One of the things that I find gets more difficult year after year—and I can’t tell if this is more because I’m getting older, or because I’m letting myself be pelted with information faster and harder than ever before, or because I don’t write as regularly as I used to—is synthesizing ideas. I spend hours each day gathering information, and some days it seems like for every page I read on the Web, I open or bookmark two more to read later. Yet when an occasion arises for me to state what I think about what I’ve read, I most often end up blurting out whatever my gut tells me, rather than what’s the result of deliberate analysis and consideration—because who has time to ruminate? I’ve heard the rumor, of course, that our guts know more than we think they do, but as I haven’t yet had time to read up on the subject, I can’t say to what extent or in what circumstances that’s true. My gut is whispering to me, however, that my gut is often misguided or misinformed.
For at least the last few months, as I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do (a) for my master’s thesis and (b) to pay back my student loans after I finish the damn thing, I’ve been trying to absorb as much information as possible about e-books, e-readers, and the future of the book in general. I’ve read articles, essays, and tweets; listened to podcasts, panels, and lectures; watched videos and (sorry to have to use this word:) webinars; and talked with a lot of people. I’ve done a lot of talking at people, too, pushing and no doubt breaking the limits of courtesy with dozens of unfortunate friends, acquaintances, and strangers as I try to articulate what my gut tells me about all this partially digested input. And I’ve written about a few small things, trying to finely chew at least some corners of the subject.
Just in the last week, thanks to the Digital Book World conference and Apple’s iPad announcement, I’ve skimmed, read, watched, heard, or bookmarked thousands of chunks of content—most of them tweets, since I wasn’t present at either event but followed along through hashtags and Twitter lists—having to do with books in the digital era.
And what do I think about all of it?
I don’t know.
Well, not true. I do know that I think a few things, some of which are, in no particular order,
The iPad 1.0 is not for me. But it might be for my mom.
I’m disappointed in the iPad’s e-reader application, as it was demoed in Wednesday’s presentation. I hope that what actually ships this spring handles H&Js better.
There is an unfortunate trend among e-book software developers to go way, way kitschward in making their apps looks like conventional books while apparently overlooking what’s useful to readers in the way paper books are designed and built. How about fewer irritating page-turn animations and better typography, please? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, maybe you should hire me.
I really need to try putting some ePub documents together and testing them on different applications and devices, like I’ve been meaning to do for months.
E-book DRM is not working and mostly just inconveniences all the wrong people.
There is, thank god, a community of people in publishing who do not have their heads up their asses, and they are becoming increasingly vocal and creating organizations that do new things.
Books are not going away, neither in their paper manifestations nor in their common conceptual forms. For one thing, there are too many old books lying around, and they’re surprisingly durable, and people delight in seeing their information captured on crispy, crunchy paper. For another, people value the kinds of extended, linear stories that our current types of books tell, in what have proven to be format-independent ways (audiobooks, anyone? serialized novels? Homer?).
There probably won’t be as many full-time, paying jobs for text designers and typesetters five years from now as there are now. Sorry. But the skills and mental, uh, quirks that make us good at those tasks make us good at plenty of other stuff, too. So if you want to still have a text-design job, you people who’ve been doing the X-Acto-and–wax–style layouts using digital tools for the last twenty years? Y’all need to retrain. Seriously. That nasty habit which you heard me muttering was going to bite you in the ass is now, officially, biting you in the ass.
I’m going to be crash-coursing myself through some of this stuff, as well, so I’ll try to post resources as I find them. In the meantime, you could start by following whatever links show up under the #ePrdctn hashtag on Twitter. This tag was devised by Lindsey Martin to flag “best practices” posts about the production of ePub documents. If you don’t know what the hell a hashtag is, step away from Facebook for five minutes and read HOW TO: Get the Most Out of Twitter #Hashtags or The Twitter Hash Tag: What Is It and How Do You Use It?
The dearth of graphic and interactive elements in most books is a feature, not a bug. Video and pictures can be wonderful, but their many uses do not eclipse those of plain text. Readers <3 text.
Some readers of e-books insist on reflective e-ink–type screens, while others prefer backlit LCD-type screens. Some don’t want screens smaller than a mass-market paperback page, while others don’t want to carry devices larger than a cell phone. And some readers will go sledding in hell before defiling their eyes with any electronic book, and they will carry their dogeared paperbacks with them to the grave. Surprise! There’s no right way to read. Get over it and use that time you would have spent arguing with each other to discuss instead what texts you think are worth reading. We could all use better filters to help us pick the signals out of the noise.
I wrote this post in the middle of the night and then slept in, through the first hours of the Amazon/Macmillan shitstorm. Having read the first few hundred comments on the Times story, a fistful of tweets, and a couple of blog posts, I can confidently say that I have no idea how this will shake out.
My queasy gut tells me that Macmillan can’t afford to play this game of chicken. It makes my heart hurt, because I worked in production at what is now Macmillan (then Holtzbrinck), and I know how thin the so-called margins are in book publishing to begin with, and I can very clearly see why many (all?) publishers want Amazon to stop selling their e-books below cost. At the same time, I can also see why nearly every commenter (or the first five pages’ worth, anyway) on the New York Times story is saying, “Suck it, Macmillan! E-books already cost too much, even at $9.99!” The biggest reason is DRM, duh, but another one is sloppy shit like this. And one of the reasons sloppy shit like that happens is that those publishers who can afford it are producing books the traditional X-Acto–and–wax way and then outsourcing their e-book production to other companies, which probably automate the conversion process, and then they’re not practicing any kind of QA on what comes back, because nobody gives a shit, because the people who make the decisions don’t read e-books.
Contrary to what 99 percent of NYTimes.com’s commenters apparently believe, it does not cost nothing to produce e-books; but it almost certainly costs more than it should. No matter what is the immediate outcome of this particular tug-of-war, I think the bottom line is that both e- and print book production costs have to come down, and quality of the books, license terms, and UX has to go up, so that readers feel like they’re getting a fair return for their money.
All of which comes back to my rant about X-Acto and wax, above: garbage in, garbage out, and design/layout/typesetting people who can’t learn to work clean, with semantically marked-up files that can quickly be translated into multiple formats, are going to find themselves fighting over scraps in the wedding invitation design market if they’re not careful. Of course, that market may boom in the U.S., once same-sex marriage is finally admitted to be constitutional, but you might not want to stake your whole career on the expansion of that niche, while bating your breath.
As Bridget Warren of the late, great Vertigo Books said in the Digital Book World roundtable of a few weeks ago, “Lifelong learning [is] what we all signed up for when we joined the book world.” God knows you didn’t choose to work in publishing for the money. So if you still have that spark of curiosity and are interested in learning new things, yesterday is probably a good time to start cramming.
Sorry. I think I’m done now.
How about you? What does your gut tell you about all this?