Saturday, July 28, 2012

A book is a book is a book... right?

Most creative amateurs who strive to make something, agree that the way to improve is to learn from professionals. I say most because there are a significant few who have the idea that they have some mutant creative power whereby they know better than the people who have invested a significant portion of their lives to learning their craft, in most cases take pride in their achievements and do it so well that people will pay them to do it.

When it comes to publishing, I am strictly Little League! Certainly I try my best to present an author's work in its best light and I have some specific ideas and guidelines that this work allows me to experiment with, but I am a realist: the fast-track to success lies in learning from the experience of those who have 'been there and done that'.

Luckily a thriving community has grown up around the concept of self-publishing, the idea that authors can publish their own books. I've mentioned before the Self-Publishing Yahoogroup, which is a prolific and supportive group of authors and small publishers, but arguably the most helpful and authoritative website would have to be Joel Friedlander's, The Book Designer. With information ranging from obscure but important technical details to general commentaries on aesthetics, Joel shows a depth and breadth of knowledge in his field that makes his website required reading for anyone interested in the subject.

One of the recurring themes that Joel puts forward is that eBooks as they stand are a danger to hard-copy books, that they are the Death of Book Design and "Do Violence to the Concept of a Book"...

Whilst Joel is not a one-eyed hater of eBooks, a lot of this is tongue-in-cheek and he has in fact got a substantial section on creating eBooks in his 'Start Here' section, his professional career revolves around creating beautiful books and he recognises that this is something that eBooks are not set up to allow. I believe I see Joel's point and if I may paraphrase, I see it as a case of the same content being distributed by different media - eBooks and hard-copy books. How, you might ask, can they be different media? They both convey the written word of exactly the same text, and that is precisely the point: they convey the same content but as an entirely different experience.
Let me give you an example.
The last hard copy book I bought was "El Borak and Other Desert Adventures", a collection of some of Robert Ervin Howard's pulp adventures set in the Far East illustrated with copious internal black & white artworks by Tim Bradstreet and Tim & Ruth Keegan. However I live in Australia where pretty much all of these stories are now in the public domain, so I could have downloaded them all from Project Gutenberg Australia as either txt files or html - so why did I buy this book?
Well, besides the glaring editing errors? Whoever had submitted "The Daughter of Erlik Khan" to Project Gutenberg had failed to note that the opening section was probably a promotional text from the flyleaf and that the closing chapter, "chapter 11" was in fact the opening section of another story, "Swords of the Hills" - probably more promotional text from the inside back cover! Could it be the superlative artwork? The quality construction of the trade paperback? The collector's passion of owning the stories that I loved? The nostalgia factor of holding in my hands lost hours from my youth?

I bought an experience. I gained a possession, something that has an intrinsic meaning for me. Books are more than just the content, the words which the author has strung together so skilfully. They are an artifact, crafted by book designers, to enhance your reading experience and, yes, design does matter!

So why, if we are to believe Joel, are eBooks such an antithesis to good book design? In their current form, nearly all the individual factors that the designer utilises to make them individual are now arbitrary, at the whim of the reader or severely limited in choice. The font, its size, the page size and orientation - they can all be changed by the reader or are dictated by the eReader. This in turn affects the page  numbering, the flow of the text, where page breaks occur, the position of illustrations and the amount of white space at chapter ends.

Joel is arguing semantics of what a book is and I can see his point of view, that an eBook is only slightly closer related to a hard copy book than it is to an audio book, that it's medium is the electronic file and not the printed word.

But is this the end of the story? Two choices? Hard-copy or eBook? I don't believe so. 

Because TrekUnited Publishing publish fan fiction I will almost certainly never see anything printed in hard-copy under our imprint . We've published ePubs and Mobis in the past, courtesy of Richard Merk's help, and I intend working on more in the near future, but...

[Cue suspenseful Star Wars music] There is another!

[Fade to black. Roll credits.] To Be Continued!

The Crossroads

The printing and publishing industry stands at a crossroads at the time of writing.

Major book retailing chains in Australia and the United States, are trying desperately to “trade out” of what could amount to receivership. Many blame the changing face of publishing brought about by the computer age and the internet in particular and there can be no doubt that the public's buying habits have changed dramatically.

Our lives as readers have changed. Whereas in the past I would spend my afternoons ensconced in the local library or buying comics from my local newsagent, now I am more likely to find my reading material online. In the not-so-distant past my only option for buying books would be a bookshop, either the small local shop or one of the specialist stores in the city. Today, the physical limitations of getting my reading material have all but disappeared. Book not available locally or in Australia? Out of print? With the click of a few buttons I can search for and buy a far wider range of books, in most cases at a more competitive price as well.

I love books and reading. My house and every available storage space in it is filled with hardbacks and paperbacks ranging from a family heirloom, Sunday School prize of my mother-in-law's to a new hardback best-seller I bought for my birthday.

I have a lot of sympathy for the printing industry and I feel that they are the victim of being dependent on the publishers who are now abandoning them in favour of new manufacturing and distribution practices. Authors need to think outside the square and avail themselves of the myriad of options that are open to them. Publishers are no longer the omnipotent Gods of the publishing pantheon! The tyranny of scale that made them the sole providers of mass produced books for the common folk have been broken by new technologies and business models.

On the one hand we have seen them all but replaced by the new leviathans of online commerce – Amazon and Barns & Noble. Shopping from home, I can browse a catalogue that not only holds the latest best-sellers but the obscure titles of an author's back-list. I can order a copy in any format it has been released in: hardback, paperback, audiobook, video or graphic novel. I have to wait for it to be mailed out to me and freight is an added expense but if price is an issue I can often get second hand copies at ridiculously low prices.

This is the mass-marketing approach that is the equivalent of the 'convenience food' outlet, but when a Macdonald's moved into your town, did all the restaurants go out of business? No, they survived by focusing on the niche market, those who wanted an intimate, personal service.

I believe we will see the rise of specialist or "boutique" printers in the same way that small breweries, bakeries, and wineries have found that they can prosper by providing a quality, exclusive product rather than competing with the multinationals for the bulk, mass market.