In our modern age, every writer must ask the invariable question: to print, or not to print? More than ever before (which, duh, that’s how technology works), writers feel the push towards the eBook. To easy access, to lower prices (often $0.99 for a novel), to commodity.
The commodification of literature has been around for centuries. The Victorians took it to a whole new level in the mid 19th century, thanks to authors like Charles Dickens and serials. Marx and Engel based many of their writings on such divorces between the material, producer, product, and consumer. Even way back when the first book was printed in English (The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye) on William Caxton’s printing press in the 15th century, books became consumable. Tyndale’s English Bible followed shortly thereafter from Guttenberg giving Christians access to religion in the English language. Give another hundred years or so, and the fledgling printed book grew into a product that nearly every individual had access to in some form, either obtaining money enough to purchase or to rent from the new founded Libraries.
Medieval Age: the time of Gower and Chaucer, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Beowulf, only royalty or the very top echelon of the rich had access to books. Only they could afford the expensive vellum, the hundreds and hundreds of monk hours spent painstakingly copying a book word for word, accompanied by gilt pages of Illuminated text. Books were uncommon. Seven hundred years ago, books weren’t just books, filled with words to read, ponder, and discard. They were pieces of art. Objects asking for interaction. And those that remain, such as the Ellesmere Manuscript and the Book of Kells, are invaluable treasures horded in museums.
2014: ‘publishing’ and ‘printing’ have changed. Technological advances in press machinery allow printers far more room for creative variance. The invention of the digital press (inkjet and laser printers) has made it possible for anyone to print anything they want, whenever they want. Those FedEx print shops are everywhere. Add the internet’s influence for the last 25 years, and that makes for a completely new world of printing and publishing. Where once writers were at the behest of a skilled typographer willing to print their work, or hoping some big publishing house would accept a manuscript from a previously unknown author of no publishing history, writers now have the ability to publish when and how they want. And not just physical text, but PDFs we try to pass off as books. Electronic documents that replace the heft of hundreds of pages, the smell of fresh paper and glue and book cloth; documents that can be passed around like STDs between various electronic devices quicker than it takes to read a few sentences. And people can access these documents whenever and wherever they want. No more hassle with carrying books around, no hurt backs and straining at fonts that are too small. Whatever you want, right in your hand: on your phone, or iPad, or Kindle, or Nook, or laptop, or whatever. You want it? You got it.
Places like CreateSpace, however, try to bridge the gap between this drive away from the printed volume. A print on demand approach. No wasted paper, or ink, or time, or money, or anything really. Rather than print hundreds, or even thousands, of books, a publisher (or author) can simply upload their text to a database, and whoever wishes to purchase it (if any) with one click and a credit card number, can get a book in a week or so. Not only that, make sure you have your PDF/eBook version to go along with it, just in case (again, at no charge). And if no one buys the book, the publisher/author won’t lose any money on unpurchased books. It’s almost a perfect avenue for self-publishers (which is a topic for another post). Without funds to support printing mass quantities of a book, the now destitute writer can bring their work to the masses at no cost (aside from hundreds of hours producing the work itself), while bypassing the time wasted waiting for someone to finally ‘accept’ their work. No more hoping a store will pick up your book if it happens to be published, because now it’s available online, in nearly every country, almost instantly. The consumer can be fed with perfect ease.
So what? you may ask. Where’s the down side?
Let me tell you a brief story.
The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), the world’s largest and most comprehensive dictionary of the English language (around 619,000 entries), got a new Chief Editor last November: Mr. Proffitt. Go read the article if you want more details. In summary, there will not be a printed third edition, which isn’t new news, and was a decision made long before Proffitt took over. There have been two past editions, the first in 1928, the second in 1989. A 20 volume set of everything English. And at a nice price of $995, it’s no easy thing to acquire. It’s why the O.E.D. has been moving to an online database. Yet, even online access to the dictionary will run you a sweet $295/year. If you’re lucky, maybe your library has a subscription. Either way, the O.E.D. will never be printed again, and Proffitt wants to move to a more modern digitized O.E.D, more than what they already have. So here’s the thing: I love the O.E.D. It’s brilliant. It’s beautiful. When I first learned about it in College (which that in itself is a travesty) it blew my mind. It’s the greatest resource, in my opinion, for all things related to the English language and English culture (someday I want to buy one of those 1989 editions). I hope that every language has a dictionary like this. Now to the point. I posted that article on Facebook a few days ago, with the caption: “I know, embrace technology, and the fluidity of language. But still, not sure how I feel.” Here is how the thread went with me and two friends:
F1: What would the point of a 20 volume dictionary be?
