Tag Archive for book form

If You Liked the Cover of The Late Age of Print…

…then you’re bound to like Art Made From Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed, compiled by Laura Heyenga and just out from Chronicle Books. The cover features one of Cara Barer’s striking book photographs—and if it looks somewhat familiar, it should. Another of her amazing images appears on the cover of Late Age.

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And, in other important news, don’t forget—ONLY TWO MORE DAYS REMAIN to download an e-edition of The Late Age of Print for a tweet or Facebook post. Don’t miss it! The freebie will be gone as of August 1, 2013.

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Soft-Core Book Porn

Most of you reading this blog probably don’t know that I’m Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication and Culture here at Indiana University.  What that means is that I’m knee-deep in graduate admissions files right now; what that also means is that I don’t have quite as much time for blogging as I normally would.  The good news is that I’m rapidly clearing the decks, and that I should be back to regular blogging pretty soon.

Until then, happy 2012 (belatedly), and here’s a little book soft-core book porn to tide you over — an amazing stop-motion animation video that was filmed in Toronto’s Type Bookstore.  If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, then you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the whole “the only real books are paper books” motif (much as I do enjoy paper books).  Even so, you cannot but be impressed by the time, care, and resolve that must have gone into the production of this short.  Clearly it was a labor of love, on several levels.

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Define “Future”

First, I hope all of my readers in the United States had a wonderful Thanksgiving.  I really needed a break myself, so I took last week off from blogging in order to recharge.  Second, I want to thank everyone for the amazing response to my previous post, on e-reading and indie bookstores.  I haven’t had a post receive that much attention in a while.  All the the feedback just goes to show how urgent the situation is.

On to matters at hand: the release of the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.  I don’t know if you’ve been following the story, but in case you haven’t, the New York Times ran a solid piece about a month ago on the marketing campaign surrounding the volume’s release.  It’s quite a blitz, and not cheap.  The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, shelled out $300,000 to promote AHD5.  The volume retails for US$60, so the publisher will need to sell 5,000 copies just to cover the marketing, and I’d guess at least double that to cover production and distribution costs.

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But even more interesting to me than the marketing is Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s decision to produce both physical and electronic editions of the AHD5.  At a time when we hear over and over again about how the future is digital — and the future is now! — the publisher has decided to take a hybrid approach.  It has released AHD5 in four different formats: a print volume; an e-book; a website; and an app.  The latter three are digital, admittedly, although the disproportion is probably a function of the proliferation of electronic platforms.

The AHD5 e-book is completely overpriced at $60, although I say that not having perused it to see its features, if any.  The app doesn’t come cheap, either, at $24.99, although you get it for free if you buy the print edition.  It’s intriguing to think about how different media can affect the perceived value of language.

The publisher’s decision to offer AHD5 in multiple formats was partly a pragmatic decision, no doubt.  These are transitional times for books and other forms print media, and no one can say for sure what the future will hold (unless you’re Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos).  But the decision was, from a historico-theoretical standpoint, unusually well thought-out, too.

Protracted periods of change — and the uncertainties that surround them — beget intense forms of partisanship, something’s that’s all too apparent right now in book culture.  You might call it, “format fundamentalism.”  On the one hand, we have those who believe print is the richest, most authentic and enduring medium of human expression.  At the opposite extreme are the digital denizens who see print media as a little more than a quaint holdover from late-medieval times.  There are many people who fall in between, of course, if not in theory then most definitely in practice, but in any case the compulsion to pick a side is a strong one.

The problem with format fundamentalism is that print and electronic media both have their strengths and weaknesses.  More to the point, the weaknesses of the one are often compensated for by the strengths of the other, such that we end up with a more robust media sphere when the two are encouraged to co-exist rather than pitted against one another.

So let’s return to the example of AHD5.  Print-on-paper dictionaries are cumbersome — something that’s also true, to greater and lesser degrees, of most such books.  And in this regard, apps and other types of e-editions provide welcome relief when it comes to the challenges of storing dictionaries and other weighty tomes.  And yet, there’s something to be said for the shear preponderance of physical books, to which their capacity to endure is surely related.  The same cannot quite be said of digital editions, hundreds and even thousands of which can be stuffed into a single Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, or Apple iPad.  The endurance of these books depends significantly on the longevity and goodwill of corporate custodians for whom preservation is a mandate only as long as it remains profitable.

