In a short piece at silicon.com “futurist” Peter Cochrane talks about a potential business idea that I’m surprised doesn’t already exist: digitizing personal book collections. As I’ve said in the past, I support the various book digitization efforts from Google and others for these projects’ potential to make the sharing of knowledge easier, not because I want to read all my books (for free or otherwise) from my computer. However, I am intrigued by the option of digitizing at least some of the books I own – perhaps books I’ve read and don’t intend to read in full again. It would be nice to have searchable, digital copies of these books to refer back to, but there are some books that I could never trade in for digital doppelgangers.
What’s the pedigree of a bestseller? That’s the question the New York Times asked last week in an article that, despite the endless waves of political scandal, remained on their most viewed list for the better part of a week. The article reveals the seamy side of publishing: publishers have foresworn the metrics used by marketers to study their audiences’ buying habits, because they, much like Creationists, “don’t believe in them,” leading to an industry where million dollar advances are gambled on the Flying Spaghetti Monster of editors’ intuition. So is it any surprise that an article about the billion-dollar, high-stakes world of publishing, with its talk of big bets and horse racing, comes off sounding like a description of a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting? Won’t someone stop the insanity? (Very nicely summed up here, btw.)Enter Macmillan New Writing, the controversial imprint of the British publishing house Macmillan. New Writing was founded to promote works by unpublished writers, particularly writers who have produced the kind of experimental, unclassifiable or controversial books that are worth publishing, but might not have what it takes to become best sellers, in other words, books that don’t have mass market appeal. The imprint publishes one book a month and currently comprises twenty titles, all of which are prominently featured in Macmillan’s catalog. No agents are involved, the publishing house accepts direct submissions, and writers get no advance, but earn 20% royalties.Sounds good, no? But it’s not all upside. Not only are the writers’ contracts non-negotiable, but Macmillan receives all subsidiary rights to the book and a first look at the author’s second book. Critics have reacted strongly, calling the imprint “literary slave drivers” and “vanity publishers,” and indulging in apocalyptic predictions of the end of publishing as we know it. (As if that would be a bad thing. The submissions, at least, are entirely electronic.) The negative press was so strong that the founder of the imprint, Michael Barnard, felt compelled to write Transparent Imprint, a book defending his idea. (Which the imprint, of course, published. See how that works?)Why all the consternation? Sure, novelists lose their right to film rights, translations, and licensed merchandise (Ignatius J. Reilly trebuchets, anyone?), but is that so bad? Without an agent, they wouldn’t be able to sell them anyway, and apparently Macmillan has been doing a good job so far, bagging a movie deal for the thriller The Manuscript and a decent advance on a German edition of the fantasy novel The Secret War. What’s really at stake, it would seem, is the publishing industry’s ego. Despite the fact that their best work is guesswork, they like to believe they know what they’re doing when they get into a bidding war over a total unknown. The novelist Giles Foden, quoted by the Guardian, put it like this, New Writing’s list is like “putting a bet on every horse in the race – but without paying for any of the bets.” And that doesn’t make us feel very special, does it?But, if the New York Times is right, isn’t that what publishers are doing anyway? If advances are the big gambles everyone says they are, then they only serve to make publishers risk averse. Much like Hollywood, which instead of looking for fresh material, increasingly hedges its bets by turning out retreads of once popular comic books and old TV shows, the publishing industry is in a rut. Bestsellers are inherently unpredictable, and yet, if a publishing exec had to choose between a cutting edge novel and another Harry Potter knockoff, you can bet that “Parry Hotter and The Sorcerer’s Merkin” would be the one stacked on the front tables of Barnes and Nobles nationwide. By not giving writers advances, New Writing has found a way around this problem, allowing them to take a chance on a book, while reducing the considerable overhead attached. This system should be a boon for mid-list writers who, it’s often said, are not nurtured by publishing houses in the way they once were. Sure, you’ll hear writers grousing about being unable to make a living from their work, but, with the exception of the biggest literary stars, isn’t that’s how it’s always been? For my part, I’d much rather have my books in print, giving my readership a chance to grow with me. After all, readers will seek out a good writer’s backlist, and every book that sees print should increase royalties from previous efforts. And what a boon for those writers who don’t have the savvy, connections, or good luck to get an agent. Hell, some writers, John Kennedy Toole comes to mind, are literally dying to get published.It’s been over a year since New Writing put out its first book, and the imprint’s list of well-reviewed books seem to be proving the naysayers wrong. The writers’ seem satisfied with the deal (here and here), and if Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort (recently reviewed here at The Millions) is any indication of the quality of the books New Writing has on offer, they’re doing the literary community a real service. It might be time for the rest of the publishing industry to put down their dice and take notice.Bonus Link: The MacMillan New Writing titles currently available in the U.S.
