By Charles Rosenberg
Author of Death on a High Floor
In April, I attended both the IBPA "Publishing University" in San Francisco and the 2012 Left Coast Crime mystery fan conference in Sacramento. In both places, I heard many people ask, in one way or another, "What will become of the book?" They were talking about the book as print on paper.
That question contains within it both an assumption and a lament. The assumption is that we have, up until now, all shared a common understanding of what is meant by the word "book." The implied lament in the question is the emotional equivalent of asking: What will become of Grandma now that we've left her by the side of the road and driven away?"
In this blog post, I want to explore both the rapidly changing meaning of "book" and the feeling of lament about those changes.
What Is a "Book," Exactly?
In the long-ago year of 2006, before the first Kindle was released, we had, I think, a culture-wide understanding of what the English word "book" meant when applied to a physical object. It meant text or pictures on sheets of paper, the sheets bound together at one end, called the spine (usually stitched or glued, but sometimes bound in other ways), with a protective cover made of thicker paper, cardboard or some other material stronger than the sheets of paper within. There were indeed many subcategories of books -- hardback books, paperback books, art books, comic books, graphical books, notebooks, workbooks, etc., etc. -- but, one way or another, all *books. So if you said to someone in 2005, "I just read a great book," most people wouldn't have bothered to ask what physical form the book took.
That was then.
Now, with the advent of the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad, the iPhone, and numerous other smart phones and tablets, the term "e-book" has arisen, which has begun to upend our more than one thousand year-old understanding of what the word "book" means in physical terms. Think about it: e-books are not made of paper and do not contain pages that are physically bound together with stitches or glue. If they have a cover, its function is not to use thicker/better/stronger digits to protect the text on the inside. Its function is more-or-less to announce the book. Kind of like a butler. Indeed, an e-book is not a physical object at all, although it is contained within one. Yet I don't think many people would think of a Kindle or an iPad as a book.
As a result, the meaning of the word book has begun to change, to mean text and/or images of a certain length and format rather than a physical object. You can figure this out just by listening to people talk. You will not usually hear someone say: "I just read a great e-book." For an increasing number of people, whether a text was read in digital form or on paper has become a matter of indifference, and yet they still refer to having read a "book." Of course, someone listening to the statement may enquire if the book is available as an e-book. But the question may be generated as much by their "platform" reading preference or on their assumption that the e-book will be less expensive as by any desire to know how the reader accessed the book.
Is This Really Anything New?
From what I've read, change is nothing new for books.
Starting around 400 A.D., the bound book became dominant, at least in the West, over the scroll, which has receded into mainly ceremonial use (e.g., the Torah). The bound book had large advantages over the scroll: It was less expensive (you could write on both sides of the page), it was more easily stored and transported (try stacking scrolls), it had what we would today call "random access" (you could reach any page without unrolling), and it was harder to damage (covers really do protect). It was also easier to hide. This was apparently important to early Christian groups, who favored the book over the scroll.
Although we easily recognize books from the Middle Ages and before as books, we would not find them very friendly to use. They were generally large, heavy and extremely expensive. The expense came from the reproduction technology (hand copying), the material used (mostly parchment, which was hundreds of times more expensive than paper -- not yet invented -- is today), and transportation costs.
Change came. The printing press, introduced in Europe in the mid-15th Century, was the biggest change, although early printed books were still expensive and something of a luxury item for the well-off. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Printing_press. Eventually, ever faster printing presses and ever cheaper paper production technologies produced what we have today -- cheap hardbacks and even cheaper paperbacks. What paperbacks did, of course, was to make books not only cheaper, but smaller and lighter. (There is a very interesting history of the paperback book here: http://paperbarn.www1.50megs.com/Paperbacks/msg1.htm ).
The ubiquity of the book in our culture was furthered by much cheaper transportation (railroads and trucking), more widespread distribution, the price reduction that having a larger sales base makes possible (that's in part what Barnes and Noble, Borders and Wal-Mart were all about) and the near-universal literacy needed to create that base.
More recently, high speed ink-jet presses have made paper books available as print on demand (POD), which has permitted authors and publishers to make a profit on books that sell in relatively small numbers.
Change has thus been integral to books for centuries. So while on one level the printed book that we have today is the same as a hand-copied book made 1,600 years ago (they're both bound at the spine), the two are in other ways quite different. To see this in more detail, take a look at this good overall history of the book: http://communication.ucsd.edu/bjones/Books/booktext.html
The Book Unbound
One way to think about the latest form of the book – the e-book -- is that it is is just one more incremental step in the evolution of the book: less expensive to make than paperback books (probably by the same order of magnitude as paper vs. parchment and hand-copying v. high speed ink jet presses), even more portable than a paperback, in many ways more durable, and with a cheaper sale price, thus attracting an even wider audience.
Another and perhaps more interesting way to think about the change is this: the book is now unbound, both literally and metaphorically. What does it mean for the book to be unbound? It means that each of the elements that previously made up a book have been set free to pursue their own ends. Let's break it apart:
Covers have from the beginning had a utilitarian function -- to protect the inside pages of the book. They eventually evolved to have an art-driven sales function, too: please pick me up. The art-sales function did not arrive immediately. For example, I have learned that "dust jackets" for hard covers were originally wrapped entirely around silk-bound books to protect the silk from dust and damage. Decoration and sales appeal was minimal. Here's a picture of one of the earliest, from 1830:
For e-books, the utilitarian protective function is simply gone. There is nothing to protect and nothing to pick up, only an image to click on. And sure, there is still some art-sales appeal in the cover thumbnail. But to be candid, I have never seen a one or two-inch thumbnail that knocked my socks off.
