Wednesday, June 02, 2010

WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THE BOOK?: The Dog Has Teeth

(NOTE: Rested and refreshed from his sojourn in Belize, the writer of this blog has decided to make his comeback with a screed. This is done with much thought and coffee, one important and the other not so much. It must be coffee on account of cutting down on thought has never given anyone a rude headache. Early mornings and late afternoons went into its composition to say what has yet to be said about the confused, fouled-up, idiopathic, nonsensical, and generally dumb current state of publishing. Read without the benefits of adult beverages and a steady hand. The future is bleak.)


One of our local literary agents has just returned from a quick trip to New York, where they were taken into the office of an editor at Random House and shown the new iPad. “This is the future of publishing,” he said. “No more print or paper or binding. We can realize greater profits than ever before.” Great. Let’s jump up and trash the book while it is in the worst shape of its 500-year lifespan (I date the beginnings of book publishing with Aldus Manutius in Venice; all Gutenberg ever did was print a bible). Bigger profits for publishers will mean less money for writers, who are used to getting screwed anyhow. They are being advised to give their work away for free as an incentive to increase sales of books that don’t exist in any physical form. Does this make sense? ebooks are a simulation of reading, not the act of reading; that takes type, design, and printing and binding, even when the reader is not aware of those elements. Besides, the different parts of a book are supposed to be a crystal goblet holding a fine wine—the object is the wine, not the glass.

The best analogy is this: Reading an ebook is like making love to a skeleton (consensual, of course; we’ll leave the brain, eyes, and tongue in the skull). Bones are what keep us upright; marrow pumps out red and white blood cells, the femur and patella and tibia and fibula and tarsal and metatarsal make for shapely legs, and the pelvic bones of ilium and pubis and ischium are always ready to make a lap. But imagine kissing a mouth all maxima and mandible. Not very inviting, no matter how long you’ve known each other. Intimacy requires every organ, including the useless appendix hanging around for no discernible reason except costly surgery when it decides to rupture.

So now we have a skeleton with the cool extras like liver and kidneys and lungs and pancreas (a personal favorite on account of how it sounds, not function), and best of all, the heart. Still any prospective lover is not happy. Give them miles of veins and arteries full of blood, and musculature. At last the body takes shape, though far from inviting. A human body without skin is wet, sloppy, and not to be encountered without the aid of strong drink. But when the skin is applied, what has gone on before is forgotten and a pleasant desire makes ready for the ultimate goal.

Reducing a book to text is dumb for everyone. You have to admire Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Steve Jobs for shafting readers, writers, designers, printers, and booksellers so efficiently. Only complete greed-heads would go so far and so fast. The text is only the beginning; editors and copyeditors and proofreaders spend entire careers developing the skills necessary to insure the final book is accessible to readers. Ask any writer about the editor’s role and they will say it is essential to bringing their ideas and stories to life.

Designers sweat and strain to find the right typeface that allows the words to speak instead of being splayed on the page as letters. History is taken into account, along with function: what will make the text connect with the reader and not draw attention to itself? The page design is important on account of no two books are alike. Each has separate problems to solve and do so gracefully with display heads and where to put the page numbers. Once this is completed, a paper is chosen and not too bright and not too dim and not so the type disappears. Good paper does not mean cutting down the last of our forests; for acid free and archival-strong paper there is cotton and linen and kenaf, each ready to be grown where the soil is willing. Recycled stock is always an excellent choice since wood pulp sucks anyway.

The printer takes the pages and paper selection and, guided by his or her years of apprenticeship and skill and talent, puts the two together. With the stacks of printed pages comes the need for binding. This means paperback or hardbound, sewn or perfect binding, and a cover that says what the book is and why you should read it. Booksellers order copies, stick a few in the windows of their shops, and get the books out to readers. Craft, skill, and talent also go into bookselling, knowing how many books to order and who of their customers want to read them.

A bookseller acts as a pharmacist, prescribing novels and nonfiction for the lonely and loved and curious. Taking a book in hand that has come about from so much dedication gives the reader the same flush and rush as the eager lover: connection, and not just to the writer but humanity. No electricity, no application or program, nothing is needed except the ability to read and turn pages. What makes the connection is craftsmanship (craftsPERSONship is too clumsy to use so I won’t; women do this stuff too, okay?) in every stage: writing, editing, design, printing, and selling.

