Archive for October, 2010

Ebooks – I’m Supposed to Hate them, Right?

This is an essay I wrote last January and posted on the Chance Press blog.  I decided to post it here as well, because I’m just so goddamned desperate for people to read my insightful wisdom that I have no problem posting the same thing on many blogs.  Since I’ve written it, the major change I’ve noticed reading book trade publications is that publishers are starting to soften their stance toward ebooks, and you are seeing less and less defensive tactics like refusing to issue a potential bestseller as an ebook until 90 days after the print version has been in stores.  The other thing I have noticed is that – like pretty much all forms of cultural discourse lately – the two sides of the debate are getting increasingly more ridiculous in their claims.  On one side is the MIT headline-seeker who is boldly prognosticating that the book will be dead in 5 years (does anyone seriously think this is even remotely possible?).  On the other side are the printophiles (I like calling them “printies”) who are whipped into a frothy frenzy over the fact that kids as young as 3 know how to use smart phones, and that this youthful technological savvy all but guarantees that culture will implode within 20 years when a computer virus wipes out the stored data of our shared culture.

Of course, my view is somewhere in between.  If there’s one thing I feel even more strongly about than when I originally wrote the essay it’s that if there is one thing that actually WILL kill off the book, it’s not a format change, but rather the annoying defensive arrogance you see from people who automatically assume that print books are superior in ALL CASES, no matter what.  And that, by extension, bookstores deserve to exist solely by dint of the fact that they sell these sacred cultural objects.  (Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino just came out with a book.  It has his abs on the cover.  It’s 128 pages long with illustrations.  Come on.)  The inherent superiority of books can’t be assumed – it has to be demonstrated, and there are a lot of great commercial presses doing exactly that: McSweeney’s, Chronicle, Last Gasp, Gestalten Verlag, Ginko, and so on.

Books have a pretty good thing going for them:  they are the only self-deploying method of transmitting information that humankind has ever developed.  As a result, I just cannot see them ceasing to exist under any circumstances.  Even if large publishers stop publishing them, they will still exist in some form or another.  You can make them by hand – even if there is no one left to run a large, commercial binding machine, you don’t need anything except a needle and thread to make a book.  Other forms of information technology that have been left behind didn’t have the same material properties as books – and the reason for this is that other forms of technology only reproduce or create, rather than storing data.  No one is worried about binding machines going off line.  And no one looks at an old mimeograph machine lamenting the fact that it will never make another crappy looking copy of something.  Sure the move away from darkroom photography to digital changes the experience for photographers and the look and feel of photographs.  And CD’s will never sound as good as vinyl records to true audiophiles.  But books, again, are different, because the deployment of their content doesn’t depend on an intermediary – they are not dependent on a stereo or a darkroom or a computer or a camera, or anything – they can simply be opened and read.  The Kindle/iPad/Nook/Sony Thingy is an intermediary that makes reading a lot more convenient – but I see very little chance of humanity ever voluntarily giving up the straight dope that only exists in printed book.  That being said, I think that the degree to which books survive depends a lot on the kind of books that publishers make.

So, now that you’ve read a good blob of my rambling long-windedness, here is the original essay:

***

I think, as someone who is putting even a few books out into the world, it is useful to have a position on print books versus ebooks. The topic will continue to be debated, but it is inevitable that the terms of the debate will change over time, as technology advances, and the voice that defends print books will get more and more shrill in the face of the “embrace the future”-ists whose side is very clearly winning the battle.

This is not to say that I think that print books will cease to exist –only that the debate will become unwinnable for people who defend print books to the exclusion of ebooks and other electronic media. I think the writing was on the liquid ink screen a few years ago when liquid ink screens hit the market, and “printies” could no longer cite the eye strain that comes from looking at a computer monitor for hours at a time as the smoking gun argument as to why books would always be superior. I think a lot of printies haven’t seen a liquid ink screen up-close before, because it is difficult to acknowledge that they don’t look great – especially compared to your average mass-market paperback.

The main thrust behind ebooks is that they make large amounts of information portable on a small device. This device will continue to develop to the point that a Kindle takes on the comical proportions of a 1980’s cell phone when viewed from a similar future vantage point, but that core drive will never change. As portability and access to incomprehensible amounts of data entrench themselves as the inalienable rights of contemporary culture, it makes less and less sense to decry the rise of ebooks or to adorn them with accusations that they are killing off print books, putting bookstores out of business, and so on.