Me: Is that a real question?
F2: $$$ and to be an official pompous asshole. Or really, just an asshole.
F1: Yes. You know how I feel about books. I still refuse to get a kindle. But a big ass dictionary? Thats obsolete.
Me: I guess I'm an a-hole and obsolete. I think this dictionary is beautiful, and I would love to have a 20 volume set
Now, I’m not trying to cast my friends in a negative light, or say they’re bad people, because they aren’t. They are brilliant, and have their opinions just as I do. And the thread went a little better from there on out (thanks to the help of another “old soul”). Anyway, I mention this conversation to illustrate the fact that on a whole, we are moving away from the book as an object. An object of learning, of art, of expression, of existing. The book is no longer desired as a means of knowledge, of freedom, of escaping the tyranny of religious dogma controlled by dying old men speaking a dying language; no longer are books the sources of information, true information, because anyone can publish anything they want. And besides, we have the internet now. Books are just paper taking up space and need dusting. They are nuisances, something to avoid at all cost, something that distracts from Tweets and Instagrams and memes and YouTube and the glow of disillusionment (these are generalizations and hyperboles, I know, but you get my point).
The downside is this: there is no touch involved with the internet. That’s its goal: remove the human from our equation of living. Yes, the internet does bring people ‘together’ across vast distances that otherwise would be impossible. And yes, we are able to ‘experience’ the world in a whole new way. But we can’t touch any of it. We don’t really experience anything. Seeing is more than your eyes. We touch to see. We hear and taste and smell, to see. The eBook denounces our other senses, as does the internet (although there are a lot of sounds drifting through webspace). Books, since the beginning of time, have been about touch, smell, and sound (sometimes taste, just ask The Chubbs about her books). Books create a physical experience, both in reading and creation. We interact with books when we read, as do those who write them and bind them. Even when the few books that are still printed are mass printed by machines, removing most of the human element, at some point someone touched the paper, or the ink, or the machines, or at the very least touched the book when it was placed on a shelf in a book store somewhere. People perused that shelf, picked up that book, thumbed through it, and put it back. Or it was purchased.
That connects people.
Art is intended to bring humans together to help understand and explain our world, or parts of it (my personal definition), but the intangible eBook removes humans from the process. There is no sharing of anything. Nothing real. No touch. Or smell. Or sound or taste. Some may say, “It’s the same story either way,” but it’s not. It can’t be.
This move away from the book terrifies me. What have I gotten myself into?
I want to write. And I do. But I also want to publish. Books. Physical books. Objects of material. Corporeal creatures that change depending on how you hold them, how you look at them, what paper they are printed on, whether you tear pages out and burn them or not (don’t do that). But does this new ease of publishing, the expected and demanded access to everything we want whenever and wherever we want it, does it nullify the need for the book? For publishing in general? Does the eBook abolish the historical and modern significance of the typeset text? What point is there in crafting words into sentences, images, feelings, experiences, complexities that even sometimes the writer does not understand? What point to creating when there is no concrete, tactile evidence that your creation exists? only megabits floating somewhere in the innerwebs, entombed in distance servers, alluding to a reality? I don’t have the answer, nor am I looking for one.
I know what I want, and how I feel about books. I love them. They are precious to me. I don’t want to see them disappear, but I fear that they are. And there is nothing I can do about it. No matter how much I fight it, how much I try to remain rooted in my beliefs about the substantial existence of ‘things’, I can’t stop the change. I can write. Hopefully if I publish books, whether through a press or by myself, people will buy them. But it won’t last. Soon, I won’t be able to make a book out of paper and ink, and be able to sell it to, because it doesn’t fit the proper commodity specifications.
And when that happens . . . I don’t know.