I could go on, but these are issues I address at length in the preface to the paperback edition of Late Age.  The point is, it’s more useful to think about print and electronic media not as contrary but as complementary, in fact we need to begin developing policies and legislation to create a media sphere balanced around this principle.

But until then, hat’s off to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing an excellent model for how to proceed.

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The Indies and the E’s

OR, HOW TO SAVE INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES ONE E-BOOK AT A TIME

Several weeks ago I mentioned the “Cultures of Books and Reading” class I’m teaching this semester at Indiana University.  It’s been a blast so far.  My students have had so many provocative things to say about the present and future of book culture.  More than anything, I’m amazed at the extent to which many of them seem to be book lovers, however book may be defined these days.

Right now I’m about midstream grading their second papers.  I structured the assignment in the form of a debate, asking each student to stake out and defend a position on this statement: “Physical bookstores are neither relevant nor necessary in the age of Amazon.com, and U.S. book culture is better off without them.”  In case you’re wondering, there’s been an almost equal balance between “pro” and “con” thus far.

One recurrent theme I’ve been seeing concerns how independent booksellers have almost no presence in the realm of e-readers and e-reading.  Really, it’s an oligarchy.  Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and to a lesser extent, Apple have an almost exclusive lock on the commercial e-book market in the United States.  And in this sense, my students have reminded me, the handwriting is basically on the wall for the Indies.  Unless they get their act together — soon — they’re liable to end up frozen out of probably the most important book market to have emerged since the paperback revolution of the 1950s and 60s.

Thus far the strategy of the Indies seems to be, ignore e-books, and they’ll go away.  But these booksellers have it backward.  The “e” isn’t apt to disappear in this scenario, but the Indies are.  How, then, can independent booksellers hope to get a toehold in the world of e-reading?

The first thing they need to do is, paradoxically, to cease acting independently.  Years ago the Indies banded together to launch the e-commerce site, IndieBound, which is basically a collective portal through which individual booksellers can market their stock of physical books online.  I can’t say the actual sales model is the best, but the spirit of cooperation is outstanding.  Companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple are too well capitalized for any one independent store to realistically compete.  Together, though, the Indies have a fighting chance.

Second, the Indies need to exploit a vulnerability in the dominant e-book platforms; they then need to build and market a device of their own accordingly.  So listen up, Indies — here’s your exploit, for which I won’t even charge you a consulting fee: Amazon, B&N, and Apple all use proprietary e-book formats.  Every Kindle, Nook, and iBook is basically tethered to its respective corporate custodian, whose long-term survival is a precondition of the continuing existence of one’s e-library.  Were Barnes & Noble ever to go under, for example, then poof! – one’s Nook library essentially vanishes, or at least it ceases to be as functional as it once was due to the discontinuation of software updates, bug fixes, new content, etc.

What the Indies need to do, then, is to create an open e-book system, one that’s feature rich and, more importantly, platform agnostic.  Indeed, one of the great virtues of printed books is their platform agnosticism.  The bound, paper book isn’t tied to any one publisher, printer, or bookseller.  In the event that one or more happens to go under, the format — and thus the content — still endures.  That’s another advantage the Indies have over the e-book oligarchs, by the way: there are many of them.  The survival of any e-book platform they may produce thus wouldn’t depend on the well being of any one independent bookseller but rather on that of the broader institution of independent bookselling.

How do you make it work, financially?  The IndieBound model, whereby shoppers who want to buy printed books are funneled to a local member bookshop, won’t work very well, I suspect.  Local doesn’t make much sense in the world of e-commerce, much less in the world of e-books.  It doesn’t really matter “where” online you buy a digital good, since really it just comes to you from a remote server anyway.  So here’s an alternative: allow independent booksellers to buy shares in, say, IndieRead, or maybe Ind-ē.  Sales of all e-books are centralized and profits get distributed based on the proportion of any given shop’s buy-in.

There you have it.  Will the Indies run with it?  Or will all of the students enrolled in my next  “Cultures of Books and Reading” class conclude that independent bookselling has become irrelevant indeed?