With the ebook, most of this is done away with in search of greater profit. Talk of how this will benefit readers is garbage. The only writers to be accepted by the big six publishing companies (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Group, Random House, and Simon & Schuster) must have a major online presence; others are better off spending their time watching network television (cable costs too much) until their brains dribble out their ears and they don’t want to write any more. Writers who are big online do not need editors on account of any fans will point out errors as part of the writer’s cloud. Why bother with page or type designers when every text can come out in Times New Roman on a backlit screen?

A recent publisher’s guide for writers is mostly concerned with building and maintaining online presence, every social networking site like Twitter and MySpace and Facebook and reader sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. To follow the rules in the guide, a writer has to put in a ten-hour day. This means less time for writing skills, reading, researching, thinking, and general hygiene. For this, the writer is guaranteed to make very little money. Amazon wants to fix the price of ebooks at no greater than $9.99, and the writer can expect to make anywhere from 25 to 50 cents, along with having a refrigerator box stuck under a freeway overpass as a permanent address. Where’s the WiFi?

Screw the booksellers, too. They previously bought physical books at a discount of forty percent or higher, priced them according to what was printed on the back cover or jacket, and everyone involved made a buck. With ebooks, this business model is tossed out in favor of the agency model: the bookseller morphs into a sales agent for the publisher, not a seller of books as the title implies. Amazon and iBookstore are shoving price caps down publisher’s throats, regardless of the labor and costs involved with bringing the book to life. The control of pricing hits everyone down to the scribbler who gets a reduced royalty, and you can forget about publishers outside the big six. They cannot survive in such a marketplace. The math is simple: instead of selling a new book for $24.95, the price is now $9.95. Unless the volume in question is a mammoth bestseller, independent booksellers can start looking for jobs as telephone solicitors.

At least the writer gets something: typographers are gone, along with designers and printers and booksellers and editors and dreamers and thinkers. The ebook revolution is not about connection, but disconnection. Who needs to talk when we can text, and the passive-aggressive can post diatribes they don’t have to answer. Insignificant and unsubstantiated data has piled up online until turning on your computer or smart phone is like being thrown into an ever-expanding room full of white sugar: nutritionally useless and will likely blow out your heart when what you want is a teaspoon for coffee.

People need people, the signs and voices of people, and this is done with craft. A well-made object shows the hand. We need to remind ourselves that there is more in the world than just us, to continue learning about other people and places, and reach out to them as they reach for us. Since 1980, the cost of a university education has risen 827 percent (no typo there—827 percent) and so anyone going into higher education must take business and business-related courses so they can get to earning soon after getting their degree on account of they will spend the next ten years paying off student loans (in contrast, healthcare costs have only risen 400 percent since 1980). This has killed liberal arts and made for Americans being dumb enough to follow whatever new toy the greed-heads like Bezos and Jobs want to pimp.

Craft, anything to do with using the hand, is considered beneath us. We can crank out something better by machine, and cheaper when we use overseas labor. The most dangerous thing about craft is that it must be approached with humility; craft show us the limits as well as the heights of what we can do. When you touch a handmade piece of pottery, look at a painting, listen to music being performed, or read a book, you know how fragile humans are, and how strong. Craft is not only good for the soul, it is the soul transmitted.

On January 6, 1946, Pastor Martin Niemöller made a speech before representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt, where he read the apologia that began “THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists…” Let’s do a rewrite.

THEY CAME FIRST for the independent booksellers,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an independent bookseller.
THEN THEY CAME for the editors,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an editor.
THEN THEY CAME for the book designers,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a book designer.
THEN THEY CAME for the writers,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a writer.
THEN THEY CAME for me, a reader,
and by that time no one was left to speak up.


NEXT: Breeds of Discontent

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll have to restrain myself from singing your praises. Something tells me you wouldn't like it. And the dog might bite.

So I will only say this...

I cannot take a kindle to the bath with me. I cannot soak in my bubbles and hold an electronic device at the same time unless I'm really in the mood to waste a couple hundred dollars and be left wondering what happened next.
I do not have to charge my book or power it on. As long as it is with me I can read it. THAT kind of convenience cannot be replaced with modern technology which requires batteries or chords.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Johnson said...

I can't believe anyone REALY enjoys reading one of those things...
A while back, on the bus, I see this girl with her face lit up by her Kindle screen, earphhones on, and blackberry in her other hand. A perfect picture of human disconnection.

1:35 PM  

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