Is the future of physical book publishing the same as the future of reading and writing?

Vinyl Albums Discs the 14
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People continue to mix and conflate the making of a thing called a book–often beautiful, many times endowed with a spiritual aura–with other, entirely separate things called reading and writing.

Thank you Jane Friedman, for bringing all this up as it relates to McSweeney’s rather pollyanna posts on the state of book publishing. The latter touts the state of book publishing (by number of books printed/published, at least) as being at an all-time high, as is library use and book sales, with the bumper-culminating point that literacy, global literacy, is at an all-time high.  The McSweeney’s posts wouldn’t have passed muster in a freshman composition class for argumentation–physical book buying is not the only way we read, and libraries are used for several other things now besides checking out books. Let me explain.

It never ceases to amaze me how ebooks, the one truly positive sales story in publishing, is also the one topic that is brought up to point out that The Sky is Falling in publishing. The economic models that make an ebook and produce a book are largely the same–people read, edit, then publish. After that, it gets really cheap and efficient for the ebook, and really dumb and slow for the physical book.  But books, physical ones, continue to serve as the measuring stick.  This has a lot to do with aesthetics and fetishizing what a book’s job is, of course, which is to provide text for a person to read. It’s an important time and takes a significant chunk of one’s time, reading. Never mind that much of what we do reading-wise and practically all of our writing occurs on-screen.  The book as object for many remains sacrosanct.

All this is easy for McSweeney’s to bring up, and it’s very much in their self-interest.  That’s because they make beautiful books. Issues of the McSweeney’s literary magazine wouldn’t be out of place at an art school or museum in a show that challenges what a book-as-object is.  You can’t digitize that, nor would you want to. What McSweeney’s does, however, is both an anomaly and an infinitesimal part of both the publishing industry and the reading experience.  

Don’t get me wrong here.  I love-love-love McSweeney’s books and the journal.  But I’ll tell you a story. A little while back, McSweeney’s made one of their issues a newspaper. Why? Why not? Previous issues included a comb, fer chrissakes.  I brought this up with a blogging guru and former newspaper person.

Did I buy the issue? he asked.

Sure did, I told him.

But did you read it? he asked.

I had to pause. I leafed through it admiringly, I remembered. The roster of writers was tremendous. The object itself–full-color, typography, a magazine–breathtaking.

I couldn’t remember if I read it. I don’t think I did.

My point isn’t to say what McSweeney’s does is crap or precious or twee.  I’ll leave that for other people to talk about.  My point is that the idea of what makes up reading is changing. Books are going to be read with increasingly more convenient digital devices, and much of the nature of libraries and bookstores are going to change and even go away.

That’s not a bad thing, and it should not be breaking news for people who are following things with a clear eye. The fear of what the future brings takes over most people who think about books and reading and writing in a way I can’t understand or explain, other than to say it has something to do with nostalgia and not a small dash of privileging one’s experience over what will soon be another’s. As well as keeping one’s job.

Tell you another story. My basement man-cave is filled with objects. I collect. My wife would say I hoard. I have vinyl records, 45s, 8-tracks. And books and chapbooks fill the wall. I love spending time there.

Let’s keep going with this music example. I also have terrabyte drives full of music and digital music players that I use to listen to music, along with satellite radio and Pandora, all of which I use far more often to listen to music. Do I fear for the future of music, so much so I am going to tout the sales of vinyl or CDs to say people are still listening to music or making music? Nope. That ship has sailed, the model has changed. We’re still trying to figure out how musicians themselves will make a living, sure. Touring will have a lot to do with it. A subscription model that gives one access to all the music in the world is the ideal.

Tell you still another story. When I was at AWP last weekend, I saw not one, not two, not three, but four people reading from Kindles while manning publisher tables. I myself read a couple chapters on Kindle for PC of Patton Oswalt’s new memoir. So here we are at a bookfair that celebrates writing, the typefaced word, and reading, and people who are pimping the printed objects are reading for pleasure from screens. Kindles!

Is this the end times? No. The McSweeney’s posts would have been more accurate if they said, literacy is up because in part people are reading and writing more online and participating in a writing and reading culture in places like Facebook and Twitter and blogs, and young people are discovering reading and the joy of physical books because of comics and Harry Potter, and writers have a wealth of new possibilities for getting their work out and actually read by people because of the internet and the recent acceptance and sales of ebooks.

But that would have been far less sexy.

