Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Art of Books

One of the reasons I'm attracted to games like Bookhounds of London is that I'm a book fiend. I love books; I've been reading for as long as I can remember, and bookshops are my favourite places. Like many another bibliophile, there are certain stores I always go to whenever I get a chance. The Strand or the Argosy in New York, Quinto, Foyles, Henry Pourdes all near Charing Cross in London, or the shop on the Heath in Blackheath (very close to where I used to live); I could find my way to them blindfolded.

It took me a long time to get used to the idea of electronic books. I didn't like the feel or design of the Kindle, and I told myself it was purely an aethetic issue. Truth be told, it was probably more of a grudge than a genuine problem. I could sense which way the wind was blowing, and it didn't favour my old friends the book stores. Even so, I could see some use for them. I enjoy newspapers and magazines that are often difficult to get, for which an electronic subscription would be fantastic. I live in Bermuda now, but still enjoy reading the Guardian, and I also like catching up with the New York Times, which we do get, but usually a day late and only one retailer on the island stocks it. Plus, there are professional magazines that are usually difficult to get even if you happen to be living in the same country they're published in; magazines like Building or Architects' Journal. I'm not nearly as enamoured of the American equivalents. They seem too lightweight, more concerned with design issues than condition or refurbishment, and aren't very good at explaining the details of a project. Often I end an article knowing less than I did when I started, which is something of an achievement I suppose but doesn't really do me any good.

So now I have an iPad, and of course the first thing I loaded on it was a host of .PDF files. All my Trail books are on it, and let me tell you, as one who remembers hauling around all the AD&D manuals, the DMG, Monster Manuals, Dieties and Demigods, Player's Manual, Fiend Folio, Unearthed Arcana, the relevant Class Manuals, Dragon magazines, scenarios and other must-haves for the gaming session in a book bag when I was a teenager, the sheer convenience of having everything at my fingertips in an item that weighs less than a pound and a half is a godsend. For lo, the Heavenly Choir doth sound, and so forth. This is just the hobby stuff, of course. From a professional point of view, I can certainly see the appeal of having, say, all the Approved Documents to hand, as well as the full Building Regs for such arcane topics as energy efficiency. They haven't quite cracked CAD for the iPad, but once they do I can't see a reason for any built environment professional not to have a touch pad on them at all times. If anything, I'm mildly shocked that some clever clogs hasn't already started marketing custom touch pads to the professions.

Yet when I read articles like this one from the Guardian, I wonder whether I'm living in the same world as they. I'm going to focus on a few key statements:

Not since the palmy days of late-Victorian publishing has so much care and attention been lavished on the hardback. Go into any bookshop now and you will find piles of brand-new hardbacks sporting coloured endpapers, scarlet silk bookmarks, heavy, deckle-edged paper and elaborate laminated boards.

The immediate future of the book is clear. E (electronic) is for easy; P (print) is for posterity.

The pleasures of E means downloading the new book we fancy, from reviews, word-of-mouth or plain curiosity. The satisfactions of P come from acquiring lovely print editions for our bookshelves.

Dear Lord, if only it were true.

Yes, I'm slightly prejudiced. I live in Bermuda. I have yet to see this wave of late-Victorian tat yer fella seems to find so appealing. Possibly had I these leatherbound lovelies to hand I might feel differently. However I buy books to read them, not to salivate over, and here is where I part company with the wee man. I don't mind going the full monty on something that I really want to keep forever and ever Amen, but the kind of book described is the sort of delicate creature that can't bear to be touched. It reminds me of nothing so much as those overpriced mint-in-box Star Wars figurines. The whole and the sum of the value of those things is in the mind, not intrinsic. You might wander off to a convention to get the packaging signed by Anthony Daniels, or whomsoever, but you don't crack the thing open to play with it. Shame, really, since that's what the little plastic kitsch was made for. So too with the books. I don't buy one to look at, but to read, and I'm not sure the hypothetical leather fetisher and I are on the same page.

