Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Although I'm a bit behind the curve with much of the "new technology", which is so dominated by reading digitally, I finally started looking at Print on Demand and its appropriateness for direct-to-consumer. A recent survey by Fairfield Research has shown that over 50% of the public still wants to read paper books. This is good for remaining retail stores, and Borders' new digital stores seem to be leading the way with print-on-demand for consumers. But what of the Espresso Book Machine, which debuted last year with such fanfare in The New York Public Library and the World Bank bookstore?

Well, take a look at the YouTube presentation. It comes off as a dinosaur (reminds me of the failed printing press Mark Twain failed to market about 120 years ago). There is a generational market for printed books and perhaps a market based on genre--literary novels may be read for a couple of more generations in paper--but the companies will have to be, well, a lot less dull about the process if it's going to catch on.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Future of Trade Publishing

Last May at BookExpo, Mike Shatzkin of the IdeaLogical Company, who for a generation has been thinking about the future of all types of reading in its relationship to publishing, delivered a fascinating overview of every which way book-reading can morph in the future. At the beginning of the talk, his statements were provisional. As he went on, they became less so. But in all cases, they are provocative not only about the future of book-publishing but the future of book-selling and book-reading. Click here to read his talk. It has particular implications for literary books about three-quarters of the way through.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Inevitability and Its Discontent(ed)s

The other day Matthew Bruccoli, who firmly believes in the superiority of book-reading over digital-reading, sent me an interesting pamphlet, The Necessity of Reference Books in the Digital Age, published by The Print Conservancy and made up of three essays: “Research Libraries Without Reference Books” by Matthew J. Bruccoli, “Seduced by Bits and Bytes” by Richard Layman, and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” by Joel Myerson. The points these three scholars make suggest that the coming digital era is a tidal event that will undermine many foundations of scholarship.

What interests me, however, is not what they propose, but that they feel compelled to hold back the waters of change. And they are not the first, of course. Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper mounted a sturdy defense against the destruction of paper records, for example.

Transitions are rarely comfortable, and much is lost in the movement between technologies. However, the current debate is not always “not if, but when”. Instead, thoughtful heads, even among the digi-nabobs at Google, wonder whether printed books will survive the crossing, and no one is sure. Bruccoli, et al focus almost exclusively on reference works. The printed gathering of knowledge—the reference work’s specialty— by a single sensibility—Diderot and D’Alembert, Johnson—may indeed be coming to an end, despite its defenders’ hard work. Indeed, their work was less informational than literary and we live in an era of data. As far back as eighteen months ago, the writer Stacy Schiff compared the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia and found three errors in the former for four in the latter, not a bad record for a new-fangled approach.

The transition is inevitable, as printed books took the field from hand-written ones, as print took the field from orality. Some have no choice but to rail against the dying of “the light”. Others will slam the door on the past’s less efficient, but perhaps more experiential and immersive approach. Amazon and abebooks can get us any book we want in a matter of days. But when The Celestial Jukebox is in working order and we pay for our pieces of the universal pie of information, the procrusteans will still have a point. However, like their confreres of the late middle ages, no one will remember their names, except if you do a universal gathering on the successor to Google, which we may as well call Yahoosoft.