. My electronic library has about a 50% crossover with my physical library, so that I can read the book on my electronic reader, “loan” the book without endangering my physical copy, or eventually rid myself of the paper copy if it is a book I do not have strong feelings about.
I do not buy DRM’d ebooks that are priced at more than a few dollars, but would pay up to $10 for a clean file if it was a new release.
I do not pretend that uploading or downloading unpurchased electronic books is morally correct, but I do think it is more of a grey area than some of your readers may. Perhaps this will change as the Kindle and other e-ink readers make electronic books more convenient, but the Baen Free Library is an interesting experiment that proves that at least in that case, their business was actually enhanced by giving away their product free. That is probably not a business model that will work for everyone, but what is shows is that as a company they have their ear to the ground and are willing to think in new directions and take chances instead of putting their fingers in their ears, closing their eyes, and railing against their customers, as the
music industry is doing. The world is changing and business models have to change with it.
Three additional points:
1) With digital copies, what is “stolen” is not as clear as with physical copies. With physical copies, you can assign a cost to the physical product, and each unit costs x dollars to create. Therefore, if the product is stolen, it is easy to say that an object was stolen that was worth x dollars. With digital copies, it is more difficult to assign cost. The initial file costs x dollars to create, but you can make a million copies of that file for no cost. Therefore, it is hard to assign a specific value to a digital copy of a work except as it relates to lost sales.
2) Just because someone downloads a file, it does not mean they would have bought the product I think this is the key fact that many people in the music industry ignore – a download does not translate to a lost sale. I own hundreds of paper copies of books I have e-copies of, many of which were bought after downloading the e-copy. In other cases I have downloaded books I would never have purchased, simply because they were recommended or sounded interesting.
3) Just because someone downloads a file, it doesn’t mean they will read it. I realize that buying a book doesn’t mean someone is going to read it either, but clicking a link and paying $10-$30 is very different – many more people will download a book and not read it than buy a book and not read it.
In truth, I think it is clear that morally, the act of pirating a product is, in fact, the moral equivalent of stealing… although that nagging question of what the person who has been stolen from is missing still lingers. Realistically and financially, however, I feel the impact of e-piracy is overrated, at least in terms of ebooks.
TM: How easy is it to go online and find a book you’re looking for? How long does it take to download and how much technical expertise is required?
TRC: I have specific tastes, so it is usually not very easy to find specifically what I am looking for. The dearth of material I was interested in is what prompted me to scan in the past, in order to share some of my favorite, less popular authors with as many people as possible. It does not take much time to download once something you want has been found, however, and little technical experience is required.
Since books are generally very small files, they can be downloaded in minutes. You can then convert the file using one of many applications, for instance Mobipocket Creator, to PRC or another format that works with your reader. You can then plug your Kindle into your computer and copy the file over. The entire process typically takes 5-10 minutes.
BitTorrent technology is easy to install and use, and just about anyone can install the basic software needed and begin downloading their first torrent in less than an hour. However, discovering and gaining access to private torrent sites (invite only) can take a lot of time – and of course, that is where the good stuff is. Public sites (no account needed) and semi-private sites (sites that require an account, but usually have open enrollment) have a limited selection, but are easily accessible and anyone with basic computer skills can find and download very popular novels.
Usenet is an older technology, and is considered a safer place to pirate files. For older users like me who were around at the beginning of the internet it seems very simple, but to newer computer users it may seem unnecessarily complex, and more expensive because you need an account separate from your regular internet connection to access it.
TM: Once you’ve downloaded a book, what format is it in and how do you read it? On you computer? Printed out?
TRC: My preferred format for distribution is RTF because it holds metadata such as italics, boldfaces, and special characters that TXT does not, is easily converted to other formats using Word, cannot contain a virus, and is an open format that will be readable forever. Other popular formats are DOC, HTML, PDF, LIT (Microsoft Reader), PRC (Palm), MOBI (Palm), CBR (rar’d image files) – and there is a new format with each new reader that is released. Most formats can be converted to your preferred format with enough ingenuity or the
To read, I convert to PRC and load the books onto my Kindle. Before I got that, I read on my Palm or laptop.
