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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