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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Most Print Books are Ugly

In the endless debate over e-books, one of the principal reasons for defending the older, analogue model of publishing has been the fetishisation of the book as an object (I'm not using 'fetishisation' perjoratively here: I'm a fan of fetishisation). But the fact is that the vast majority of printed books are not desirable objects. The vast majority of printed books are incredibly ugly. They're printed on cheap paper, which begins to yellow very quickly; they're poorly bound, and begin to fall apart very quickly; they're poorly typeset, with inadequate margins; and they're shoddily packaged, with covers that date very quickly.

I do not conclude from this that e-books are better than traditional paperbacks: no design whatsoever is not superior to poor design. My conclusions are instead similar to those of Richard Nash, former Head of Soft Skull Press, interviewed at The Boston Review:

I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years. 

Interviewer: Why? 

When I started at Soft Skull in 2001 we were printing on 55-pound paper. By 2005, we were typically printing on 50-pound paper. By 2008, half our books were on 45-pound groundwood. And that’s because our print runs were going down. And even with publishers whose print runs weren’t going down, they were trying to save money. Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore. 

If you’ve got a manufacturing supply chain, then the dictates of manufacturing are going to be the ones that drive the business. And there’s certainly going to be some ad hoc occasional efforts not to do that: certain independent publishers will try to focus on quality, and certain individual books from other publishers might be tarted up for one reason or another, for marketing purposes. But those are the exceptions. Basically, when you’ve got an industry that is pushing out $25 billion worth of physical products into a supply chain, the vast majority of businesses are going to try to cut costs and increase revenues. And the simplest way to cut costs is going to be on the production side. So if the core of the business is no longer a supply chain, but rather the orchestration of writing and reading communities, the book is freed of its obligation to be the sole means for the broad mass dissemination of the word, and instead become a thing where the intrinsic qualities of the book itself can be explored. 

I believe in the importance of book design to the reading experience. In its current form, the e-book entirely nullifies the existence of design, and wiping out centuries of accumulated wisdom on how to improve the reading experience at a stroke hardly seems worthy of celebration. But equally I feel little nostalgia for the cheap, smelly, decaying paperback editions I grew up with.

I think the role of printed books in the future will be similar to the role of vinyl in the current music industry. And if that means better designed and better produced books, but in much smaller quantities, and at a higher price, well, so be it.

For my next book, I anticipate preparing a 'generic' electronic edition, which adapts the contents to the limitations of e-book format (since it's foolish to pretend that e-books don't exist); and a printed version with a more elaborate and nuanced design. The word count will be exactly the same, but the presentation will be quite different. Such distinctions seem a necessary evil, since failing to accomodate the electronic version to the limitations of the software in e-readers could have unforeseen consequences, and (in a book in which design is an important element) could in fact render parts of the work utterly incomprehensible if said design elements are simply automatically 'stripped' by the e-reader. Authors have to intervene in this process, not leave it to the software designers.

Or maybe my sense of the limitations of e-readers is inaccurate (I don't own one). Has anyone read, for example, House of Leaves on an e-reader? What kind of experience was it?

[N.B. I found the Nash interview here.]

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