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Destroying Books in Order to Save Them

One of the recurrent themes you’ll find here on the Late Age of Print blog is the “end of the book.”  Usually when I raise this I’m talking about printed books and the relationship they share to e-readers and other forms of digital technology.  And usually when I go down that road, I end up saying something to the effect of, “however popular e-books may become, printed books won’t ever go away entirely.”

But today, thanks to a friend on Facebook who shared a fascinating blog post with me, I want to approach the “end of the book” theme from a different angle — where destroying a printed book may actually give it a completely new lease on life.

The post, “The Book Surgeon,” showed up a few days ago on My Modern Met. It consists mostly of photographs of the work of artist Brian Dettmer, who, using “using knives, tweezers, and surgical tools,” transforms old encyclopedias, medical journals, dictionaries, and other weighty reference matter into intricately detailed sculptures.  Here are a few images to show you what I mean:

Amazing, eh?  The post goes on to note — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise — that carving these books involves painstaking work.  Proceeding a single layer at a time, “Dettmer manipulates the pages and spines to form the shape of his sculptures.”  There’s also no cutting and pasting of material from one point in a book to another.  In other words, everything that appears in each sculpture is ostensibly in its original location.

I wish I could watch Dettmer at work, since I imagine he must proceed with equal parts planning and serendipity.  Curious to learn more about his process, I checked out his artist’s statement where he says this:

The age of information in physical form is waning. As intangible routes thrive with quicker fluidity, material and history are being lost, slipping and eroding into the ether. Newer media swiftly flips forms, unrestricted by the weight of material and the responsibility of history. In the tangible world we are left with a frozen material but in the intangible world we may be left with nothing. History is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress.

Nicely put — and what an apt way in which to frame a body of work that so beautifully illustrates the principle of creative destruction.

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What Publishing Can Learn, Part IV

This is the fourth installment in an occasional series reflecting on how the publishing industry might connect better with readers.  You can read part I, on The Da Vinci Code, by clicking here; part II, on Oprah, is available here; and part III, on Netflix, is here.


IV.  What can the publishing industry learn from Bullshit?

To begin, I should probably clarify what I mean by “Bullshit.”  The capitalization here is purposeful.  I’m referring to philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s notorious little book, On Bullshit, which was published in 2005 by Princeton University Press.  It’s a 67-page stroke of genius.  And I call it “genius” not because of the content per se; I’ll leave that to others to evaluate.  It’s genius, rather, because of its diminutive size.  What might the publishing industry learn from the form of this successful little book?

I remember well the first time that I stumbled across On Bullshit. I was trolling through the philosophy section of one of the bookstores here in Bloomington, Indiana, and there it was.  It stood out from all the other volumes because of its compact size.  They were weighty tomes: dense, intimidating — potentially intractable commitments.  On Bullshit was something else: light, approachable — more like an enticing get-together than a long-term relationship.  I couldn’t resist picking it up.

I’m sure the book’s success has had a great deal to do with the author’s reputation, the timeliness of his argument, and — let’s be honest — his decision to call the volume, On Bullshit.  But I cannot help but wonder if its prosperity isn’t also and significantly attributable to its form.

There’s an analogous story to be told about economist Friedrich A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It sold reasonably well in the United States upon its publication in 1944.  What really launched the book into the stratosphere, however, was its Reader’s Digest condensation, released in 1945, which reached five million subscribers.  The condensation was later republished as a small, stand-alone volume with an impressive initial print-run of 600,000.

More recently, Penguin released an abridgment of Adam Smith’s 900-page magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations (1776). This charming little duodecimo volume, called The Invisible Hand, weighs in at a comparatively scant 127 pages and, like On Bullshit, costs just ten bucks.  You could probably read the shrunken Smith in a couple of hours, if that.

People today are working longer for less, and they inhabit a media environment that’s more crowded than ever.  We also have grown accustomed to “disaggregated” works, in which part and whole share a less necessary relationship than they did, say, 20 years ago.  (Witness, for example the decline of the long-play album and the return to power of the music single.)  If books are to continue to thrive well into the 21st century, then book publishers will need to account for, and respond to, these changing circumstances.  And one way in which to accomplish this might be to release more inexpensive, “snack-size” books.