TM: How long does it take you to scan a physical book?
TRC: The scanning process takes about 1 hour per 100 scans. Mass market paperbacks can be scanned two pages at a time flat on the scanner bed, while large trades and hardcovers usually need to be scanned one page at a time. I’m sure that some of the more hardcore scanners disassemble the book and run it through an automatic feeder or something, but I prefer the manual approach because I’d like to save the book, and don’t want to invest in the tools. Usually I can scan a book while watching a movie or two.
Once scanned, the output needs to be OCR’d – this is a fairly quick process using a tool like ABBYY FineReader.
The final step is the longest and most grueling. I’ve spent anywhere from 5 to 40 hours proofing the OCR output, depending on the size of the book and the quality of type in the original. This can be done in your OCR tool side-by-side with the scan of the original image or separately in your final output type (RTF, DOC, HTML, etc.). If there are few errors on the first few pages of text my preference is to proof in RTF, otherwise I do the proof within Finereader itself.
TM: What types of books do you look for? What is generally available? Is any fiction or popular non-fiction available?
TRC: I restrict my downloads to books I will likely read – this includes some popular novels, literary novels, and general non-fiction such as humor, biography, science, sociology, etc. Unlike DVD rips, the newest releases are not typically available two weeks before the product is released, if at all. I’m assuming that this is due to the smaller devoted audience books have, as well as the increased difficulty of sharing a book.
TM: Do you have a sense of where these books are coming from and who is putting them online?
TRC: I assume they are primarily produced by individuals like me – bibliophiles who want to share their favorite books with others. They likely own hundreds of books, and when asked what their favorite book is look at you like you are crazy before rattling of 10-15 authors, and then emailing you later with several more. The next time you see them, they have a bag of 5-10 books for you to borrow.
I’m sure that there are others – the compulsive collectors who download and re-share without ever reading one, the habitual pirates who want to be the first to upload a new release, and people with some other weird agenda that only they understand.
TM: Is it your sense that a lot of people are out there looking to get books this way? Or is it just a tiny group?
TRC: I would say that there is a small unaffiliated “group” of people responsible for sourcing the material.
Also, keep in mind that everything I’m saying applies mostly to fiction and general-interest non-fiction.
Textbook, programming and technical manuals are all over the place and its very easy to obtain almost anything you want. I assume there are more sources for that material, and that their high price is a larger factor in people deciding to pirate them. Similarly, there are many communities creating comic, graphic novel and magazine content of whom I am only vaguely aware.
TM: Do you worry at all about getting in trouble for scanning and uploading ebooks?
TRC: A little, but the books I do are typically not bestsellers and are rarely new. I figure I have a bit of a buffer if trouble comes down because the Stephen King or Nora Roberts or “whoever the latest bestseller is” scanners would be the ones to get hit first. I’ve done a lot of out-of-print stuff, and when it is not out of print it’s books by authors like John Barth – someone who no longer sells very well, I imagine.
I’ve debated doing some newer authors and books, but I would need to protect myself better and resolve the moral dilemma of actually causing noticeable financial harm to the author whose work I love enough to spend so much time working on getting a nice e-copy if I were to do so.
TM: What changes in the ebook industry would inspire you to stop participating in ebook file sharing?
TRC: This is a tough question. I guess if every book was available in electronic format with no DRM for reasonable prices ($10 max for new/bestseller/omnibus, scaling downwards for popularity and value) it just wouldn’t be worth the time, effort, and risk to find, download, convert and load the book when the same thing could be accomplished with a single click on your Kindle. Even in this situation, I would probably still grab a book if I stumbled across the file and thought it might interest me – or if I wanted to check it out before buying a paper copy.
I was impressed by the Indie filmmakers of the movie “Ink” – when their movie leaked before the DVD was released, they put a donation button on their site doubleedgefilms.com. I donated even though I haven’t watched the movie yet, just because of their thoughtfulness and sincerity. This didn’t seem to work for King’s “The Plant“, but I think that had a lot to do with the lack of reading technology at the time. I would like to see the experiment tried again by someone like Eggers or Murakami – someone with a very devoted fanbase.