With each new holiday season the reach of ereaders expands, as a new crop of Kindles, Nooks and iPads are fired up. The first thing to do is download a few books.
Just a few years after ebooks and ereaders first emerged as futuristic curiosity, they are fully mainstream now. Even among the avid, book-worshiping, old-school readers that frequent The Millions, ebooks are very popular. Looking at the statistics that Amazon provides us, 45% of all the books bought by Millions readers at Amazon after clicking on our links this year were Kindle ebooks. Last year it was 33% and the year before it was 25%, so the trend continues unabated.
So, for all those readers unwrapping shiny new devices, here are some links to get you going.
For starters, The Millions published a pair of very highly regarded and very affordable ebook originals in 2013. If you are new to the ereader game, we hope you’ll pick up these titles:
Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever by Mark O’Connell ($1.99)
The Pioneer Detectives: Did a distant spacecraft prove Einstein and Newton wrong? by Konstantin Kakaes ($2.99)
Here are some of the most popular ebooks purchased by Millions readers in 2013 (which you’ll see are very similar to our Hall of Fame and most recent top-ten which take into account books in all formats). Publishers appear to still be having luck pricing ebooks pricing above the magic $9.99 number that has been a focus for many in the industry (all prices as of this writing).
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt ($7.50)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner ($10.99)
Selected Stories by Alice Munro ($10.74)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton ($8.59)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ($10.99)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri ($9.99)
Tenth of December by George Saunders ($8.99)
Fox 8 by George Saunders ($0.99)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer ($8.99)
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda ($11.04)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood ($1.99)
Other potentially useful ebook links:
And in this fractured ebook landscape, you’ve also got your NookBooks, Google ebooks, Apple ibooks, and the IndieBound ereader app that lets you buy ebooks from your favorite indie bookstore. Finally, don’t forget Project Gutenberg, the original purveyor of free ebooks (mostly out-of-copyright classics) available for years.
NPR’s On the Media ran a feature recently on entrepreneur Joshua Karp’s new startup the Printed Blog (TPB), a web aggregator that takes the best online content and… puts it on paper. Karp plans to print TPB twice a day and hand it out for free in major urban outlets. Content and advertising will be localized, and readers can go online to discuss and recommend articles and content they would like to see.The timing of the announcement coming, as it does, close on the heels of the Atlantic Monthly’s (hopefully) exaggerated reports of the NYT’s demise seemed almost comical. My initial reaction was to check the calendar. Having confirmed that it wasn’t April, I became incredulous, made snarky comments to the radio, and finally accepted the idea.Although at first glance Karp’s project seems endearingly quixotic, it does have one thing going for it: depending on how the content is selected, it could be an excellent tool for encouraging the development of a sense of physical community. Although the web has successfully connected people with similar interests, it hasn’t done the same for people with similar addresses. TBP could be a great tool for making highly visible, localized announcements. Having a block party? Print an ad in TBP’s morning edition. Canceled because of rain? An announcement in the evening edition will come out just in time to catch commuters on their way home. If done in the right way, TBP has the potential to provide a legitimate and much needed public service. Not to mention it will be a great way to expose less web savvy members of the community to some of the fantastic writing that’s being done on blogs today.On the downside, it will have to overcome several major obstacles. First, iPhones and similar technology have already made the web portable. I assume the target demographic is web savvy young professionals between the ages of 22-30, a hunch confirmed by the web site’s blog (yes, they have a blog). This is precisely the group that is most likely to already have the Internet in their pocket, delivering their favorite blogs to them at the speed of inanity. TPB might introduce them to new content, but isn’t that what Digg and Delicious are for? And as for the reader suggested content… If the readers don’t access blogs offline, what makes Karp think they’ll log on to share their opinion? To make matters worse, the people for whom this service would be most useful, those without the means or knowledge to use computers, won’t be able to vote. A mismatch between the content and the audience seems inevitable.The second issue is cost. Karp estimates that his initial venture will cost $15,000. He anticipates selling ads for $25 apiece, meaning he’ll have to sell 600 to cover his overhead. Because the publication is intended to be “hyper-localized,” I assume he’s going to be targeting local businesses for ad revenue. I’m not sure how many of them will shell out that kind of money for a daily ad, but as a point of comparison, Google ads are free as long as no one clicks on them (and very cheap even then), run indefinitely, and are guaranteed to reach your target audience, regardless of their geographic location (a concern if you’re trying to advertise to tourists). Hard to beat that deal. And besides, isn’t the lack of willing advertisers print media’s biggest problem? I’d love to have seen Karp pitch that business model to potential investors. Granted, local free papers, like the San Francisco Guardian, seem to be doing well.The experiment begins on January 27th in Chicago and San Francisco, but if successful I suppose the model can be easily rolled out at minimal cost nationwide. Although, I’m still skeptical, The Millions never turns down free publicity. Why don’t you suggest they include us in their first issue?