I hear the position often stated that books are the key gateway to our culture, near-sacred objects that preserve our history and document our existence for future generations. To me, this misses the point – the books merely carry that data. And it’s all data. Now, the emotional engagement with that data in itself is a key aspect of our culture as well. It’s necessary to split the two apart, because it isolates the materiality of the book itself from what the book contains. Not one of the printies’ emotional screeds that I’ve read defends an empty book – every time, the books are the keys to passing on what they contain from generation to generation, but there’s never a reason why this can’t be done electronically, especially when electronically transmitting information becomes the standard method to do exactly this in every other aspect of society.

What do you get from a Kindle when it is turned off? It is a functionless machine whose existence does not justify itself until it is displaying text on the screen. A closed book is more than that – the materiality of the book has the ability to communicate more than just that there is content inside. This is a tenuous distinction, but the cultural history of books (their “place in our culture” trumpeted by the printies) makes it a necessary one – the Kindle has come along as part of a cultural movement based on the potential to do different things with data, more advanced things than anything humanity has conceived of before. When you receive a Kindle in a box, you are receiving the potential to homogenize incredible amounts of print in a single device.

On the other hand, a book will always be tied to the specific data that is contained within. This unbreakable marriage between the exterior device and the interior content creates the emotional attachment to books-as-objects. The specific book becomes the signifier of one text – a favorite story, perhaps – whereas the Kindle is the signifier of all texts. So, can an electronic device that promises totality ever compete on an emotional level with the multitude of cherished specificities contained on a bookshelf?

Probably not, but I am realistic enough to know that emotional reservations are never strong enough en masse to trump the march of technological innovation. Instead of throwing up my hands and running to the printy camp, however, I have come up with my own personal four-word manifesto that sums up how I feel print books can eke out a foothold in a world that is drifting inexorably toward a land of ebooks: make print justify itself. Because it needs to, and quite often, it doesn’t.

The end of the printed wor(l)d isn’t at hand right now. Printies are citing laundry lists of bookstore closures, but pinning this on ebooks is tough. Look at the state of the book industry, the drop-in-the-bucket sales of ebooks versus print books, and the fact that most people don’t spend $250 on books in an entire year, meaning that they aren’t very likely to buy a device for that much that enables them to do something they can do for free by visiting a library, for ten dollars by visiting a Borders & Noble. Instead, I’d look to look at the business decisions of some of the closed bookstores, to see how they managed inventory, engaged with the community, and promoted themselves – since yes, a lot of bookstores are closing, but so are a lot of other businesses, and moreover, a good number of bookstores are thriving as well.

So really, what are printies doing to save the printed word, other than coughing up sky-is-falling scenarios and putting the guilt on anyone who owns a Kindle for the downfall of our shared cultural history? We – lovers of print books (and if this essay suggests I’m not one, the fact that I co-run a small press should be sufficient evidence to the contrary) – need to change the way books are printed and how they are perceived. The corollary to the all-data-in-existence-on-a-thumb-drive world we now live in is the resistant upsurge in crafting and handwork that is visible everywhere. People are turning forgotten hobbies into semi-commercial enterprises selling needlepoint felted animals on Etsy that are even more popular than – gasp – Sony’s robot dog! Letterpress printing is making a huge comeback, with book arts workshops springing up all over the country. And idiots like me are leaving their deskjobs at 5:00 PM to go home and work on small press publishing. The resistance is active and needs to be fed, but it isn’t going to eat garbage.

One printy I read recently talked about the legitimization of his written work manifesting itself in the pile of books he had published – a satisfying material signifier that couldn’t exist in electronic form. I completely understand this, but I think the dark side of book publishing needs to be factored into this too… the remaindered copies on sale for a few bucks, or the creased, worn copies that people didn’t want any more sitting in the dollar bin on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore because the store already had so many that they wouldn’t give it a proper space on the shelf. Books get exalted in the fearmongering that goes on when people start to feel that books as a whole might not exist anymore. But maybe it’s time to admit that not all books are all so great, and that some of them are downright useless as material objects and are only a way to transport some data from one place to another.

