Archive for Book History

Late Age of Print – the Podcast

Welcome back and happy new year!  Okay—so 2013 is more than three weeks old at this point.  What can I say?  The semester started and I needed to hit the ground running.  In any case I’m pleased to be back and glad that you are, too.

My first post of the year is actually something of an old one, or at least it’s about new material that was produced about eighteen months ago.  Back in the summer of 2011 I keynoted the Association for Cultural Studies Summer Institute in Ghent, Belgium.  It was a blast—and not only because I got to talk about algorithmic culture and interact with a host of bright faculty and students.  I also recorded a podcast there with Janneke Adema, a Ph.D. student at Coventry University, UK whose work on the future of scholarly publishing is excellent and whose blog, Open Reflections, I recommend highly.

Janneke and I sat down in Ghent for the better part of an hour for a fairly wide-ranging conversation, much of it having to do with The Late Age of Print and my experiments in digital publishing.  It was real treat to revisit Late Age after a couple of years and to discuss some of the choices I made while I was writing it.  I’ve long thought the book was a tad quirky in its approach, and so the podcast gave me a wonderful opportunity to provide some missing explanation and backstory.  It was also great to have a chance to foreground some of the experimental digital publishing tools I’ve created, as I almost never put this aspect of my work on the same level as my written scholarship (though this is changing).

The resulting podcast, “The Late Age of Print and the Future of Cultural Studies,” is part of the journal Culture Machine’s podcast series.  Janneke and I discussed the following:

  • How have digital technologies affected my research and writing practices?
  • What advice would I, as a creator of digital scholarly tools, give to early career scholars seeking to undertake similar work?
  • Why do I experiment with modes of scholarly communication, or seek “to perform scholarly communication differently?”
  • How do I approach the history of books and reading, and how does my approach differ from more ethnographically oriented work?
  • How did I find the story amid the numerous topics I wrestle with in The Late Age of Print?

I hope you like the podcast.  Do feel welcome to share it on Twitter, Facebook, or wherever.  And speaking of social media, don’t forget—if you haven’t already, you can still download a Creative Commons-licensed PDF of The Late Age of Print.  It will only cost a tweet or a post on Facebook.  Yes, really.

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It’ll Be War!

By now most of you reading this blog probably know about the latest dust-up over ebook prices.  For those of you who haven’t been following the news, here’s a brief synopsis followed by some thoughts on the history of book pricing.

A couple of weeks ago officials at Macmillan, one of the largest global book publishing firms, decided to put the screws to Amazon.com.  For over two years now the retailer has insisted that $9.99 is the decisive threshold at which consumers will begin trading reading material composed of atoms for stuff made of bits.  Reportedly it’s managed to sell three million Kindles and who-knows-how-many e-books, but still Macmillan begs to differ on the matter of pricing.  Management there believes that a more flexible scale would be preferable to Amazon’s flat-rate, with new e-titles starting at $15 and older works listing for around $6.

Well, Amazon got so miffed by Macmillan’s proposal that it temporarily suspended sales of any new books published under its imprimatur, which includes such venerable labels as Farrar, Straus & Giroux; St. Martins Press; Henry Holt; Tor Books; and others.  Macmillan responded by calling Amazon’s bluff, knowing full-well that Amazon’s decision to de-list the publisher’s capacious catalog ultimately would hurt the retailer’s bottom line more than it would help its cause of ebook pricing.  With the door now open, other presses are jumping on the higher-priced ebook bandwagon.

This is a fraught issue, to be sure.  As a frequent book buyer, I’m grateful to Amazon for doing its part to keep ebook prices low for as long as it could.  The company clearly understands the psychology behind the pricing of digital goods.  Consumers intuitively grasp that the marginal costs of producing any given copy of an ebook is next to nil, and so we’re understandably reluctant to buy up e-titles and expensive hardware when paper books can be had for a comparable enough price.  On the other hand, I recognize that the promise of advances and royalties gives professional authors incentive to continue producing new work.  Accordingly, they have a compelling interest in maximizing their return through healthy (read: inflated) prices.

We could go around and around all day about who’s right and who’s wrong here.  As someone whose paycheck comes primarily from my work as a university professor and only secondarily from my publications, selfishly, I’m inclined to side with Amazon.com.  But really there are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys here.  The whole situation reminds me of a recent dispute between physicians at my local hospital and a major health care provider, each of whom accused the other of excessive greed and bullying.  In the end, the only party who suffered was the people who, for the duration of the quarrel, had to drive 50 miles to get the health care to which they were entitled.

Anyway, this may well be the first major conflict over the price tag for ebooks, but it’s surely not the first time the book industry has gone to war over book prices.  This has happened at least a couple of times before, first in the late 19th century and then again in the 1920s/30s.  In both instances, a bunch of young, brash publishers decided to slash their prices as a strategy to gain market share.  Older, more established firms responded by digging in their heels and waging a clever PR campaign designed to convince the public that it was in their best interest to pay more than they actually needed to for books.  (You can read more about this history in chapter 1 of The Late Age of Print and in volume III of John Tebbel’s magisterial A History of Book Publishing in the United States.)

What might these earlier price wars tell us about the present situation?  Anyone looking to establish themselves as leaders in digital publishing would do well to undersell their competitors by offering electronic editions at or below the $9.99 price-point.  The goal should be to sell as many copies as possible, by finding a price so attractive that no one can resist.  It’s funny: we hear all the time about how book reading is on the decline in the United States and elsewhere.  Could it be that the falloff is attributable not only to the usual scapegoats (electronic media, waning attention spans, etc.) but also and significantly to publishers’ greediness over book pricing, electronic or otherwise?

