I’ve spent the past month listening and reading. I reminded myself of all the positive, cool, exciting projects happening in publishing today — and there are many (I’ve been asking those involved to post here to share what they are doing). I’ve considered what happens next, and focused a lot on what readers are saying, about books, digital and print.
Though everybody is writing about ebooks and the digital experience these days, I find I don’t have much new to add to the conversation; I’ve said it all before. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong, sometimes I evolved. I still absolutely believe that user experience is — after the content of the book — the most important place for publishing types to focus their attention.
I’ve given up on reading banal analysis and wild conjecture. I ignore anything with the word “killer” in the headline or lead. If there’s a question mark in the headline — Will the iPhone Destroy How We Cook Dinner? — I don’t even bother to click through. I presume it’s a question the writer is asking himself, not actually bothering to consider with any depth. It’s just vague punditry designed to fill the web equivalent of column inches.
That is not to say there isn’t smart analysis out there, but tea leaves from a moment in time do not predict the entire future. We spend far too much time worrying about who will “win” (what this means, nobody can say) and who will “lose” (again, what does this mean?) and what people really want. This final one annoys me the most because the pronouncements often come from those who have no idea how the technology they are praising — or dismissing — is used by real people.
Which leads me to an email I sent to my friend Melissa Klug, a book and paper aficionado. She thought she was asking for a few quick thoughts on the future of print. She got a medium-length essay (mostly reproduced below…mostly, because I cannot resist editing and revising and rethinking and updating). For those who prefer an abstract to reading long pieces, I’ll make it easy: print will remain important, but our relationship with print will change.
Print is not dead. It is not even dying, at least not yet. Think of print like an overweight beast, shedding excess weight. The result is a leaner, more defined, more beautiful experience. What we buy in print will be increasingly valuable as readers shift to the digital realm — and they are shifting so amazingly fast, it’s almost terrifying.
Print, for many types of information, will become far less important. It’s too slow for our world, too clunky for an increasing number of people. I read that a publisher is “crashing” a book on the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It’s due out in September. Given the volume of information already published and the way public interest flags, is this too long a delay? What will the book offer than other sources don’t? It’s the same relevance conundrum facing newsweeklies.
Major newspapers will continue to see diminishing print runs, but this mostly because the kind of information they provide is more easily consumed in the digital environment — it’s the old joke about reading yesterday’s news. Clay Shirky is giving newspapers fifty years. I think he is being generous.
With the Internet and television combining forces, “news” becomes more immediate. Newspapers/news publications did a horrible job of anticipating the future. They did a horrible job of understanding their own strengths. This doesn’t mean news is no longer important. It’s that these organizations seemed to miss what made them critical in the first place. We don’t pay for the weather, we don’t pay for box scores (anymore), we don’t pay for day old breaking news. We don’t pay for print versions of stories that are changing by the hour.
Of course, that leaves the world of analysis as the currency of journalism. The news is the easy part. Putting the information into context is valuable. It’s what is necessary to encourage people to pull out their credit cards (see above about vague punditry — it’s not what people want). In fact, analysis, context, synthesis are the future of information, and I worry that journalists have lost this talent. I will spare you more thoughts on this except to say: your children should all be library science majors!
So print — cheap, disposable, ephemeral print — will become marginalized, probably faster than we realize. But also slower than the doom-and-gloom types believe. “Print” is not a small idea. We print all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and that isn’t going to come to a full stop. Until our robot overlords decree otherwise, we will be creating all sorts of printed materials.
Most will not survive the day they’re created. This goes for books as much as newspapers and other time-limited information.
Setting aside the cheap, throwaway print products, the future of print is valuable, beautiful, useful…quality. As I sit here, surrounded by print publications of all types, I see what I value. I read. A lot. I haven’t been precious about format in well over a decade. Or decades. I was the kid who read cereal boxes — sometimes the same box of Life over and over — if there were not other words available. I want to read. What I find now is that I gravitate toward the format that best suits the type of reading I want or need to do at that moment.
For fiction and narrative non-fiction, I am 100% digital. It kills me that I get so many ARCs in print — if it’s something I want to read, I’ll buy the digital version of a book a publisher sends me for free, just because I want to read in my preferred manner. I do a lot of reading at the gym, on planes, during the interstitial moments. Digital works for me on so many levels, particularly because I am aligned with the Evil Empire. They created a seamless purchasing and reading experience for me. That’s another post.
(Aside: on my last trip to Europe, I impulsively tossed a hardcover in my suitcase because I loved the author and — funny — the last print book I’d bought was hers. Never let me loose in Waterstones! I was flying business, and my suitcase, packed for three weeks, two divergent climates, was just a smidge overweight. Yep, the book. So I pulled out the book and shoved it into my already heavy backpack — two laptops, a Kindle, my phone, various chargers, and a hardcover book. Yeah, that was me, bent over double. Sadly, the book was one of the author’s weaker efforts, a shame as her previous book was really compelling.)