To sell physical books, we feel we have to resort to what I call novelty but what others call “different price points.” The plain old book without any aesthetic worth won’t fly anymore. The book has to be beautiful, collectible, a keepsake. That’s fine. I buy the vinyl version of records whenever I can. I’ll buy beautiful books. Keep in mind that more and more, those records bands sell come with a download key to get mp3 versions as well.

Do publishers do this?  They should.  They will. Because reading is an experience, not an interaction between a person and a thing, no matter how much more authentic or un-reproducable we may think reading a physical book is. Because the aura of an ebook, as Walter Benjamin might have called it, is just as valid as the printed one.

Let’s talk about libraries and then I’ll shut up. I was talking with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz about this on the drive home Sunday. She kicks it old school. She was talking about how Shappy, her partner, takes out tens of books at a time and how the Philadelphia Public Library is awesome, and that people are using libraries for that purpose and that’s why they’re so popular.

I can’t disagree that libraries are great because they have books that you can check out, but more and more that’s not going to be the primary function of a library, I told her. Libraries have books, sure, but more and more the circulation of books is not where the growth is–it’s providing a space where people can get together and study and access resources. They will talk about books, but the library of the future is not exclusively a book repository, not by a long shot.

In colleges, we’re talking about libraries as “learning commons,” where people get together for this new thing called “social learning.” The playgroup/playdate generation has arrived in the colleges, and they want to read their articles from academic databases and ebooks and PDFs next to each other. They regard reading and studying as a social experience.  Often hours will go by before a physical page has been turned, because these experiences happen on screens.

Who are the people at McSweeney’s to not point to these moments, happening right now across the world, as the reason literacy rates have gone up?

I’ll talk about bookstores at some point, but right now I have to mark papers. I use Word comments and send them back to my students as PDF files.

29 thoughts on “Is the future of physical book publishing the same as the future of reading and writing?

  1. Thank you for saying all the other things I was thinking, but did not write. Thank you a million times.

    1. Thanks Jane! Your post encouraged me to sound out some of these thoughts you brought up. I am indebted.

  2. Great post, Daniel. The Stanford Study of Writing takes up these concerns about literacy very well. In the study, they found that students (and I have no doubt this can be exptrapolated to the population at large) are more literate than ever explicitly because they are communicating in so many different ways across mediums and platforms. Not only are students communicating more and gaining new literacies, they are doing so in really rhetorical ways. Anyway, I too saw people reading from Kindles at AWP and thought it was a very encouraging thing, that ebooks and books as physical objects can co-exist peacefully. McSweeney’s is an interesting publisher. What I’ve often noticed (and I too absolutely love what they do), is that we spend more of our time talking about how their books look than what their books say. This certainly extends to the magazine too. I actually read Panorama and did this multi-part breakdown of the thing and now, a year or so later, I can’t remember a thing about what I read save for a great essay about a gay guy who went to a NASCAR race and that’s something we should probably talk about, how the form has started to supersede the function and if that’s the case, don’t we have a problem on our hands?

    1. Thanks Roxane with one -n. I love what McSweeney’s does, too, but I do think it’s the exception and not the rule, and the rules themselves are changing anyway. I find the ideas of different literacies and in particular electronic and oral literacies fascinating. That’s your academic background, in addition, yes? So it’s encouraging what I am saying resonates with you on any level. Don’t you think the next step with students, or one next step, is to validate and name and be able to hone those literacies, rather than regard them as, well, icky?

      1. This is indeed my academic background. A lot of this ties into my dissertation research so its still really fresh haha. I am really fascinated by electronic literacies and feel we discount them far too easily. It is critical, absolutely critical that we name these literacies for students and equip them to function effectively within the various realms of literacy. We are kidding ourselves and pushing ourselves out of viability if we cling desperately to “old” literacies while pretending new literacies aren’t valid, important, and teachable. They work in complement, not in opposition.

  3. Good material, Daniel. You help highlight this defensive tendency people have to cordon off things they want to protect in times of change — the sanctity of one book format, the priority of one library service, etc. Insecurity makes such lonely bedfellows.

  4. Thank you for a wonderful post that makes terrific points. I have been thinking about this on and off today and it was nice to read something that pulled my random thoughts into a cohesive whole!

  5. I’m so glad you brought up the artistic value of a book. I think that’s so important. I have yet to find a book that does it better than Jesus for President. Every page has been custom-designed. It’s completely engrossing as a physical object. It would never work on a Kindle. It is exciting to think that the future of the physical book could create opportunities for artists and authors to collaborate together.

  6. I think this is the most logical prediction of the future of book publishing I have read. I just hope that digital books stay true to purpose of physical books. I would hate to try to read a novel while contending with distracting hyperlinks, banner advertisements or confusing text-wrapping.