By way of conclusion, a caveat: my argument shouldn’t be confused for a one-size-fits-all approach to book publishing.  I’m not suggesting that small books should replace large books, categorically.  (Incidentally, what we have now is pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach, albeit one that, for adults, privileges the tome.)  Instead, I’m interested in a publishing paradigm that would offer more choice than what we currently have — a paradigm that’s more sensitive to the diverse contexts in which people live their daily lives.

And that’s no bullshit.


P.S.  Happy New Year to all of my readers, and thank you for supporting The Late Age of Print – both the book and the blog.


Update, 2/10/2010: Here’s the link to an interesting story from The New York Times about “snack size” ebooks: http://s.nyt.com/u/eFh.

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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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In Medias Res

This week the blog In Medias Res, which is hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book, has gathered together a bunch of great contributions around the theme, “Books as Screens.”  Definitely, definitely check them out.

On Monday Hollis Griffin of Northwestern University contributed a post called “Talking Heads: Books, Authors, and Television News.”  There he explores the becoming-everyday of books and authors on TV, in an era of media deregulation and convergence.  Yesterday one of his colleagues at Northwestern, Elizabeth Lenaghan, posted a provocative meditation called, “How Do you Hide Behind a Kindle?”  She asks, “Apart from our ability to snoop on fellow train riders or pass quick judgment on a person’s taste, what are the potential consequences of fewer printed books in public spaces?”  Today IMR is featuring my thoughts on “The Selling of Bookselling.”  It’s largely a riff off of the themes I develop in Chapter 2 of The Late Age of Print, which explores the politics of retail bookselling in the United States.  On Thursday we’ll see a post entitled “Possible or Probable? An Imagined Future of the Book” from Pomona College’s Kathleen Fitzpatrick.  Capping things off on Friday will be New York University’s Lisa Gitelman, whose post is called “What Are Books?

In Medias Res is an intriguing publication in that it asks contributors not to post per se but rather to briefly “curate” a film or video clip, often connected to some larger theme.  I love that the blog is hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book, and that Hollis Griffin and Elizabeth Lenaghan finally connected the dots between books and audiovisual media to give us our theme, “Books as Screens.” Thanks, you two!  And thanks to all of you, my readers, for hopping on over to IMR to post comments.

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A Big Week for Books (Week in Review)

I’ve been racking my brain for the last several days trying to figure out what to post next here on The Late Age of Print. The problem isn’t there there’s a lack of material to write about.  If anything, there’s almost too much of it.  And the fact that there is so much reveals one simple truth about books today: however much they may be changing, they’re hardly a moribund medium.

Consider, for example, Wednesday’s debate in the New York Times, Does the Brain Like E-books?”  The forum brought together writers and academics from a variety of disciplines (English, Child Development, Religious Studies, Neuroscience), asking them to weigh in on the question.  Most intriguing to me is Professor Alan Liu’s contribution, in which he distinguishes between “focal” and “peripheral” attention.  E-books, it seems, dispose readers toward the latter type of engagement.

In some ways the distinction Liu draws harkens back to the difference between “intensive” and “extensive” reading.  The intensive mode refers to the deep reading of a small amount of texts, often multiple times, while the extensive mode designates a more cursory type of engagement with a significantly larger amount of texts.  The claim among book historians is that the coming of print ushered in a new age of extensive reading, which in turn  set in motion a mindful, but ultimately thinner, relationship to books and other types of printed artifacts.  Could it be that in emphasizing “peripheral” attention,  e-books are not breaking with but rather carrying on the legacy ushered in by print?

Next, Fast Company reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair on Google’s latest big announcement.  The search engine giant (it seems silly to even call the company that anymore) will be launching an online e-book store called Google Editions, beginning in early 2010.  What’s great about the service is that the e-titles won’t be device-specific, as in those created for the Amazon Kindle.  The initial launch will include a half-million e-books, and presumably more will be added as the months and years go by.

I’m still trying to determine whether the the texts that Google will make available via Editions will include those that the company has scanned for its Google Books project.  If that’s the case, then talk about the privatization of a public resource — practically all of the volumes having been housed originally in public libraries!  And even if that’s not the case, isn’t it strange that the company will essentially be subsidizing its book scanning efforts by hocking electronic texts published by the very same outfits who are suing them for scanning?