Perhaps if readers were more confident that the majority of the money went to the author, people would feel more guilty about depriving the author of payment. I think most of the filesharing community feels that the record industry is a vestigal organ that will slowly fall off and die – I don’t know to what extent that feeling would extend to publishing houses since they are to some extent a different animal. In the end, I think that regular people will never feel very guilty “stealing” from a faceless corporation, or to a lesser extent, a multi-millionaire like King.
One thing that will definitely not change anyone’s mind or inspire them to stop are polemics from people like Mark Helprin and Harlan Ellison – attitudes like that ensure that all of their works are available online all of the time.
[Image credit: Patrick Feller]
The Gutenberg Bible is a book of extraordinary beauty. One might even say it exudes beauty: its gleaming hand-tooled leather cover beckons to the hands to touch, to open, to reveal what lies inside. The day I saw it, it was sitting on the library table like a fat monarch laid in state, a foot wide by nearly a foot and a half long, light reflecting off the metal cornerpieces a binder had affixed for its protection half a millennium before. I asked Paul Needham, the librarian at Princeton’s Scheide Library, if I should put on gloves. He shook his head. Linen rag is not disturbed by finger oils, while calfskin in fact thanks them. I raised the solid wood-and-leather board. It opened right onto the text: two perfect jet-black columns, the ink still glossy after all this time. I turned one massive page, and then the next, intoxicated by the touch, the smell, the grace of that black block against the broad and creamy margins. To my amazement, I was leafing through the most famous and valuable book in the world, the first major volume made with metal type — the Ur-book of the age of print. Yet beyond all these superlatives, it was simply beautiful.
This volume, one of 48 that survive, was crafted with exquisite care roughly 560 years ago. Its makers — one inventor, one scribe, and one merchant who dealt in books — chose for each page the crispest letterforms, the purest linen, the ideal proportions of the golden section. In short, they selected the finest possible form to clothe the most sacred text of their age, the Christian Scriptures. I studied this book for several years, and have come to think that it has much to tell our age as well. For this Biblia latina, more than any other book, makes one thing clear: the more we value a text, the more we desire to fix it in the world, to grant it permanence. Today, as we rush headlong into the digital age, it seems to me that a similar tendency can be discerned. For against all expectation, we readers maintain our stubborn attachment to physical books, as though what they contained were somehow sacred.
By now most of us are heartily sick of the print versus e-book debate. It was framed wrong from the start: as a Manichean proposition, one or the other, either-or. Fortunately, we have our own experience now to instruct us — as well as the long history of the book. The evolution of reading technologies is both “broken and continuous,” in the words of the book historian John Pettegree; each successive form coexists with the one it replaces for some time. Most of us read some things on screen, other things in print; seven years after the invention of the Kindle, readers are answering this question for themselves. We need only look back to the first age of print to see that this is how technologies evolve. The hand copying of manuscripts by scribes did not vanish in 1454, when Johann Gutenberg and his colleagues unveiled the new system of printing with movable type. Nor did it die out completely when Aldus Manutius invented the killer app for print in 1500 in Venice, the handheld personal book — nor even in 1517, when Martin Luther’s 95 printed theses sounded the death knell for clerical rule. Hand copying persisted well into the 16th century, for special texts desired by wealthy rulers and clergy. Even today, fine letterpress printing and calligraphy are used for luxury editions of the classics for a similar clientele. For a time, and for a particular purpose, old technology persists. Where then, in 2015, do we stand with the printed book?
Beneath the barrage of e-hype, it turns out that the humble codex — the Latin term for books with spines and leaves — is holding its own. The statistics can appear confounding, but essentially the market is settling out. It is true that overall book sales have been dropping for some time. The American market saw a drop from 770 million copies sold in 2009 to 635 million in 2014 (the figures were 229 million and 181 million for the U.K.) according to Jonathan Nowell, president of Nielsen Book, the main industry tracker. Given all the other ways we spend our leisure time today, that’s not surprising. More tellingly, the rate of e-book buying has leveled off after years of explosive growth. E-books now comprise less than a third of all books sold. The first flush of digital adoption has passed, it seems; hardcover sales (particularly for picture books and adult nonfiction) have held up well, Nowell told the Digital Book World conference in January. It is paperbacks that have been cannibalized by e-books. This picture will naturally shift as we move ever forward into new digital experiences. But I find it remarkable that at a time of massive digital immersion, a majority still prefers to consume their reading the old-fashioned way.