Indeed, if history teaches us anything, then it teaches us that publishers who’ve made their mark selling low can succeed in the long run.  Just ask Simon & Schuster and Farrar & Rinehart (yes, that’s the same Farrar of Macmillan’s Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux).  They were among the upstarts of the 1920s and 30s whose decision to sell books for a buck sent the old-timers into a tizzy.

Ringing any bells, Macmillan?

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How the Books Saved Christmas


By the looks of things, 2009 is shaping up to be the year for giving the gift of books…e-books, that is.

Take the Amazon Kindle, for instance.  Amazon.com is touting the device on its homepage as its “#1 bestselling, #1 most wished for, and #1 most gifted [is that really a verb?] product.”  Sales surely have been helped along by the catchy little advertisement for Kindle embedded above, which has been appearing regularly on TV stations throughout the United States since November.  You may not know this, but the commercial is the result of a contest that Amazon sponsored last summer, asking customers to produce their own 30-second spots showcasing the e-reader.

Over at the other end of the post-Gutenberg galaxy, meanwhile, Barnes & Noble has already exhausted its supply of Nooks.  Don’t despair, though.  In lieu of an actual Nook, the bookseller is more than happy to ship a holiday-themed certificate to you and yours explaining that the “hottest gift of the season may be sold out, but with our elegant Nook holiday certificate you can still let loved ones know it’s coming.”  Uh, yeah — on or about February 1st.  Happy holidays from the Grinch.

Clearly, retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are pinning their hopes for robust holiday sales significantly on digital devices, hoping that their customers will purchase not only the hardware but also an ample electronic library with which to fill it.  The question, of course, is where are printed books in all this?  Is all this holiday focus on digital reading yet another sign of the impending death of print — by which I mean not only of the technology itself, but also of the broader culture that surrounds it?

Hardly.  What we’re bearing witness to, in fact, is the very culture that printed books long ago helped to introduce.

One of my favorite books is Stephen Nissenbaum’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated history, The Battle for Chritsmas (Vintage, 1997), which traces the origins of the modern commercial holiday.  It used to be that Christmas was a raucous affair in which members of the lower castes of society were given temporary license to make unusual demands on social and economic elites.  Often their requests were for food, drink, or money, and typically these “gifts” were given as a result of the implicit threat of violence.  All that started to change in the 19th century, Nissenbaum shows, with the growth of industrial production and the gradual enfranchisement of the working class.  Slowly but surely the social- and class-warfare that had defined the Christmas holiday was displaced onto parents and their children.  And although the holiday mutated in significant ways and tensions defused, one thing remained pretty much the same: the promise of gifts was held out as compensation for the recipients’ continuing good behavior.

These gifts, however, typically weren’t perishables or cash tips.  More likely there were items that had been purchased at stores.  And among the first and most popular commercial goods to be given as Christmas presents were, according to Nissenbaum, printed books.  Books played a starring role in helping to make Christmas over into the commercial holiday that people know and practice today.

Books may be going high-tech this holiday season, but that doesn’t mean, as some fear, that we’ve abandoned the cultural and economic habits they’ve helped to foster.  Our Kindles and Nooks may appear to be pointing toward the digital future, yet if anything they channel the deep structures of our analog past.

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Anthropodermic Bibliopegy

On Wednesday the LA Times book blog “Jacket Copy” made a gruesome discovery — a little-known (and hopefully long defunct) practice called anthropodermic bibliopegy, or the binding of books in human flesh.  Yes, really.

The story actually broke on The International Journal of the Book blog.  There, Dr. Margaret Zeegers reported that she “had never heard of such a thing” until reading a piece aptly entitled “Of Human Bondage” by Maryrose Cuskelly, which was published in last month’s Australian Literary Review.

Actually this is old news.  Back in 1994 Professor Carolyn Marvin of Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication published a piece in The Quarterly Journal of Speech called, “The Body of the Text: Literacy’s Corporeal Constant.”  Its focus is, among other things, anthropodermic bibliopegy.  I reference the essay in passing in the Introduction to The Late Age of Print, where I mention “book history’s more sinister side.”

The response I’ve been hearing to the “Jacket Copy” and IJB posts has pretty much amounted to,”eww, isn’t that disgusting!?” That’s understandable, but it also completely avoids the question that anthropodermic bibliopegy now poses to us: how could it be that such a sickening practice was, for some people, not only acceptable but even desirable?

This is exactly what makes Professor Marvin’s research so compelling.  Instead of avoiding the question she actually goes there, attempting to understand — but by no means explain away — why one human being would want to bind words and ideas in the flesh of another.

I cannot do justice to her essay here, but I’ll do my best to provide a quick summary.  Marvin begins in the late-18th/early-19th centuries, when medical science — particularly surgery — was still in its infancy.  At the time “surgeon” was hardly a respected profession.  In fact most surgeons were also barbers, and in general the profession harbored strong connotations of manual labor.  Surgery, that is to say, was hardly the white collar profession that it’s considered to be today.

So how as a budding surgeon in the 18th/19th centuries do you differentiate yourself from the rabble of manual laborers?  How do you show that yours is a truly “cerebral” profession rather than “mere” handicraft?  You take the flesh from the bodies of the indigent persons upon which you’ve been trying out your new surgical techniques and, rather than disposing of it, you use it to contain your budding corpus (pun intended) of medical knowledge.  In other words, anthropodermic bibliopegy was a way for surgeons and other medical pracitioners to assert their professional and economic authority over others.

As I said, there’s much more to Professor Marvin’s essay, both conceptually and historically.  It’s certainly worth the read — assuming you have the stomach for it.

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