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
Bryan Gilmer of Durham, N.C., teaches newswriting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writes for institutional and corporate clients. Until 2003, he was a reporter at Florida’s largest newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times. He has just independently published a crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz.Last week, I created a Kindle version of my indie crime thriller novel, Felonious Jazz, using the tools at Amazon’s Digital Text Platform. It took about nine minutes, a “why-not” side project alongside my trade paperback, which I published using Amazon’s print-on-demand company, CreateSpace.My Kindle edition went live last Monday at $7.99, so I announced it on a couple of Kindle message boards online. By Wednesday, I’d sold one copy. One! Message board replies said, “If you want us to try a new author, give us a really low price. It’ll generate sales and reviews.” So I marked it down to $1.99 Thursday morning and posted the price change on the same boards. What happened next was remarkable:As of 5 p.m. Friday – about 36 hours later – Felonious Jazz was the No. 1 selling hard-boiled mystery on the Amazon Kindle Store and the 17th best-selling title in Mysteries & Thrillers – the only title not by huge names like John Sandford, Michael Connelly, and Elmore Leonard in the top 25. Its overall Kindle sales rank was as high as 133rd out of all the 283,000+ fiction and non-fiction titles available in the Kindle Store.I thought, now that I’m in the rankings, I shouldn’t have to be so cheap. I bumped the price to $4.99. Sales continued, but at a slower pace, (and Felonious Jazz has slipped in the rankings. I probably should have stuck with $1.99 longer). I also drew in some people who just buy cheap Kindle offerings who don’t normally read the genre, though they may have been less likely to enjoy it than fans of similar books.But overall, what a no-budget way to gain visibility. A few big lessons here: Readers expect Kindle books to be much cheaper than dead-tree books (because they know it costs less to publish them and they can’t share them and worry they won’t have them forever). A cheap price is enough to buy your way up the rankings among national names with a zero-dollar PR campaign. Now that there’s a free Kindle app for iPhone, the potential audience for a Kindle title is not just the half million people who spent $359 for the device but many times that large. It’s surprisingly comfortable to read book text on the Kindle iPhone app. If you haven’t tried it yet, get the app and grab my free sample from Amazon, and you’ll see what I mean. It’s transformative to have a book you’re reading (or several) on your phone to pull out whenever you have to wait in line or for an appointment.More worrying for conventional publishers is that Kindle board posters don’t think big publishers are pricing their titles cheaply enough, and when prices get above $9.99 they get angry about it. I’m not sure whether the high prices are due to higher costs, more parties to share the revenue with, or the fear of cannibalization of paper-copy sales. (But the advantages! Near-zero production costs. No warehousing. No shipping. No returns. New edition at any moment. Never out of print. And the Kindle makes people read and buy more titles.) Could big publishers go from being at a tremendous advantage to competing for top-25 sales rankings – if not profits – with a guy in his home office? Will a Netflix-like company launch without the expensive legacy infrastructure of the big New York houses and take advantage of elasticity of demand at much lower price points? As I type this I realize – maybe that’s Amazon.A bad side effect is that without barriers to entry, a lot of non-professional-quality content creates clutter. But to some degree, crowd sorting (via online reviews and such) can cope with that.