Going further: E is for Easy? Bollocks.

Again, I may be prejudiced, but Easy isn't how I've found things so far. Overcomplicated, yes. I've had the Pad about three weeks, and already I have three different e-readers for the bloody thing. The iBooks app is perfectly fine, that's my go-to. I also have a Kindle app, grudgingly. I hadn't realized I'd need a seperate app for that, but apparently ease of use isn't yet on anyone's agenda. I also have an Adobe e-reader, and here's where things get fun: I have that because I want to buy books, and very few vendors seem inclined to sell them.

Say I want to buy from Blackwells. Hell, never mind saying it: I really really want to buy from them, because they have lots of books I'd find useful, interesting, and often both at once. Importing those would be an incredible hassle. They're already a touch on the expensive side to begin with, and then there's shipping, plus the local vendor's margin; the final price can easily triple RRP. The electronic version would be so much easier to use, cheaper to get hold of, and I'd have it more or less instantly as opposed to waiting a month and a bit. So off I trot to Blackwells, cash in hand, and I get . . . . 'we don't send this to your country.'

Same applies in other areas. Dost thou wish to purchase from Barnes and Noble? Sorry, cholly, no can do. Oh, we do sell some, but not all. Waterstones, perchance, for the latest Brookmyre? Same deal. Oddly the English seem convinced I'm in America while the Americans are equally convinced I'm English. If either one would finally make up their tiny minds I could at least purchase from the other. I can't even download the latest Guardian app, intended to allow people access to the Weekender magazine. Et tu, Grauniad? At least with the book vendors there might possibly be a question of jurisdiction. Presumably they don't want to upset their rivals across the water by being seen to be poaching. I don't see how the same can apply to newspapers. Surely there can't be significant competition issues on that front? Will the New York Times send out the Ninjas if some poor sod in Manhattan dares to look at some dastardly foreign newspaper online?

So I have the Adobe e-reader, because the only bookstore I've found so far willing to sell to whomsoever wheresoever has been, and they seem to prefer it. They're also Australian, which may be why they don't seem as hung up on boundaries as their English or American counterparts. No doubt someone in the eBooks hierarchy got as frustrated as I have been with book delays and delivery problems, and decided that their bookstore wouldn't be hampered by artificial restrictions.

If I could download the book I fancied, that would be great. That is, after all, the main reason I wanted an iPad in the first place. However finding someone willing to sell me the book I fancied has been an uphill struggle. Moreover I can't help but think that many vendors are still romantically attached to print, for reasons I can't entirely fathom.

Take the webcomics lot, for a start, people like Rich Burlew of OOTS fame. I've enjoyed his work for years, and have all the trade paperbacks so far (up to Don't Split the Party), but I'm beginning to notice some flaws. The ink never seems quite right, and was all too easy to smudge when first bought. Now the pages are starting to stick together, and can't be unstuck without doing damage. Probably some of that is down to humidity, it being an island paradise here and all, but I'm not convinced that's all it is. I think the Chinese manufacturers have something to answer for. Plus of course from someone like Rich's point of view producing even one of those books must be a logistical nightmare. Presumably Ookoodook takes some of the weight off his shoulders, but I dread to think what it can have been like before he signed them on, what with dealing directly with the manufacturers, the vendors, overseas shipment dates, keeping track of subscriptions and all the rest of it. That sort of thing is a full-time job in itself. Just contemplating the mountain of detail involved makes it easier to appreciate the Robert Koos of this world.    

Which makes me wonder: why isn't this (and other things like it) in ebook form?

