Physical Book as Fetish Object
Don Share tweeted this excerpt from a longer piece about Andrew Wylie: “We spend 96 percent of our time talking about 4 percent of the business.” Wylie is talking about the current share of the market held by e-books. But it’s the statement which followed which interested me more.
“That 4 percent will climb slowly, and I think it will grow first for frontlist,” he continues. “I suspect that the trashier the book, the more likely it is to be converted to an e-book. You don’t have a desire to save James Patterson in your library. Those who want to keep a book for a long time will buy a physical book.”
This is a bit of a variation on an old (by internet standards) argument, namely that e-books are inferior by their very e-nature to print books. There’s something inherently better, I often read, about the print book, the smell, the feel, the physical act of page turning rather than brushing a finger across a screen. And I have no doubt that these objections to e-readers come from an honest place. But I can’t agree, and I’m going to use a relatively recent group of technology changes as an analogy to illustrate why.
Look at the way we access recorded music today as opposed to 10, 20, 30 years ago. 30 years ago, when I was nearly 12 and first starting to have actual opinions on music, vinyl was the medium of choice for most people. Audiophiles had their reel-to-reel tape players, but a good turntable was a must. Your other options were 8-Track tape; cassettes were just emerging, really, and besides, their sound quality was never their greatest feature. Vinyl was where it was at.
Within five years, CDs were starting to make significant inroads, and the debate was a hot one. Many people swore they’d never give up their vinyl–I was in high school and couldn’t afford to repurchase my vinyl collection in CD format (I couldn’t even afford to buy a CD player for another 7 or 8 years)–and there were major disagreements over the quality of the sound. Vinyl was richer and warmer, the vinyl experience was a fuller one, no one will trade that in for the harsher sound of the CD. They were wrong, in part because the people who weren’t locked into a particular technology, who’d gotten used to the portability of cassettes, and who were looking for more convenient ways to consume their media didn’t have the same emotional connection to the medium their predecessors did. And who buys LP albums now? Collectors and deejays, as far as I can tell–not too many other people.
I see a similar debate over e-books, and I think it’s going to end the same way, with physical books becoming something of a curiosity to most. If I were fifteen years old right now, and just starting to purchase my own books, I wouldn’t be looking at physical books. They’re bulky and they’re inconvenient and they’re fragile, just like vinyl was to me when I was 15. CDs were slimmer, were sturdier, were more portable, and .mp3’s were all that and more.
If I could afford to replace my current book collection with e-books (assuming everything I have was available in e-formats), I’d do it for two major reasons: 1) to free up space and make moving easier and 2) to make it easier to decide what reading to bring with me when I travel. In the long run, convenience and accessibility is going to trump whatever emotional connection I have to the format.
And what’s more, a generation is growing up right now which will never, for the most part, form that emotional connection with the physical object. Kids born in the next five years will, I predict, learn to read on an e-reader of some kind. Paper books will be curiosities to them, a throwback to an earlier age. They will become a sign of retro cool, will provide hipster cred, will move more into the realm of high art. Just as there are music snobs to this day who hold tight to their convictions about the superiority of the vinyl LP listening experience, there will be those who fetishize the paper reading experience, but they’ll be a small part of the population, and fewer publishers will produce work for that market.
And that’s not a bad thing for either group, I’d say. My early reading explorations would have been far different if I’d had access to more than what was available at the Slidell Public Library or the local bookstores. And if you’re a book artist, then making books rarer can help increase your profile, I would think. There are opportunities here for lots of people.