Over the weekend, New York Times reporter Julie Bosman described how book publishers have begun putting extra effort into making their print products more physically and esthetically engaging. Their rationale, says Bosman, is that if “e-books are about ease and expedience,” then print books should “be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning.” The strategy, they hope, will “increase the value of print books and build a healthy, diverse marketplace that includes brick-and-mortar bookstores and is not dominated by Amazon and e-books.”
As a book collector, I’m pleased that books will be more beautiful. As a lover of bookstores, I’m happy for anything that might help preserve them. But as a reader and writer, I’m quite indifferent.
The problem with the strategy is that it won’t, as hoped, “cut into e-book sales” in a significant way. Most readers aren’t antiquarians and don’t value the physical esthetics of the container. They just want the content.
In the same way, unlike book designers, most writers 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. The physical format is not essential.
There are a few books for which the physical medium of print matters in an essential way. House of Leaves, for instance, just wouldn’t be so mind-blowing in a leafless e-book. And is there any effective e-equivalent of a pop-up book? Moreover, could anyone do this with an e-book?
But these instances and their like are minor eddies of activity that briefly pull print defenders upstream before they are hurtled back down, inevitably, towards the fatal digital waterfall.
The effect is simply amplified when it comes to magazines (and turned up to 11 for newspapers). The physical aspects of magazines can be nice indeed, but they are rarely treasured objects. Inveterate collector though I am, I have gradually whittled down even my set of classic Wired issues from several shelves to one shelf—and only the Neal Stephenson issue is safe.
I’m all for more beautiful books, but let’s be realistic. Like taxidermy, printing beautiful books may preserve glorious specimens, but it does nothing to save the species.