Friday, January 23, 2015

The Winnowing


In “Indie Publishing: Boom and Bust” the novelist Deb Vanasse, quoting fellow-writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch, notes that “the gold rush is over.” Their point is that the days when a beginning author could throw up an e-book (well-written and well-edited or not), manipulate the Amazon.com algorithms by distributing thousands of copies for free, and still make money have ended. The big publishers are in the game now, and they too have learned the power of free and discounted e-books. In addition, because e-books never go out of print, the supply side of the market is expanding faster than the demand side, and we all know where that leads. What the future holds, no one can tell, but it seems fairly certain that a winnowing will take place: either unsuccessful authors will choose to leave the arena, or readers will push them out by favoring traditionally published books—or at least high-quality self-published and small-press books.

Now the winnowing among authors no doubt deserves a blog post (or ten) of its own. Today’s post is actually about something else, based on a comment that Alix Christie made during my interview with her last week for New Books in Historical Fiction. We were talking about the long-term effects of the shift from print to e-book publishing, and she asked me if I’d noticed that print books are becoming more beautiful. In a sense, of course, I had. I even wrote a post on “The Beauty of Books” in November 2012. But until Alix mentioned it, I hadn’t really thought about books becoming more beautiful.

As soon as she said it, though, I knew she was right. The 75-cent copies of Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland that I devoured in my misspent youth were not beautiful, although sometimes they had nice cover pictures. Their mass-market successors, although they cost ten times as much, are not beautiful either: cramped text on a page. It’s easier to read those books on a Kindle or an iPad, where at least you can adjust the font type and size and see clear dark type against a white screen.

No, the beautiful books are the hardcovers and trade paperbacks. The publishers are separating their products from generic, customizable e-books by showcasing the design capabilities of print—not so much winnowing the market as creating two distinct sectors within it.

Christie’s own debut novel, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, is a good example of this trend: the book is gorgeous, as befits a novel about the invention of the five-hundred-year-old technology that the authors and publishers of e-books are doing their best to supplant. The book has large initial capitals on the chapters that look like printed versions of a manuscript book, as well as the kind of heavy rough-edged paper that I used to find in nineteenth-century tomes on the dusty shelves of university libraries, their pages uncut until I came along with my metal-edged ruler and peered at text not seen since it left the letterpress 150 years earlier. The cover combines a portrait of the three main characters in the novel—Johann Gutenberg; his financier, Johann Fust; and Fust’s adopted son, Peter Schöffer—with a stylized color image of fifteenth-century Mainz. The cover shows to advantage on an e-reader, too, if it’s a color tablet, but the design of the text is lost except in PDF format, which is not an e-book so much as an electronic rendition of the print. If you’re trying to read fixed-page-layout PDFs on a tablet, you might as well indulge yourself with the pleasure of turning physical pages.

There are two directions in which this post can go. The first and most obvious is to underline the importance for indie (self-published, coop, and small-press) publishers to take the question of beauty seriously if they wish to see their stories in print. Indie writers rely on print-on-demand technology, which is not suitable for mass-market production, so their print books must compete with trade paperbacks. The alternative is to focus on e-books and forget print, but that means abandoning the hefty chunk of the market that still prefers books on paper. Some of these readers own e-devices but have returned to print because they find it a more satisfying experience. Writers who can’t balance these competing demands are likely to find themselves among the “winnowed.”


But Alix Christie makes another important point as well. Winnowing threatens not only writers but print books themselves. Gutenberg’s Bible was a manuscript produced by machine; fifty years passed before Aldus Manutius shrank books down to something that would fit in a pocket, turning them into everyday objects that many people could afford. At the moment, writers and publishers aim to turn e-books into computerized versions of their print counterparts. “Enhanced editions” with trails of hyperlinks leading to pictures and explanations and online videos offer one alternative, but the flitting hither and yon interferes with the sustained attention that draws a reader into a story world, disrupting the emotional attachment that is the reason most people read fiction in the first place. Something else is needed. I don’t what it is, but I agree that when we find it, print books will join manuscripts as rare and precious relics of a long-forgotten past.

I may not live to see that day. I’m not even sure that I want to. But it is going to be one interesting ride.


Image: Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius (1894), via Wikimedia Commons. This picture is in the public domain in the United States because of its age.

And in a sad farewell that is associated with the broader topic here of the upheaval in publishing, I found out this week that Folium Book Studio, which we have used to obtain ISBNs and work with the e-book versions of all the Five Directions Press books to date, is closing its doors as of March 2015. Not sure what happened: perhaps it was an idea ahead of its time, in that older e-readers often could not handle the fancy formatting. But it is a service that we will miss.

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