Manufacturing problems, delivery problems, subs issues, all of that backbreaking workload either gone in a puff of logic, or at the very least halved. Moreover it would be much easier for one person to manage, which is perfect for the average webcomic. Much the same trail of logic applies to small magazines like the Unspeakable Oath. I love the Oath, but I can't help noticing that although their stated goal is to publish four times a year, they only managed two issues in 2011, and there's no news (as far as I know) about a 2012 publishing schedule. While I doubt all their problems are tied to publishing in physical format, I'm willing to bet a lot of them are. There's bound to be a piracy concern with electronic media, but even with that threat I really can't see the cost benefit to a small publisher remaining in physical format. The workload alone means you spend three or four times as much effort producing the wretched things as you do creating them, and for a writer/artist like Burlew or amateur publishers like Pagan, I really don't see piracy being enough of an issue to make electronic unfeasable.

I can understand a sentimental attachment to print, believe me. I still favour bookstores over electronic media, and not just because I'm fond of them. Mainly it's because I find them easier to search (my eyes have never needed an internet connection, and I can scan a bookshelf in seconds where flicking through webpages takes forever) and because they still have more of the things I want all in one place. That doesn't mean I'm so blinkered in my outlook as to not have an e-reader, or that I can't appreciate the value of getting product out the door and onto the vendor's electronic shelf. There are going to be times when electronic beats paper. As the century eats away at us all, electronic will be beating paper more and more often.

That means the first vendor who establishes a genuine electronic presence is going to enjoy a bonanza, and by that I don't mean the Amazons of this world. I mean the publishers, the Penguins, the Fabers, the Blackwells, as well as the smaller publishers like Rich Burlew and the guys behind the Oath. So far everyone seems to be dipping their toes in, but I've yet to see anyone take the plunge.

Whenever you do get around to swimming in the deep water, guys, just remember: I'd like to buy from you. Don't lock me out.


  1. I totally agree with you that our man at the Guardian is absolutely wrong. But I think you're also missing my key problem with the ebook revolution: perceived value.

    With a printed book you HAVE SOMETHING, and that counts for a lot. You can lend someone your book, or put it on your shelf and look at it again in six months, or burn it for heat. There are all sorts of things you can do, because you HAVE SOMETHING.

    With ebooks, publishers are hoping to have their cake, and eat it too.

    Firstly, they want prices that are near, or in many cases more, than trade paperbacks. We have to agree right away that this is ridiculous. Most of the ebook success stories are of the 99 cent (or pence) variety, self-published. Which, of course, is about as much as most first-time authors will see from a paperback, anyway.

    Secondly, they want everyone to buy, but no one should own. Try loaning your ebook to a friend. Sure, Amazon will let you do it for a limited time, as will B&N, but both also for a limited number of people. And don't forget, you DON'T OWN the ebook, you are licensed to read it.

    Until we get over these two issues, either because the methodology changes, or consumers cease caring, ebooks are stuck. I know there are a lot of arguments about the cost of production of books not being tied up in printing, etc, etc, but frankly that's bollocks. The logistics alone would send any of us to the poor house.

    If we look at the history of the music industry since the MP3 craze began, there is still plenty of business to be done, even if the industry doesn't want to do it. I do not see why I don't get access to an ebook copy with every printed book I buy. I also don't see why ebooks without printed copies are so expensive.

    I have a Kindle, and it's a great ebook reader. Superb, even. I also have an Android tablet, that I mainly use for reading the Economist. I might pay for a digital subscription, but I will never buy an ebook when I can have a paperback for a similar price. It's that simple, and it's something that the book industry needs to understand and embrace.

    Oh, and as for your lack of legal means to get ebooks? This is exactly why the publishing industry is stupid -- who uses geographical rights to Internet-delivered electronic goods? It's retarded, and drives potential customers to piracy.

    Charlie Stross has a great series of articles on the publishing industry on his blog:

    1. "Who uses geographical rights to Internet-delivered electronic goods?"


      You don't see Paizo or Pelgrane telling me: "No, sorry, you're in Australia." No, they sell it to me. The only reason why I buy e-Books is generally because of the lack of postage costs and the lack of local print options.

      If you're an overseas publisher that doesn't sell print copies here, you're the one I MOST want to buy an e-Book for.