In 2010, when e-books outsold print books for the first time, culture columnists from the The Atlantic and Slate posted conflicting reactions. Mark Oppenheimer wrote, “Simply put, gadgets give us too much privacy. We’ll go into people’s houses or squeeze next to them on the subway, and we’ll no longer be able to know them, or judge them or love them, or reject them, based on the books they carry.” Elanor Barkhorn, associate editor at The Atlantic responded, pointing out, “after all, in this era of social media we broadcast our cultural preferences habits more loudly than we ever did before.” The popularity of e-books and reading online has sparked discussion in the publishing community over the future of the print book, the importance of book covers, and how we communicate.
The shift from print publishing to online and e-book platforms follows the patterns music and photography have taken in the last decade, from material objects to digital ideas and concepts. Reactions from people working with books range from optimism to ambivalence to staunch rejection. Evon Smith of Smith Family Bookstore says, “I can say with confidence that Smith will never sell e-books. We love books as objects.” On the importance of covers, she says, “We have the adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ but when buying used books we absolutely judge them by the cover.” She says customers who come in the store with a specific title often browse the shelves, and end up with three or four books that catch their eye. In her own reading habits, Smith reads in print almost exclusively, except for checking her email.
Marleda Jones, library assistant at the Eugene Public Library says the e-book industry in still new and in flux, and she sees the format as another platform for delivering content to readers. “I have noticed covers are made more simple for electronic publication, with high contrast images and bigger text size,” Jones says. “Maybe this form of reading expedites the process of transferring information.”
“Much is to be gained by e-books,” says Chip Kidd, long time book designer for Alfred A. Knopf in a TED talk in April, “ease, convenience, portability. But something is definitely lost. Tradition, sensual experience, the comfort of ‘thingy-ness.’ A little bit of humanity.” In his speech, Kidd demonstrates how he created the Jurassic Park logo by copying a diagram of a dinosaur skeleton and distilling it to the now famous side-view head and shoulder silhouette. He says a story needs a face, to give a first impression and to let the reader know what he or she is getting into. Kidd argues the importance of the form of a book, including how it feels, its scent, and its emotional ambiance. “Even though we love publishing as an art, we know it’s a business too,” he says. Kidd’s speech, like his work, is engaging and bit flashy. What about readers who get their books from the library? Or those who are more interested in content than its form, presentation, and how it’s marketed?
A conflict arises between publishers whose motivation is to invent new ways to define and distribute books and readers who want to preserve the quality and value of reading in print. Tim Schaffner, founder of Schaffner Press, writes on Publishing Perspectives, “We must ask ourselves as we hurtle forth into this new age if we are losing not only the intrinsic value of the physical book itself, but the value of readership as a whole.”
There’s a marked difference in tone between the those nostalgic for old-fashioned print and those looking forward to the digital future. The print purists write elegies for dusty hardbacks while the futurists evangelize the values of blogs and open source authorship. Craig Mod is one of the futurists. Mod, a writer and designer, has written about publishing in the digital age on his homepage. He says the digital platform frees the book from its confines as a printed object. He uses Wikipedia as an example of public authoring that, according to him, surpasses the physical encyclopedia in usefulness, quality, timeliness, and convenience. The qualities print loyalists value – permanence, reading in solitude, a printed book’s sort of sacredness – Mod says we should forget. Similar to Wikipedia’s text, which continually changes through updates, Mod says digital books have the flexibility to change over time, through updates from the author, and from notes and comments in the margins from readers.
Looking at opposing views on e-books objectively creates the impression that a battle is going on between print and digital people, but that may be far from the truth. The librarians, booksellers, critics, and designers I talked to or read share a dedication to literature, and while they disagree on the big issues, each one plays an important role in the book culture. Whether the future of publishing is in trouble or if digital can save it, or if we should say “forget it!” and read a book is a matter of perspective.