The Lost Art of Publication (or why ebooks haven’t degraded print at all)
Those devoted to paper in publishing houses worry that digital publishing will lead to the loss of the art of publication. The sad fact is that the art of publication has been subsumed in mass production long ago. With increased paper costs, distribution costs, lowering margins, publishers have cheapened the physical book to the point that with a few exceptions, what is in stores today isn’t worth finding space on the shelf.
Like many regular readers, my shelves are bursting with books. The lack of shelf space is one reason I have embraced ebooks with such fervor. I simply can’t locate even one more space for my books. If I buy one in paper format, I will have to displace another book in its favor and once I am done with it, I must either sell or determine whether it is shelf worthy.
I don’t want to dismiss a person’s love for the feel of paper, the smell of paper, or even the look of a book. But for an avid reader of genre books, the mass market paperback is a disposable item. It’s print quality is fairly poor on thin paper housed behind lurid covers. The bindings are weak and can barely last more than a few readings. They don’t look good sitting on the shelf and any avid reader ends up storing piles of books everywhere, under cabinets, beds and tables. You have to make a conscious decision, because of the books numerosity, which books get shelf space and which books are tucked away. It’s hard to know exactly what you own.
I would go further to say that most books published today aren’t shelf worthy. Does the mass produced Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele hardcover have any uniqueness? Is there anything memorable about these books? Aren’t the covers just as lurid, just as lacking in individuality as the mass markets.
I have books passed down to me by my mother who got them from her mother. Right now I am reading Swiss Family Robinson to my daughter. It was published in 1949 and is illustrated with full color plates and a number of ink drawings. Although I could easily read this digitally (it’s a book that is in the public domain having been originally published in 1812), the illustrations make it a must read in paper (digital books just haven’t gotten to this point yet). I’ve long ago lost the dust cover, but with the cover image imprinted upon the cardboard and the gold lettering on the spine, it’s still worth putting on my shelf.
The rare literary fiction books I’ve purchased really have no significant shelf appeal. Snow Falling on Cedars I purchased in trade paperback. It’s a nice trade but there certainly is nothing special about it. Memoirs of a Geisha was passed around amongst my family and friends to the point that the cover became nearly degraded and I ended up tossing it. It could not stand repeated wear. More and more books appear on the shelf with movie posters or the author’s name is so large as to render the cover virtually superfluous.
The nicest books I’ve purchased of late were the books I’ve bought to read to my daughter. The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin had a gorgeous orange embossed cover with a faux gold emblem. Nora Robert’s Visions of White was a very nice, shelf worthy book with the edges of the book deckled and the cover looking a bit like a bridal invitation. The only modern books that I have bought that I care to keep in print form are the Harry Potter series and the original Jacqueline Carey books. If I didn’t want to hide the Twilight series from my daughter, I’d put those on the shelf as well as the covers and packaging of these books were really well done.
If the goal of a book is to be read, the form of delivery of the content from publisher to the consumer is not impeded if the shift is from primarily print to primarily digital. If the goal of a book is to be a shelf worthy item, something to be displayed and desired for its form itself, then publishers need to do a better job in creating a quality item. It isn’t digital books or even the rise of digital books that have decreased the shelf quality of print books. It is the business decisions made by publishers.
My belief is that in the future, digital books will be the default and print books will be a higher quality collectible, ones that even I would be interested in buying and placing on a shelf.