December 8, 2008

News & Opinion: The Debate

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 3:15 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

James Gleick penned a thoughtful article on publishing for last Sunday's Op-Ed in The New York Times. I believe the entire premise of the article is summed up in one sentence:
Publishers may or may not figure out how to make money again (it was never a good way to get rich), but their product has a chance for new life: as a physical object, and as an idea, and as a set of literary forms.
Or... maybe this one.
What should an old-fashioned book publisher do with this gift? Forget about cost-cutting and the mass market. Don't aim for instant blockbuster successes. You won't win on quick distribution, and you won't win on price. Cyberspace has that covered.
GOOD Magazine's blog picked up on the theme and ran with it, pointing out publishing success stories like McSweeneys that put considerable effort into design. (Hat tip to The Book Design Blog). It was a feel-good week for the idea of the book as a thing of beauty and viable market product. Then Clay Shirky came along and tore it all apart in a guestblog post on Boing Boing. He wrote of Gleick's article:
Every now and again, there is an essay that is so well written, so cleanly expressed, and so spectacularly wrong that it clarifies something you previously understood only dimly.
Ouch. So, what dimly understood thesis was it that Gleick clarified to Mr. Shirky? Writes Shirky:
There are book lovers, yes, but there are also readers, a much larger group. By Gleick's logic, all of us who are just readers, everyone who buys paperbacks or trades books after we've read them, everyone who prints PDFs or owns a Kindle, falls out of his imagined future market. Publishers should forsake mere readers, and become purveyors of Commemorative Text Objects. It's the Franklin Mint business model, now with 1000% more words!
I have to admit that, as a book lover, Gleick's article had me hook, line, and sinker, even if I sensed something missing from the argument. And, to be fair, I think there is a more nuanced tone and idea in his column than Shirky gives him credit for. But he does ultimately come to the conclusion that Shirky rightly nails him on. This is where I want to get back to the GOOD post. It's not a reply to Shirky's post, but it addresses specifically one of his points. What about "everyone who buys paperbacks or trades books after [they've] read them?" Indeed... GOOD addresses those folks:
Regular old $15 paperbacks can be nicely done, as well. All you need is to invest in nice paper, solid bindings, and an artful cover... Enter Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions.
Seriously, click on that Penguin Classics link. They're gorgeous books, and they're cheap (costing) books. Personally, I like them as works of art alone. (I even have a poster of the the Candide cover done by Chris Ware on my wall.) This debate isn't going away, and I schizophrenically seem to agree with all sides at different times. I loved Gleick's article, which seemed to cede many points to the publishing industry fatalist while presenting a possible solution, yet knew Shirky was right on the matter the minute I started reading his post. Emotionally, I think I agree with Anne Trubeck at GOOD the most, though:
The arguments for how lovely it is to lie in bed fondling books (as opposed to reading screens) are tired and silly. But that opinion is bolstered if you lie in bed stroking nice paper and looking at a pretty cover. Those design elements are what distinguish books from other forms of information storage.
But, intellectually, I know the key aspect of information storage is that it contain useful information. Physical books, lovely as they are, aren't always the best or most efficient distribution system for ideas, and not every reader is going to buy books in the future. Shirky is right about that, and book publishers know that. Gleick and company are on to something though. The books that are put in print should be produced thoughtfully, with attention to design and detail. Information storage can still be sexy.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.