Finally, we have an intriguing post from Nigel Beale over at Nota Bene Books: Authors Claim Google’s Ability to Track Readers Puts Privacy at Risk.”  Evidently the Electronic Frontier Foundation is contesting the proposed Google Book settlement, on the grounds that the search engine giant cannot protect the privacy of individuals who choose to read e-books through its burgeoning service.

I’ve been raising similar concerns recently in my speech about the Amazon Kindle. The device automatically archives detailed, even intimate, information about what and more importantly how people read on the Amazon server cloud.  This kind of information is subject not 4th Amendment/search warrant protections but can instead be subpoenaed by prosecutors who are anxious to dig up dirt on suspects.  The question I raise in the speech, and the question that also seems to emerge in the case of Google Books and the coming Editions service, is, what happens to a society when privacy is no longer the default setting for reading?

Whew.  What a week for books indeed!

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Now, About That Cover…

The Late Age of Print has been receiving lots of praise since its release back in March.  What’s intriguing from an author’s standpoint is that the book’s cover has received almost as much attention as its content.

Some writers would be put off by this, believing that what really counts is the stuff that lies between the covers.  Not I.  I’m acutely aware that books are meant to be sold as much as they’re meant to be read.  In fact, in my undergraduate “Cultures of Books and Reading Class,” I have an assignment in which I ask my students to “judge a book by its cover” — that is, to explain what they can learn about a book and its audience strictly by virtue of its design.

Anyway, scores of people have commented to me in person about The Late Age of Print’s eye-catching cover, and many have asked me to share the story behind it.  I figured some of you reading might be interested to hear the story, too.

On the one hand, I had a strong sense of what I absolutely did not want to appear on the cover.  Far too many books about books (as the genre is called) feature over-stuffed leather armchairs, hand-engraved mahogany bookcases, leather book marks, stacks of printed books shot in soft-focus, readers relaxing comfortably under a heap of toasty blankets — you get the drill.  Basically, most books about books tend to aestheticize the printed book as an object by stressing its relationship to high culture.  Since Late Age is largely about the book as an industrial artifact, I wanted something much grittier — plus, it never hurts to have a book cover that doesn’t look exactly like everyone else’s (more on that later).

On the other hand, I didn’t want to go too far in the opposite direction with the cover.  That is, even though I didn’t want to overly-aestheticize books, I also didn’t want to convey a sense in which they were simply moribund things of the past.  There’s a growing contingent of books about books that unfortunately tries to do exactly that.  Most feature cover images in which book text is replaced with binary code or something to that effect, as if to convey the inevitable digitization — and by extension the disappearance — of the printed word.  Books are changing, no doubt, but for my part I remain convinced that print in some form is here to stay.

So I didn’t want a cover that made books into romantic objects, nor did I want a cover that suggested that print was dead. The Late Age of Print is a book about the past, present, and future of book publishing, and so I knew early on that I wanted some type of cover image that would represent the themes of permanence and change.  Much later, as I looked at the books about books appearing on my bookshelf at home, I decided that I wanted a more abstract type of design, since many titles in my opinion overly-literalized their subject matter.

To my good fortune, a friend of mine from graduate school happened upon the work of the Houston, Texas-based photographer, Cara Barer.  Barer purchases old books, wets them, dries them, and then photographs them.  I loved her process and the resulting images (there are many more besides the one appearing on my cover), which to my mind strikingly captured both the fragility and endurance of printed books.  This was exactly the message I wanted to convey.

I wasn’t sure if my publisher, Columbia University Press, would be inclined to use one of her images, if for no other reason than I figured they must be pricey given their beauty.  When filling out the section on cover art on my author questionnaire, I almost didn’t mention Barer’s work for that reason.  In the end I decided to let it fly, and a few weeks later the designer returned with what is now the cover of Late Age. It was a stunning exercise in design minimalism, at least as far as I was (and am) concerned.

The postscript to this story is that others, apparently, have now discovered Barer’s images.  The most prominent example can be seen in Michael Greenberg’s upcoming book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life (Other Press, September 2009), which a friend of mine alerted me to this summer:

Beg, Borrow, Steal
Galley Cat
noted the similarities in our covers earlier this week, and a commentator there linked to a whole blog devoted to look-alike covers.  For my part I’m not bothered at all by the similarities, though I’d now be curious to hear the story behind Michael Greenberg’s cover.

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