So, print. I buy magazines in print. I haven’t warmed to the digital versions. I think magazine publishers are going out of their way to make the experience as unlikeable as possible. It’s not a feat to replicate the print edition in digital format, full page fidelity and all. What I — and it seems so many others — want is a magazine that takes advantage of the technology. Magazine publishers don’t seem to get that, or maybe they think we are happy with okay, good enough, sloppy.
Much of what I read in magazines is available for free on the web, but I find my relationship with the print content and the web content are different. I like to revisit them, to touch them, to buy the special issues (did you know there was a Dwell “100 Houses We Love” special issue? I am too messy to be modern, yet I drool over Dwell). I like to cut out pages, to save pieces, to enjoy the rhythm of reading magazines. It’s different, you know.
I want my digital magazines to give me that sort of joy — it is obvious that magazine publishers/app developers haven’t really thought much about the user experience of digital magazines, or, heck, the user experience of print magazines. Reading the articles is just part of what happens.
I’ve stopped subscribing to print magazines. I buy individual copies when I remember because I’ve been burned by magazine publishers. They’ve shuttered the titles I love and, to fulfill their own terms, substitute stuff I have no interest in reading. I don’t trust the publishers to do right by me. I’d probably consider iPad subscriptions if the product and prices were better, but so far, no dice.
Then the books. I am a bit of a cookbook addict. While I love the How To Cook Everything app (shopping lists, timers!), I also love flipping through glossy pages and seeing the finished dishes — knowing mine will never look that good — and lists of ingredients. I will buy the print version of this book. I love the books published by Ammo. I still get giddy over my art of Samurai Shamploo book (what? you haven’t watched the series? We need to talk!). I went to two independent bookstores to find an art book the husband didn’t know he wanted. I saw it at last year’s Comic Book Day, knew it was perfect, noted the title, and, sigh, Vroman’s didn’t have it — I started at Vroman’s because they have awesome greeting cards, and that is really important to me, since it was a holiday gift and all.
So yeah, I was that slightly older woman in the comic book store buying their last copy of the book. The box was a little messed up, but that is fine. The pages are filled with the artwork he digs.
I also have this crazy weird book from the 1970s of houses from a home decor magazine (can’t recall title — think Architectural Digesty) that I adore even though not a single thing is something I would ever consider for my home. Also, we have a precious copy of Arlene Dahl’s Always Ask a Man. It is the basis of my household’s “always let him think it’s his idea” philosophy.
These are books I want in print, want to flip through, want to touch as I remember lines or images. There are many more of these in my collection. The print books we — that collective we — want to keep are a blip compared to the books produced every year. For me, they are a blip compared to the number of books I read in a year. Most of those have very little value to me. I read, I discard.
There’s no telling what book might find a place in a permanent collection, but five seconds in a used bookstore (physical or digital) is enough to prove that much of what is printed isn’t valuable enough to remain a permanent part of most libraries. These are the type of books I believe we’ll see dying in print first.
My theory is that readers will grow more and more intolerant of those books that have no real value, books that are worn out before they are unembargoed. And no point in pretending you can keep the best parts from leaking out. The future of print is not day-late print versions of last year’s news. Let’s be honest here: most of these print books are bought at deep discounts by consumers. The “value” assigned by purchasers is far less than the value assigned by the publisher.
This is why, when the bookcase fairy finally delivers my dream bookshelves, I will not be dragging out every book I have stored in the garage. In fact, the longer the books remain out of sight, the less important displaying them becomes. Just as friends are comfortable browsing the house’s iTunes library, they happily page through my Kindle, sampling and discussing. What I will keep when I finally open those boxes — ah, the love and care with which they were packed! — will be those books on the endangered species list. Books that cannot be bought in any other way.
Most, but not all, of these are candidates for digital repurchase. Yes, you read that right: I will rebuy books I love in the format I prefer. As long as publishers don’t engage in stupid pricing tricks (see: book originally published in 2006). I’ll be honest, these book are not must-haves for me. They are want-to-haves. It’s the job of the publisher to make it an attractive purchase for me.
I cannot predict when the shift from mostly print to mostly digital will happen. I suspect it will be like a patchwork quilt. Print becomes more valuable when it becomes less disposable. We will happily invest in quality because what we buy is something we want to preserve — and display — for a long time. I think we interact with different media in different ways. I’m not a smell of books person, but I am a tactile person. Different types of content (the wrong word here, but nicely umbrella) demand different types of interaction.
Print and digital are different experiences. It’s not good or bad or right or wrong. It’s what the book, the story within (be it fiction or non-fiction), requires. Some stories can be told in every format possible. Some must be purely digital. Some demand the pace of print.
To me, the future of print is irrevocably tied to the consumer’s ability to acquire those books they deem valuable to them. This might mean buying a gorgeous book from Ammo Books from the get-go. It might mean buying a beautiful edition of a long-loved book. It might mean acquiring a physical copy of a digital book (or, vice versa: the digital companion of the print book).
What is important is that these print version be quality — good covers, excellent paper, binding that doesn’t fall apart. Handmade, one-of-a-kind, original, limited edition, personal. The shift to digital reading is taking place rapidly, and there will be a point in the not-too-distant future where we stop thinking either/or and embrace either/and.
Is this the future you are preparing for?