The physical places where such books are bought aren’t dying either. The independent brick-and-mortar bookshop is slowly reviving in America, with glimmers of a similar rebound in Britain. The numbers are nowhere near what they were before the big chains and Amazon, but last year more new bookstores opened in the United States than in any year since the 2008 recession, the American Booksellers Association reported (for the record, 59). Sales of physical books at Britain’s leading chain, Waterstone’s, rose five percent in December, and the British Library’s chairman, Rory Keating, recently took a stab at explaining why visitor figures rose 10 percent in 2014. It’s not just the free Wi-Fi, apparently: the more screen-based peoples’ lives become, the more they value physical artefacts and experiences, he theorized.
At the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association convention held last fall in Tacoma, Wash., I learned that the people who love books enough to consecrate their lives to them have noticed this, too. With a gaggle of other authors, I was flogging my book in a massive speed-dating exercise that consisted of telling table after table of retailers what my novel was about. As I brandished my own beautiful hardback (of which more in a moment), we got to talking about the surprising appeal of hardbacks in this digital day and age. Over the past five years, they all agreed, hardbacks have not only held their own, they have gotten more beautiful. It’s almost as if, one bookseller mused, publishers understood that if one went to the trouble of producing or buying a printed book anymore, it had better be for a darned good reason. The very printness of print, it seemed, was its USP — its unique selling point. If a print book can’t offer something more than a cheaply produced paperback, the e-book wins the day. There’s simply no reason to buy it.
Can we define what this “more” is that a physical book provides? A lot has been written on this subject, usually centering on the notion of “tactility.” The tactile appeal of real ink on pages certainly plays a role. Most of us don’t know exactly why we love the soft oatmeal feel of good paper stock, the nubby ruffle of the deckle edge, the weight of the fabric-covered boards. It’s powerful, though, this hunger that we humans have for touch. Our skin is our largest perceptual organ, our first, most primordial sense; stroking a pet, or a page, releases occitocin, the hormone that brings joy. Even so, I’m convinced that the hold of the book goes even deeper. The best books give readers a profound aesthetic and intellectual experience, like our 15th century Bible: they are objects of both beauty and permanence.
As Hannah Arendt observed, mankind is homo faber: man as maker. We are tool-makers, art-makers, and respond to what we make, especially those things that are well made. What makes an object attractive, desirable — in a word, beautiful — if not each detail that reveals the care, the close attention of its maker? The evidence is all around us, from coveted Apple products hyper-designed by an obsessive Steve Jobs to luxury handbags and brushed-steel German kitchens. Nor is the pleasure we derive from such beautiful objects only aesthetic. Beauty is a kind of cognate for excellence: we are also viscerally responding to the maker’s attention to quality, which signals a certain kind of seriousness. Decades later I still recall the Heritage Library set of classics in my parents’ living room. Handsomely set in type, stamped with gold embossing and illustrated with powerful black woodcuts, these books sent the clearest message with their heft and beauty: pay attention, this is good. I should mention here that the gorgeous black textura letters of The Gutenberg Bible were not the first metal letters in the world; Gutenberg’s first efforts were crude, unlovely. It took time and extraordinary focus and skill to craft those letterforms we so admire, most likely the work of Gutenberg’s apprentice, Peter Schoeffer, a gifted calligrapher.