  7. I wonder. . .
    did readers, scholars, writers, librarians, etc., bemoan the move from scrolls to books?


    1. Victor Hugo’s commentary in chapter 2 “This Will Kill That” of The Hunchback of Notre Dame provides a fascinating perspective on how different institutions reacted to the introduction of the printing press.

  8. Thank you, thank you!
    A lot of writers feel this, but I believe are afraid to come right out and say it. Thanks for a great post.

  9. it’s funny, Angela: the minute I read that word “prefer,” I started to roll my eyes and scoff a little. Every time I talk to friends about my Kindle, they look at me as if I’ve sold my soul. I don’t think everyone is approaching it practically. Maybe it’s because I don’t think that this is an issue of preference, but one of picking and choosing which works we’ll read in which forms.

    that didn’t come off as confrontational, did it? I didn’t mean for it to.

    1. Wouldn’t a person use their preferences to pick and choose which works to read in which form? I also am not trying to be confrontational, your comment just doesn’t make much sense to me.

    2. Haha, that doesn’t make much sense, does it?

      What I meant was I don’t think it’s a matter of exclusively using one while never touching the other–I don’t think we’ll eventually replace the book with the eReader. I think moving forward we’ll have to adapt to using both.

  10. Robin Elizabeth Sampson February 8, 2011 — 10:23 pm

    What a great post! I’m old enough to have gone to “record” stores and bought LPs – back when they cost $3.99 – so Daniel, your analogy is quite apt. Music transmission didn’t go the way of the dinosaurs, it evolved. Books are most likely going to do the same. Maybe not as quickly, since they’re more entrenched.

    I like books. I like the physical feel of them. An e-reader is going to be hard pressed to tackle that one. I have never read anything on an e-reader, I can’t afford one. I’m sure they’re different, but I find I have a very hard time reading “books” on my laptop. I don’t like to. Maybe one of the Kindley things is different. My oldest daughter has one and loves it. But I don’t begrudge them.

    I like the idea of books as works of art. I could live with that.

    I might have more to say, but my brain is very tired. Once again, great post! Lots to think about.

  11. I’m the last person I ever thought would own an ebook reader, but I do and I love it. Sherman Young has a lot to say about the future of books and the difference between books as objects and books as the carriers of ideas, concepts and imaginings. He also talks about ‘anti-books’, those objects which look like books and are indeed very pretty, but which carry none of the previously mentioned ideas etc. For myself, I can’t wait for the publishing industry to move further in the ebook direction!

  12. best thing wrote on this thing ever.

    [this comment is not adding anything but it felt good to do]

  13. Excellent post. I enjoyed it very much, thanks for saying what needs to be said. :)

  14. Colleen Walsh Fong February 9, 2011 — 11:57 am

    I love your example of vinyl records. I’m old enough to have the same recordings in original vinyl, bought when first released, cassette tape, CD, mp3 and even a few unusable 8-tracks. Aging probably plays a role in the debate. As we age, many of us yearn for a chance to relax with familiarity. The rapid change in technology forces us to keep up, though, and keep learning. Some days I resist having to learn another new thing. Then the next day I go to the public library because it’s got Wi-Fi and it’s a quieter environment to work in than my home. I check out a couple of books and talking books, too, after I’ve worked on my PC. An 89-year old relative told me the other day, “Oh, I never email anymore. I just text!” So, I figure if he can keep up with change so will the rest of us.

    Your comment about the playdate generation resonated with me as well. My two kids in college study regularly at the student center with friends. They grew up doing everything electronically with others. They communicate through Facebook and texts–and so do I. On a recent trip to Hawaii I brought only my IPhone with which I took pictures and immediately sent them to family and friends back home, emailed, blogged and navigated with its GPS.

  15. Thanks for summing up so many of my own thoughts as reader, writer, author, blogger, former print journalist. Books is books, generally, except in the case of beautiful books, of which I have many. Still have vinyl, too. But also a Nook and an iPod.

    Newspapers as we know them are dying, but I have my fingers crossed that good journalism continues.

  16. I enjoyed what you had to say and it opened my mind. Thanks!

  17. Bookstore books, library books, audio books (also from the library), my Kindle–all good and I use them all.

    But I hate paying upwards of $25 for a hardcover book and finding it unreadable. Not real fond of dusting them either. It is much less painful to pay $5 for an ebook that does not live up to its reviews. So far the $1o ebooks havew all been excellent.

    My 2 cents.

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