This suggests to me that the cover is going to go off on its own and try to use the inherent power of digital media to enhance its sales function in ways that can't be accomplished with a simple digital copy of a larger painting.
If you look at so-called book "trailers" you can see the beginning of this, even though most of the current ones are dreadful and a waste of time. Eventually, and particularly as broadband grows cheaper and e-reading platforms grow ever more powerful, the unbound cover is likely to reinvent itself in the same way that the dust cover did. Will it dance and sing? If it works to sell books, sure.
The internal pages of a book, when bound together at the spine, were condemned to a set order. Page 200 would always be after page 2, and pages 3 to 199 would always be in between. Without a binding that physical limitation no longer exists.
That means, as only one example, that "pages" can be intruded which are not part of the order of the text. A simple example is the ability to intrude the page of a dictionary into your reading by, for example, touching the word (possible in an iPad, the Kindle Touch and the Kindle Fire, among many other devices). A more elaborate example is the ability to "go outside the binding" and look at graphics or moving images stored somewhere else.
This unbinding of the internal pages of a book will eventually free up authors to create new kinds of works, where "outside" pages (meaning not in textual order) are more smoothly and seamlessly integrated, artistically, into the book. In the paragraphs above, I attempted that in a minor way by putting in links to some web sources. That's still very clunky, though. You need to go out to the Web to link to them, and then you need to come back. Eventually, though, there will be enough computing power and storage in e-platforms so that an author will be able to embed in books things an author wants the reader to see, do or experience. Nor do those things need to go in chronological order. Want to see the character's back story right now? Go ahead. Want to see it later or never? OK. Want to follow a minor character down a side path? No problem. Don’t care about that character? Go ahead and skip him/her.
Both the novel and non-fiction books await that transition. Who will be the authors of those new works? Most likely the two-year olds who are today sliding their fingers around iPads, or the teenagers with their heads buried in video games.
Books are likely to get shorter, particularly non-fiction books. I've had the experience many times of reading a non-fiction book that was two hundred fifty pages long and thinking, "You know, there was only fifty pages worth of information in that book." I have always assumed that publishers felt they had to encourage authors to make non-fiction books long in order to justify the price of $29.95 or whatever because so much of the price was related to paper, printing, shipping and returns, and a lower price wouldn’t cover those costs. With those costs mostly gone in the e-format, non-fiction books can be shorter but still make a profit at a much lower sales price.
Fiction may get shorter, too, as the short story and the novella enjoy a renaissance. Until the advent of e-books, a single short story or novella was simply not economical to publish. Short stories and novellas had to come in collections. Now, with the price of paper, printing, delivery and returns eliminated, a single short story or novella can easily make a profit at price you’d never see in a print book.
Right now, there are many things connected to books that are not in the books themselves. One example is reviews. While you can see reviews and reader comments in separate "places," be those places physical (paper newspapers) or e-places (Amazon, B&N or Goodreads reader reviews, for example), they are not really integrated into the books themselves, except in minor ways. For example publishers have for many years placed review fragments "on" books -- for example on dust jackets, either on the back cover or on the flyleaves.
There is no reason reviews can't be more fully integrated. Would it be fun to see a favorite reviewer's take on a particular chapter? Maybe. Some people would hate it. Others would like the interaction. Would you like to see what your Uncle Jack or your Aunt Betty thought of the book? That, too, can be accomplished.
Amazon has begun to do those types of things in a limited way with the Kindle. For example, a reader can highlight passages in an e-book and, if the reader wants, permit others readers to see the lines highlighted. These are then gathered up and placed at the bottom of the book's page with an indication of how many people highlighted them.
Interactivity of this nature, with both professional reviewers and readers, is likely to continue.
There are many people who like their (paper) books just as they are. I sense that there are enough of them -- people who love a book in the hand -- that paper books will be around for many years to come. And yet . . . I would expect that paper books, too, are going to change. As only one example, print robots (such as Paige M. Gutenborg) can now print books on demand in bookstores. http://www.harvard.com/clubs_services/books_on_demand/. As another example, thin, flexible electronic "paper" is being developed that can have both print and touch features on the same thin, bendable page. Later versions of these might even be bound into some form of physical book. http://www.engadget.com/2012/03/29/lg-flexible-e-paper-display-launch/
So I think the lament for the book is premature. It will not be left by the side of the road. Whether on paper or in e-form, it is just going to duck into a virtual phone booth, change clothes and emerge reinvigorated and more widely read than ever.
Charles (“Chuck”) Rosenberg is a Harvard-trained lawyer practicing in Los Angeles. He describes his career as either eclectic or unfocused, depending on to whom you talk. He’s been a partner in a large, international law firm and, simultaneously, an adjunct law professor who has taught courses from copyright to criminal procedure. He’s been the credited legal script consultant to TV’s The Paper Chase, L.A Law, The Practice and Boston Legal, a full-time on-air legal analyst for E! Television’s O. J. Simpson criminal and civil trial coverage and a board member of the Taos Film Festival. Death on a High Floor is his first novel.
Website and Blog: http://www.deathonahighfloor.com/
Most recent review (by Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School; originally ran in the Los Angeles Daily Journal): http://llsblog.lls.edu/faculty/2012/04/prof-levenson-reviews-death-on-a-high-floor.html