The painstaking work of craftsmanship thus results in things we can hold and admire. And hidden deep inside this tactile pleasure is the source of its real power. A well-made book, like any well-made thing, exudes a sense of permanence. The better it is made, the longer it will last — perhaps for centuries. In letterpress printing, this idea is captured by what printers call “the dwell:” the moment when inked metal letters touch the sheet. The letters dwell upon the page, as we dwell upon a word, or musicians dwell upon a note. It’s a word that marries a sense of duration, of permanence, to the act of fastening a text upon a sheet. Which texts do we choose to treat this way? The answer, I think, is obvious. The deeper, more universal, and important the “content,” the more we wish to grant it permanence. What we enshrine in print are texts we truly cherish, and deem sacred. This impulse is as old as cuneiform and scrolls, as old as the first prophets of the Abrahamic religions, instructed to preserve the Word of God. “Serious readers,” too, are members of this tribe. For is it not they — we — who felt most stricken at the thought the book had died, who perceived it as an existential threat? To some of us, it is literature itself that is sacred, insofar as it has become the place we turn for meaning, and for explication of the world.
The permanence of this heritage is an ever-present concern. We are haunted as we should be by the loss of the library of Alexandria, and by the sheer chance that saved the classics of antiquity in Constantinople. I for one am loath to hand our civilization’s most priceless works over to a digital “cloud” that will vanish when the gas runs out. The most important thing to remember about Gutenberg’s world-changing invention is not that it spread learning, or even democracy, the historian John Man reminds us. It is that printing gave mankind the means to preserve what it could not preserve before: “the entire cultural DNA of our species.” We turn away from such a gift at our own peril.
Over the nearly 2,000 years of its existence, the book has shaped us as effectively as we have shaped the book. There’s increasing evidence that the physical form of the codex mirrors the processing operations of the brain, a fact that should not surprise, considering the two have co-evolved. And this very permanence finds an analogue in the reading mind: our brains, it turns out, are wired to better store and retain what we read in print than things we read on screen. A print book conveys the meaning of a text uniquely. Its multiple sensory aspects — size, paper stock, ink, impression, art, typography — encode a staggering array of information. This physical structure creates a spatial construct for the mind that helps it navigate, according to Anne Mangan, a Norwegian reading researcher. It is useful to me to think of a printed book as a landscape through which the mind roams, touching branches, remembering paths. Like the internal “memory palaces” that medieval scholars used, the physical spaces of the book function as aids to recall. Turning pages helps us build “a scaffold on which memory and information are automatically arranged,” says Mangan.
The science is by no means settled. But it appears the physical space of the book both enourages us to focus in a way we do not on screen, and gives us clues — how far we’ve gone, where on the page that quote appeared — that help us to better remember. There is a third element that, to me, is equally compelling: a book we crack with our two hands creates an actual physical space for reverie that functions as an oasis outside daily life, a cocoon in space and time. An e-book can perform this function too, although I wonder if it takes us quite as far away. After all, these tactile qualities are part and parcel of the world the book creates. In the end, refusal of the e-book comes down to a refusal of sensory impoverishment. With all the senses we possess, why settle only for the eyes?
It’s no accident that we’re currently witnessing a revival of the handmade in every field, from handicrafts sold on Etsy to Maker Faires where the digerati escape to shape things with their hands. It is especially gratifying to see this happening in the arts of the book. The past decade has seen a huge boom in letterpress printing and bookbinding; young people all over the world are rediscovering the joy of making books as Gutenberg once did. “I can only liken it to making music yourself or cooking,” says Erik Spiekermann, a renowned typographer who has just opened a letterpress studio in Berlin. “Setting your own type is an essential experience, like making your own pizza, preparing your own food.” We readers, too, are drawn to these basic materials; we too yearn to hold a well-made book in our two hands.
This past spring I watched in wonder as the designers at Harper Books expressed that love of craft in their own work. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the founding Harper brothers were themselves printers: a case of type is displayed in the firm’s new offices on lower Broadway. Even so I was unprepared for how my story of the making of The Gutenberg Bible would inspire the people charged with putting it in print. It was as if the subject itself called forth the highest degree of craftsmanship, from exquisite page design to deckle edges and a die cut on the cover. They understood, I think, that a book about the first great book must strive for that same excellence and beauty.
I feel confident that there will always be a place for books we touch and hold. Some of us will read on phones or tablets; others will keep reaching for the real thing, the same way the great medieval printer Anton Koberger imagined his customers doing in 1493, when he sent out his Nuremberg Chronicle with this printed wish:
Speed now, Book…
A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire
And read you with great attention.
Image Credit: Wikipedia