I don’t own an e-reader, but I’m certainly not against it, because I see their value. I don’t love every book on my shelf, and I wouldn’t mind if some of them existed on a flash drive instead. If publishers weren’t so difficult to steer, if they could actually recognize new technology as an opportunity rather than a threat, then the publishing business wouldn’t be weaving stories about its own demise at the hands of these awful, awful ebooks. One of the more common bugaboos is the $9.99 maximum retail price for an ebook – a publisher will naturally make less money if $9.99 is the retail ceiling for a hot new book, versus $25.00 for a hardcover. But who does this really hurt? Amazon is going to sell the hardcover for $13.00 anyway, because they have the publisher by the balls and are enforcing a ridiculously low price. Add in the cost of producing the hardcover, warehousing pallets of them, and shipping them, and selling the hardcover through Amazon becomes a loss-leader, with the real profits to be made from a) selling the ebook, which has almost no production costs beyond initial formatting, and b) selling the book at standard wholesale to bookstores, who then have to try to find a way to sell it for full retail when it’s going for half that on the web.

The death of the independent bookstore, then, is not going to come at the hands of the ebook, but at the hands of predatory pricing that has been driving all sorts of independent businesses into the ground for decades now. So how to cope with this and survive as a bookstore that deals exclusively in print books? Make print justify itself. Stock the shelves with books that have to be seen to be appreciated. If a customer’s attitude about a book is, “I don’t care what it looks like, I only care what’s insde,” then print isn’t justifying itself, and the bookstore is fighting a losing fight. But, if the book looks great, feels great, AND has great content, chances are someone is going to buy it straight away, rather than marking it down to buy later from an online retailer. (A quick case study: in the fall of 2008, a comics anthology called Kramer’s Ergot 7 came out – an unspeakably gorgeous 16” x 21” hardcover book that had to be hand bound because of its enormous size. Also enormous was its price tag – $125, although it was much cheaper on Amazon.com. This is a book that could never have the same impact as an ebook, because the size is integral to the experience of reading the comics (sized to mimic the original Sunday page comics of the early 20th century). Additionally, those that bought it from Amazon found that shipping was delayed so that they didn’t get it in time for the holidays, and when it did arrive, it was packaged poorly and thus damaged. People posted on message boards about returning their copies and buying copies for full retail from comics shops, because Amazon wasn’t doing a good job fulfilling their orders. And so, the end result is a book that makes print justify itself, while also bolstering the independent bookstore over the gigantic online retailer.)

It’s a process of separating the wheat from the chaff so that books that have no reason to be physical books eventually get converted into ebooks, and books that justify the print format become the main commodity sold in bookstores, alongside ATM-like terminals that offer the texts to people who would prefer to read it on their ereaders. Obviously this is merely my imaginary future, but anyone reading this article is free to steal my idea and set up a bookstore that sells both print books and ebooks – I promise I’ll patronize your business.

What I think it would benefit print culture to move past is the arrogant assumption that any form of print is superior to any form of electronic publishing. I have seen blogs with amazing, artistic designs that publish groundbreaking works of literature, yet for many authors, a small press that prints something on copy paper, Xeroxes it at a copy shop, and slaps some staples on it is a superior publisher to the web counterpart. And I just don’t understand why some presses dutifully churn out book after book on cheap paper, with ugly design, uneven stapled covers, etc. when the same presses could be publishing the work online in a much more attractive format. This isn’t the 1960’s, where self publishing was limited to typewriters and mimeograph machines. The idea of internet as a second-class citizen of the publishing world helps keep printies lazy by suggesting that no matter what they print out, as long as it is on paper, it is more worthy than what’s online. And with that attitude, why wouldn’t ebooks eventually put print books out to pasture?

My goal is to put out books that justify their existence as books. I don’t want to take for granted the idea that printing something is more worthwhile than just hosting content on chancepress.com. I want to sweat over every last detail of the books – even if it means we can only come out with three or four books a year – because I want the materiality of the books to live up to the cultural importance ascribed to books. Ebooks have a place and aren’t going anywhere, but they can never enable a reader’s emotional connection to the content the way a well designed print book can. And my mission as a small press publisher is to get the absolute most I possibly can out of the print medium in order to do that, in order to create something that just can’t be uploaded and converted to computer code without losing the essence of the original book.

