Out with the old, in with the new, sort of….


The writer, Jim Crace, said in an interview: ‘Everything new worth having is paid for by the loss of something old worth keeping.’ – He was talking about the internet replacing face-to-face content and letter writing, but could we apply the same thought to ebooks and digitalization replacing the printed book. In the wave of excitement of all things electronic, have we forgotten the printed book’s importance?


The Friday Project announced an exciting project this week, proving that the printed book can coexist and in fact add a new dimension to other media.  The musician Kristin Hersh will publish a unique music/book collaboration with The Friday Project in June 2010. Crooked, the book, will contain full colour artwork, lyrics and an exclusive essay by Kristin about each song on the album. It will also feature the opening chapters of her forthcoming memoir, Paradoxical Undressing each copy will come with a digital code which will ‘unlock a treasure trove of online content’ including Kristin’s new album. And I’m cheering them on fully. They are taking books forward – using the printed form to create something beautiful.


I’ve talked about the importance of covers in the age of digitalization but the printed book production contains so many elements that need to be worked at. The blurb, the quotes, the text, the paper – do we want recycled paper? Do we want the paper to feel good (I’ve always loved American hardback books with their rough cut pages). Can we please have books that feel special – that make us want to buy them instead of use sterile ebook readers. Nonfiction is great on screen – we want to dip our toes in, wiggle them all around, and come in and out as we please, but novels are different. For a novel, we want – and need – the pleasure of the printed book.


Craig Mod recently wrote a brilliant blog on the future of the printed book in the age of the iPad. He separates books into those with Formless Content (so where it doesn’t matter how the content is produced) and Definite Content (where the content and form are integral). He says: the “key difference between Formless and Definite Content is the interaction between the content and the page. Formless Content doesn’t see the page or its boundaries. Whereas Definite Content is not only aware of the page, but embraces it. It edits, shifts and resizes itself to fit the page. In a sense, Definite Content approaches the page as a canvas — something with dimensions and limitations — and leverages these attributes to both elevate the object and the content to a more complete whole.” So instead of doing a ‘blanket’ wave of turning all printed books into ebooks, should we instead make more measured decisions – what forms would best suit which books? And in the same way, should the authors of those books which best suit the printed page so say literary novelists fight harder to retain ebook rights?


What about the demise of chains and possibly the rise of the come-back kid, the independent bookshops (although I read this morning of yet another independent closing down)? Personally, I love the idea of buying a special book in a special bookshop and then shopping in bulk for others online. Book shops are churches for some of us – the hush, the smell, and the likeminded people – all so very good – so booksellers need to pull up their socks and create an experience that competes with the speed and abundance of Amazon (and I’m not addressing all the wonderful independents out there that are already brilliant at what they do). Foyles have done an about turn and are charging full price for their books – their reasoning? That to do otherwise would cheapen the commodity and mean they would have to compromise on service and displays. And guess what, they are not losing money. The big tables at Waterstones offering 3 for 2 have lost their appeal for me – I actually avoided those tables at Waterstones Piccadilly yesterday – for me mass-appeal equals no appeal.


What about publishers? Apparently, Canongate recently didn’t give Dizzee Rascal an advance; instead they have offered great back end royalties and are publishing the Dizzee Rascal Story as a co publishing venture with Dizzee’s recently formed, publishing arm of his empire. It’s a perfect model – if the books don’t sell, the writer doesn’t make anything, but on the other hand, if the books sell, oddles of money. Compare this to the huge advances that other publishers have been giving to celebrities over the years and I think Canongate have come up with something rather good. Canongate will publish the book with lots of digital goodies and online treats.


Of course, Will at Macmillan New Writing, has been following this kind of model for rather a while and in doing so, has published some very successful first time novelists. Hey, this is a thought, can’t all publishers have a list for first time novelists – low or no advances but good royalties. Writers are far more involved in PR and marketing now, so they will work even harder to sell copies. They get the cred of getting a publisher, the publisher doesn’t have to outlay money upfront. Why aren’t all publishers doing this? Why are they turning away great and more importantly NEW talent?


To Hell With Publishing publishes new talent – they encourage unsolicited manuscripts (authors without agents) and also publish lovely limited edition books. So they are ticking two boxes – making books special and publishing first time authors. They even have a prize for the best unpublished first time author.


So out with the old, in with the new? Not entirely, it seems, the importance of the printed book is still vital in the age of digitalization, publishers are still championing new writers, and booksellers are still evolving the book buying experience. There is a need – as in all businesses – to adapt and use the bits of the old that work and mix them with the bits of the new that succeed. But as DK stated this week, it’s not the death of publishing and I would argue it’s merely the beginning of a new era.

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