Magazine article The American Conservative

By the Book

Magazine article The American Conservative

By the Book

Article excerpt

Even in the Kindle age, the printed page still has its place.

NO INDUSTRY FRETS about its future more than publishing. "How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start out with a large fortune" runs one of the gallows-humor jokes told by publishers for the better part of a century now. The latest round of hand wringing occasioned by the state of the economy, Kindle, Amazon's aggressive advance, the teetering of Borders, the declining percentage of Americans who read - things any publisher worth his salt would be happy to discuss if you have a spare hour - is not exactly out of character.

Perhaps things are different this time. The digital age is certainly destroying the newspaper and magazine industries. (And who needs news and journalism when we can just comment on one another's opinions all day?) But what about book publishing? Is the Economist right to speculate, as it did in February, that it "seems likely that, eventually, only books that have value as souvenirs, gifts or artefacts will remain bound in paper"?

In some genres, yes, the printed book can't compete with electronic editions. This is already true for scientific and technological textbooks. Likewise reference works and travel guides - anything in which the purpose is to convey precise, timely information and the pleasure of reading is at best a tertiary consideration. For many other genres, however, the immediate ascension of e-books over their printed brethren seems highly doubtful. Kindle users don't buy fewer printed books. They simply add e-books. And the easy availability of recipes online hasn't exactly made cookbooks disappear: quite the opposite.

The printed book is itself an amazingly efficient piece of technology. It is highly scannable, allowing the user to perceive, assimilate, and make connections among dozens of bits of information in very little time by flipping through pages, perusing the table of contents, or reading jacket blurbs. The nature of the book's physical qualities is itself an important conveyor of information. Trim size, binding, font, cover design, and layout all say something to the reader. Who doesn't prefer using a good index in a printed book to doing a search in a PDF document? It's easier, faster, and better for making sense of the context of any particular entry.

Moreover, books are more than just information providers. They are aesthetically appealing. As tactile objects, as physical products of human art and ingenuity, they are attractive. Do you get the same sense of anticipatory pleasure when you imagine curling up at night or on a rainy day, with your laptop as you do with a book? Perhaps you do. Maybe most people do. But many do not

Of course, there are definite disadvantages to printed volumes. For consumers, these include portability, timeliness, speed of delivery, and, to a lesser extent, cost. For publishers, expense heads the list Books are pricey to print, bind, and ship. Cut out these expenses, and the costs of editing, designing, and marketing books suddenly become much more absorbable.

So, more likely than the near extinction of printed books is the development of a situation in which e-books complement but do not replace them. The book industry could actually become larger and more profitable once a standard, consumer-friendly e-book delivery system becomes available. Contrary to all expectations, the publishing industry may soon be on the come.

But why do we even need publishers? That is the question posed, rhetorically and flatteringly, by the companies eager to help a budding author self-publish his masterpiece. Why settle for a measly 10 percent of the revenues when you can front the costs and then use the miraculous power of New Media to sell your fascinating tome? Not a bad idea, for some authors. Alas, many more have learned that this is a good way to sink $10,000 into a decade's worth of Christmas gifts for friends, family, and favorite waitresses. …

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