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APE 2010 Wrap-Up Thingy

Well, another APE is in the books, making three that I have attended.  One of the things I’m starting to realize is that the energy of the 2008 edition was quite possibly a unique event that won’t be duplicated any time soon – and so, as the first one I ever went to, I think it might have even spoiled me a little bit.  There were a few things about that show that were unique…

  • Chris Ware was there, which I’m to understand is a fairly rare event.
  • Kramers Ergot 7 debuted with all the hype that had built up around it.
  • Buenaventura Press organized a ridiculous roster of cartoonists to sign it (Ware, Clowes, Hernandez, Pham, May, Johnson, Hensley, Huizenga, Furie, Harkham, Groening, and more that I’m probably forgetting).
  • It was DUMPING rain, which for some reason (maybe only to me) made everything crackle with an energy that isn’t there when people just seem to wander in off the street.
  • It was the first APE in a year and a half (the 2007 version having taken place in April)
  • This one applies only to me, but it was the first comics convention that I had ever been to, and so literally everything about it was totally new and exciting to me.

But, all this isn’t to say that the show has lost any of its appeal to me – it’s still the weekend of the year I look forward to the most, and it seems even better now that I have been to Comic-con and can compare it to that.  (Enough has been written about Comic-Con, and I don’t have anything new to offer.  Suffice it to say that it took me about a half-day to decide that 30% of the con is the best thing I’ve ever been to, and 70% is close to intolerable to me).  APE is such an easy show compared to Comic-Con… I’m local to it, and I can just jump in the car and go.  In fact, Saturday morning when I got off I-80 at 9th street, it occurred to me that every time I take that exit, I wish it was so I could go to APE, but this is the only weekend of the year where it’s actually the case.  And that put me in a good mood before the show even opened its doors.

One thing that added a new wrinkle to my APE experience this year was that I was trying to do some networking for Chance Press, which gave me more to talk about with a lot of people there than if I were just there as a collector.  (“Networking” is a nebulous term, and for someone as socially awkward as myself, my version is basically to introduce myself, talk a little bit about Chance Press, and hope not to embarrass myself that much.)  I’ve written about this a lot on the Chance Press blog, but I was trying to pursue a handful of people at APE to work on some comics or art projects, and we’ll see in the coming weeks/months if any of my efforts end up paying off in terms of new projects.  Because of the mini-comic, DIY ethic, I’m realizing more and more that cartoonists – even unpublished just-starting-out cartoonists – see Chance Press as pretty unnecessary… not bad or worthless, per se, just unnecessary.  Meaning, they can make their own mini comics and zines, so when a publisher comes calling, they want it to be someone with the muscle to get the book distributed on a wide scale, Fantagraphics-style.  Which makes total sense, I should add.  At this point, I’m still feeling out whether or not there’s room to publish the sort of comics projects I had in mind originally.  My hope when I started pitching Chance Press to cartoonists was to find someone interested in book arts who was interested in having a deluxe, limited edition book to promote their work, and to have some copies to sell on their website and maybe make a little money.  I still think that cartoonist is out there, and so I went to APE with a handful of business cards (and a few copies of a “publishing prospectus” that I made) in hopes of making some contacts and finding that person.

But, nascent small press publishing stuff aside, what else do I have to say about APE this year?

