I don’t know how many books I’ve bought simply because they were beautifully put together. The cover design, quality of the paper, stitching, typeface, leading — the right combination of these qualities might convince me to buy a book that I might otherwise have ignored.
That this approach to book buying may be the dominant force keeping paper books alive in the digital age was one of the major themes in a Charlie Rose discussion on the future of publishing. The panelists in this discussion were New Yorker literary critic and writer Ken Auletta, author Jonahan Safran Foer, former executive at Harper Collins and co-founder of Open Road Integrated Media Jane Friedman, and open source supporter as well as media company owner Tim O’Reilly.
However, the pretty books approach is not enough to prevent mammoth and painful change in the nature of books.
Foer was visibly shaken by some of the discussion which seemed to indicate that books as we know them will become extinct sooner or later. He is fearful that culturally, we would experience “a narrowing of the emotional spectrum,” should that come about. Browsing on the Internet, he said, was vastly different from browsing in a bookstore. He admitted that on the Internet it was easier to find what you’re looking for. but in a bookstore “you can find things you are not looking for.”
But there seemed to be some gleeless agreement that traditional publishers are in deep trouble and that without significant reinvention, most bookstores are as well.
Friedman suggested that there may be some interest for some time to come in special books on paper — though she basically declared the hardcover dead. Popular fiction, she thinks, will almost totally move to e-book formats. Though not necessarily the newest generation humans, but the ones after that will be “digital natives.” They will know very little else. Friedman also admitted what we all suspect. While authors may or may not think of themselves as creating “literary art,” appreciated by “readers,” those in the business look at (perhaps must look at) books as “products” bought by consumers.
And here there is agreement by O’Reilly and the others that it makes no sense for publishers to pay for the paper, the printing, the distribution and risk any number of returns, when e-books basically have no such costs while having several additional advantages, portability being a major one. He entered into a short debate with Auletta about what is literature and what is something else. But in the end, does the argument about literature versus popular fiction matter that much? Those who believe that there is this higher level of writing that can be called literature and this too might extend the printed book’s life span. Such a thing might happen, but the cost would either rise ridiculously or the books would have to be subsidized as symphonies and operas often are.
And, of course, is it still a book if that novel you are reading contains click-access to videos, graphics and research related to your read? Call these new features “mixed-media enhancements.” And given this electronic mentality, and the development of the attention span of a goldfish, will we lose the idea of immersive reading?