The pixel and the book
Books will never die; but soon we’ll be printing them at homeBy John Ryle • 6 April 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised with afterword • Posted 2016 • 1,270 words
I was in the bookshop down the road (how much longer will we still have one?) talking to Simon Burt, a critically well-received but under-read and under-rewarded novelist, about the sale of Random House to the German giant Bertelsmann, and the current trend in the publishing industry towards takeovers by bigger and bigger multinational companies. What, I wondered, did Simon think this augured for the future of the printed word?
From his point-of-view it’s not good news. And he says everyone he knows is of the same view—except publishers themselves. Big is bad. And bigger is worse. The bigger the publisher the more resources are liable to be poured into a few promotable titles. And these days, in the area of literary publishing, the word “promotable” tends to mean something bordering on the meretricious. It means already famous, or young, or new, or sensational, or visibly innovative, or prize-winning. Although there are more and more books published, their shelf life is shorter and shorter, so promotion is all-important. Books tend more and more to the condition of journalism, says Simon. There is less and less space for the slow-building reputation, for the long gestation of serious writing.
Book shop or computer store?
Admirer though I am of Simon’s writing—and sympathetic to his situation—I find I can’t get too exercised about this. The current perturbations in book publishing are eclipsed by wider changes in the distribution of information, changes we are all aware of but are struggling to come to grips with. And my feeling is that Simon and other writers need to look to new media and new ways of publishing. And I suspect that Elgin Books, the shop where Simon has been working during this season of slack royalties—will have to do so too if it wants to stay in business.
For me, the question is whether I, who visit this shop a fair bit, will be spending my money there in future. The choice will soon be whether to shop here, or at the computer store. For the price of a few paperbacks I can now buy the entire corpus of ancient Greek literature on disk—in Greek and in translation. Or the complete works of Shakespeare, Marx and Engels, Jane Austen and more besides. And a good deal of this I can also download for nothing.
Of course it’s no fun reading a novel on a computer, even with a million pixels to play with. Digitised reference books are easier to consult on screen. They are cheaper and more compact. But a text that you want to read sequentially sits more happily in your hand. And I suspect this will still be true even when electronic books come on the market—the size of real books, with screens that look like a printed page—a day that can’t be far off.
So this is not a death-of-the-book rap. Books will never die. Books will kill us first. It’s rather a question of how and where the book is printed. Look at the average paperback, with its average print and worse-than-average paper. Now look at the print-out from a standard laser printer, maybe one you already have in your house. In terms of quality they are neck-and-neck these days. Examine the spine of your paperback, the layer of glue that is—laughably—called a perfect binding. It surely won’t be long before you can get a machine to do that in the privacy of your own home. It may a bit longer before you can print the gorgeous textured jackets that publishers use to compensate for the execrable paper they print the actual text on. But home-printed books could look like classic French paperbacks, with plain typography on the front and slightly uneven pages within. That would be good enough for me.
Print-to-order, print at home
And sooner than that, before the printed book becomes something you can make at home, there will be places on the high street where you can go and have one made to order. I give it a couple of years. Before the end of the century. In record shops now you can get a music CD burned to your specification in-store, with tracks downloaded from some great rock & roll server in the sky. Or you can do it yourself at home, with a CD recorder and a computer. Text files contain less information, in the technical sense, than audio files do. In the future, say by 2010 or so, you will be able to choose whether you take what you want to read home as a ready-made book or as a text file on a CD, to be printed out later.
When that day comes, and when web publishing is integrated with book production, there will be no such thing as out-of-print. The cost of keeping the text of a book available for downloading and printing will be negligible. Small publishers will thrive. All this sounds good to me. And I think we will still want to browse, not just on the internet, but on the shelves where ready-printed books will still be sitting. We will do both. The question is whether bookshops, the kind we like, will be agile enough to become small-scale printing presses also, printing books to order if they don’t have them physically in stock, combining the two roles of recycling knowledge and publishing on demand.
The problem with publishing anything is not production but distribution. And the internet is a vast and wondrous distribution system. If Simon were inclined to master the necessary skills he could publish his next book himself online. Or I could set up as a web-publisher and publish it for him. By that time, I am sure, if you, the reader, wanted to read it as an old-fashioned book you would be able to download it and print it out and bind it at home. Or at least have it printed at any shop that had the facilities. And then we could forget Bertelsmann and Random House and the rise and fall of publishing empires and concentrate our minds on the matter to hand, the real thing, the pleasure of the text. ✭
The first in-shop book printing system, inauspiciously called Sprout, appeared on the market in the United States at the end of 1999. Borders, the bookstore chain, announced that it would be offering books-to-order in fifteen minutes using the Sprout system. But the timing was poor and take-up was minimal; Sprout was nipped in the bud. At the dawn of the new Millennium we were still waiting. In 2000 the distinguished American publisher Jason Epstein predicted the coming of instant publishing within the decade. Surely something would come along soon.
It did. And it was called Amazon. The huge growth of print-on-demand publishing did not take place in-store, nor at home. It took place in Amazon’s vast, distributed print shop. The growth of small-scale publishers from about 2010 onwards has been to a significant extent dependent on Amazon’s printing and distribution system. And Amazon has taken over the online used book market too, drawing book dealers into its lair in return for exposure to the market. The internet has brought benefits to niche publishers, but it has brought ongoing problems with regard to intellectual property rights. Amazon’s emerging monopoly is creating difficulties for publishers and authors alike. The upshot is that it has become easier to get published, after a fashion, and easier for some authors to make a living from sales of books, but harder for many others.