  • So happy to see Pigeon Press up and running with their first two releases.  I was really disappointed to hear about Buenaventura Press folding, and I’m really happy that Alvin B. will continue to be a force in the publishing world.  Of course I picked up a copy of those releases – I Want You #2 by Lisa Hanawalt and Boy’s Club #4 by Matt Furie, and both are as good as you would expect them to be.  IWY #1 was the surprise of APE 09 for me, since I hadn’t read Hanawalt’s work before that, and so of course it was great to see a new issue come out.
  • Also great that BP folding doesn’t mean the end of Alvin showing up at conventions with a table full of European comics that no one else has and that are really hard to find anywhere else.  I suppose this will come to an end when supply eventually dries up, but given the volume, that’s not likely to be any time soon.  My favorite finds at his table – L’Horreur est Humaine – a 450+ page hardcover comics anthology from France for a mere $25 and a Frech edition of book 2 of Joe Daly’s Dungeon Quest. Good thing I went to college and majored in French – now I don’t have to wait for Fantagraphics to publish their version later this year.  He also had the letterpress-printed catalog for an art exhibition he curated for a mere $30… I’m pissed at myself for not buying it (even though I went WAY over my limit), since I have been looking for it for a couple years now.
  • Emilie Ostergren was at the Pigeon Press table as well.  Her book Evil Dress was another surprise from 2009 – I bought it last year and got it signed with a really cool little drawing, and I have read it three times since then.  She had a couple comics for sale that I made sure to get signed as well.
  • Drawn and Quarterly had great guests this year – the only really noticeable lines for author signings were at their table – first for Dan Clowes, and then an even longer line for Lynda Barry – one that was so long that I got shut out from it when I tried to join it.  (A problem I remedied by showing up at D&Q’s booth 30 minutes before she started signing on Sunday so I could be first in line.)  I wouldn’t have bet on Lynda Barry having a longer line than Dan Clowes… I mentioned this to one cartoonist I spent some time talking to, and his opinion was that – in an environment like APE that is rife with DIY cartoonists – people are “fans” of Clowes while they are inspired by Lynda Barry.  Personally, I’m fans of both, although I prefer reading Clowes’s work.  But, to look at it from the other direction, Clowes’s work might seem off-putting to some in how clean and technically proficient it is, whereas Barry exudes encouragement with everything she does.  This was echoed again by another cartoonist who mentioned that she likes Clowes’s work very much, but “the first time I met Lynda Barry, I almost started to cry.”
  • Because I’m a signature hound – most likely to a fault (see my APE 2009 wrap-up thingy for more on just how big of a geek I am when it comes to signatures) – I was a little disappointed that Fantagraphics only had two booth guests this year.  Of course, this disappointment was mitigated by the actual guests – Megan Kelso and Tony Millionaire – being authors whose work I am particularly fond of.  But… they’ve got a big list of artists, right?  And San Francisco isn’t that bad of a city to visit, right?
  • Speaking of people I wish were there, I was hoping to see Frank Santoro and his boxes of curated back issues that I read about every time there is a show on the East Coast.  Alas, it wasn’t to be, but…
  • …happily the show wasn’t entirely free of some sort of presence from Comics Comics, since Dan Nadel brought a whole slew of Picturebox books all the way from New York.  H-Day by Renee French was the first book I bought at the show, but it was also great to see If n Oof and Powr Mstrs 3 in the flesh, not to mention the new Mat Brinkman book that is printed on gigantic sheets of vellum and housed in a death-metal black cardboard envelope.  Also cool to support the release of H-Day with what had to have been 8 hours total of Renee French signing books.
  • Also enjoyed meeting Chris Pitzer from AdHouse books – I’ve been a fan of their books for a while, and I was really happy that yet another publisher made it all the way out from the other side of the country.  I picked up Duncan the Wonder Dog by Adam Hines, an artist I wasn’t previously familiar with.  It’s about the size and thickness of a regional telephone book, so I’ll have to set aside some time for it, but the art looks superb at first glance.
  • I’m looking forward to reading what other people have to say about the flip floppy layout this year (the entrance being on the other side and all) – I didn’t really care either way, although it definitely seemed like the tables in the back section consistently had less foot traffic than those on the other side of the dividing wall, and this wasn’t the case the last couple years when the show was all in one section of the convention center.
  • Great art presence again this year – even better than in past years… I saw a lot of people whose primary business was selling prints rather than zines or comics, and I really like the idea of APE becoming a place where sequential artists and (for lack of a better word) “fine” artists coexist.  (What I mean is “people who make books” and “people whose metric for success isn’t necessarily book publishing as much as it is showing in galleries.”)  I spent the most money at Skinner’s table, since he had a bunch of large format inkjet prints that were too cool not to buy.
  • APE cost me a lot of money this year, but as I left, I thought about how I could have easily spent double and still left the show wanting more.  You can decide whether this says more about me or the quality of the work at APE.
  • There’s a guy I see at APE every year who I call “Cart Guy.”  Apparently, there are a couple Bay Area cartoonists who refer to him instead as “Pushcart Pete.”  I shouldn’t poke fun, though, as more than one person gave me shit for my gigantic backpack (and at times, the totebag I carried because I had too much stuff for my backpack), and my shoulders wish I had a pushcart instead.  How long before I’m “Backpack Bill” or “Totebag Tim”?

Okay, well that’s probably enough… the thing I’m most content with as I wrap up another APE weekend is that my enjoyment for this convention has been reaffirmed, and I’m already excited about next year.

Finally, my standard disclaimer: sometimes this blog gets picked up by link aggregation blogs (FLOG, Comics Reporter, etc.), so I kind of feel it necessary to state that I don’t consider myself a comics critic, expert, afficionado, etc.  You probably know more about comics than I do, and you have probably been to far more conventions.  The “audience” I have in mind when I write is one made up of people who really like books and book collecting, and APE is one of the premier events of the year for me in terms of that hobby, which is why I like to write about it every year.