Will Self-Publishing Save Print?

Last month in this blog, I made a statement that at the time seemed obvious, but now seems rash. “Most writers,” I wrote in declaring that print is effectively dead, “don’t care in a meaningful way about the physical presence of a book. They just want to tell a story, or convey information, or to create works of art out of their words.”

Since then, I’ve had cause to rethink my position. Print, it seems, isn’t dead, but just retired. Though diminished, it still has vital roles to play—especially for writers.

This realization came to me last week as I attempted to lean back and survey my achievement, such as it was, in publishing my first e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. The leaning back was satisfactory; the surveying less so.

As a vehicle for conveying information, the e-book is superb. But as a device for signifying to yourself or others that you’ve written a book, it is dismally disappointing. The physical heft of a book that is an outmoded and inefficient drawback for traditional publishers and booksellers is, for authors, one of its most precious traits. Just try weighing an e-book appreciatively in your outstretched hand. It can’t be done.

That’s one reason why I spent many hours this weekend formatting my e-book for print-on-demand via CreateSpace (more on that experience later). Until I have a volume, however slim, that I can put on a bookshelf, I won’t feel that I’ve truly published it.

That’s why I suspect self-publishing may end up sparking a modest renaissance in printed books. In terms of units the quantity of printed books will grow ever smaller. But the number of printed titles may well explode as self-publishing grows. No matter what their motives for publishing, most book authors will want at least one printed, bound copy.

Though I plan to put the print version of the Survival Guide up for sale, I don’t expect to sell many copies. For most readers, the electronic version is ideal (ahem: why not buy a copy and find out for yourself?).

But for most authors, I now see, e-books lack one thing that only a paper book can provide: tangibility. A small thing, to be sure. But like print, it still matters.

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