This week’s Economist, a weekly magazine much interested in the future of the book, hits its stride with a long article “From Papyrus to Pixels“. In five sections, wittily called “Chapters” staff writers explore how books are now written, published, and sold.
Chapter one introduces us to a real old book. It’s Cicero’s “de Officiis” (on Duties), written in 44BC by the famous orator and statesmen as instruction to his son Marcus. It was about the proper conduct of a Roman citizen. In the day it became a hit, on the Roman Times bestseller list for centuries. The copy examined was printed on calfskin, smooth as leather; the ink, crisp black. An owner had drawn a realistic finger pointing to a relevant passage
The book as a non-physical object has filled many physical containers. It still does. The container in question sits on a shelf in the Huntington Library in California since 1916. Likely it will sit there for many years.
Chapter one is about how some of us worry too much about the technology of the book, the transient forms it takes under technological change. This misses a big point. Books are a technology but one whose essential design has persisted throughout many formats. In essence they preserve and transmit knowledge and culture. For thousands of years anyone asked probably could answer what a book is and what we do with a book. We read it. Printed on paper or as pixels it is a powerful intellectual concept.
Chapter two is about the terminal health of books. They’ve had many lousy doctors. The big story since physical bookstores started closing and only e book sales were advancing–2008-2011–was the end of the book as we know it. This meant the print book. The real story as it turns out was that growth in certain book categories–and publishing has as many categories as a divorce lawyers billable hours ledger–we learn that e book sales showed growth but overall book sales were mainly old fashioned books. True, some types of books and as a result certain writers and publishers would need to shift gears and published more ebooks, the book industry was not projected to sustain categorical loses like the music industry. It had become like a modern family, more diverse.
Today, we’ve got millions of self-published authors singing the praise of Amazon, while Amazon battles the author establishment in court, the marketplace, and online. Right now, Hachette is in the ring. Both Hachette and Amazon don’t like current prices and profit margins. Hachette controls content, Amazon, the store.
Who is right? Who will win?
The truth is in publishing you work hard 8 to 5 running a regular business while you innovate around the clock. Success is a crapshoot. Amazon prefers loading the work and risk on the publishers and writers while owning over 50% of the market share in distribution.
Chapter three takes us to Dr. Frankenstein’s lab to sew together a new reader and author. This is where our Economist writers consult their own crystal ball a bit more than in previous chapters. They argue that Amazon’s distribution system with is pretty much given and set. It had drained print margins down to their real value. Now writers and readers can get around publishers to go directly to readers working with book distributors who make less by selling more and quickly. In this world readers and writers connect online and even do each other’s creative work for a new interactive reading experience. The astute publisher will be one who facilitates the union of writer, book, and reader. They will be the discovery tool in a book rich world.
Chapter four confronts the seismic shift in today’s publishing—the self-published author. Publishers genuinely fear that if everyone writes, who will read. Some 500 million self-published works have been downloaded from Amazon in the last few years. Few make money but these writers often couldn’t care less—it’s the journey that counts.
This scenario is an endgame for publishing. Before big box bookstores and Amazon, subscription libraries purchased heavily, as much as 50% of a printing, from Mudie’s Subscription Services. Amazon would kill to have such share. Throughout this period everyone involved–reader, writer, publisher, book merchant–complained and worried about the next interloper in the process. But there was a process.
One such outlier was Charles Dickens. He serialized novel chapters building a readership through subscription periodicals. He toured the world engaging his reader customers. His name had brand significance without a world wide web.
So disruption isn’t new to publishing. But there is a growing feeling that blockbuster, branded authors are few and far between on the over-posted e book market.
Chapter five is about the future. It asks: can there be more to the “book?” E Books have ushered the new conveniences. Some vendors allow sharing books. Others introduce interactive features; you can annotate and share with other readers. And now that production costs approach zero, less risk is involved in controversial topics or supporting writers on the edge. Online books can be what you make of them.
For hundreds of years technology limited expectations of what the book could be. Going forward, the crucial question may be: will readers go along with features, functions, and author experimentation not associated with “the book.” And what will they pay?
And lurking around all of this is the huge potential that good books will be lost among all the books being posted online. Many will go unread. Yet as 50 Shades of Gray illustrates, fan fiction can create its own lucrative publishing space
For my Design Library, I just purchased an Italian book which includes two print books, a website, a searchable concordance, and a DVD of the drawings used to illustrate the authors theory of aesthetic form. My student has secured the translation rights and the translation plus commentary will be his doctoral dissertation. In one product primary and secondary sources merge in an aesthetically unique product–a many dimensional book. It was the best $1000.00 I’ve spent of other people’s money recently.
Dennis Brunning is Director, the Design Library at Arizona State University Libraries. The design school services the Design School of the Herberger Institute for Art, Dance, Film, Theatre, and Music. Dennis is subject librarian for all areas except music. He also writes for Against the Grain and the Charleston Advisor. Dennis opened the first boxes of personal computers at ASU and has been playing with technology ever since.