Saturday, February 11, 2012

In defense of print books

I defended ebooks. Now I'll defend what probably doesn't need much defending...yet. Regardless, I'm going to whip out my list of complaints and rant like Andy Rooney calling IT support.

1. Value

When you buy a print book, you buy a thing that actually exists. It has value. Without electricity, it is still there. In the motion picture 2012 starring John Cusack, when the world ended there was apparently only one book left or something, and it was a print book. And it was written by John Cusack.

Print books are covered by the right of first sale. Once you buy it, you can do anything you want with it (other than copy it and distribute those copies). You can give it away. You can sell it for $1. You can sell it for $1,000,000. You can wear it as a hat. You can tear out its pages and line a litter box. You can buy it for a public library and an unlimited number of people can check it out and read it. Unless they read it with cheeto fingers, and then you have to buy a replacement copy. But you can buy that copy used, thanks to the right of first sale.

That giant book you see above is a copy of Audubon's Birds of America, and it's one of the most expensive books in the world. In 2000 it sold for $11.5 million.

2. Bookstores

There's no crying in baseball, and there are no ebooks in bookstores.

Once upon a time there existed places where you could browse for real life things, and then buy them in real life. CUH-RAZY I know. Sure the clerks were a bit snooty; particularly when you bought anything where the author's name was in larger font than the title. But then you climbed up one of those rolling ladders, glided along like Belle (holding back the urge to burst into song), and found a rare hardback copy of The Mouse and His Child that you loved as a kid, and you squeal a little bit (and not because it's about mice).

My favorite bookstore, Ram's Head Books, is closing. After 48 years. Now there are zero independent bookstores selling new books within 50 miles of Roanoke. They had an incredible collection, and I never, not once, went inside without buying something. Sorry if I'm a bit sore over it.

A few ideas on how this can stop happening:

Indie bookstores can survive. But they'll have to change tactics. Practically every book that has ever been printed is available for purchase online. And chances are it's cheap. If you try to stock every title imaginable, you will fail. If you stock only bestsellers, you will fail. If a reader knows what they want, they can (and will) buy it online, or at Barnes and Noble. Instead, stock what they didn't know they wanted. Make walking into your store an experience of awe and surprise. Only stock the good stuff. Stock good authors -- people you've read. You know that "other customers bought" thing on Amazon? Emulate that. Also, it couldn't hurt to just make sure your store is attractive. Take some pointers from the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world.

Bookstores aren't libraries and they shouldn't try to be. Book spines aren't interesting -- book covers are everything. Your customers are there to buy a physical object; so give them one! Buy gorgeous books: hardcovers with thick paper and slipcases. Autographed rare prints that weigh 20lbs. Coffee table books about coffee tables.

Take my most recent print book purchase, Matt Kish's Moby-Dick in Pictures. It's absolutely gorgeous. A book to own, no doubt. 552 original illustrations for all 552 pages of Moby Dick. You could buy it as an ebook. But I'm not sure why you would. Seems kind of greedy. This is a book you want to share with people. You want people to come in to your apartment, see it, and exclaim "wow, that is such a cool idea!" and then spend the next 45 minutes leafing through it. Then you're both late to go see The Descendants, but that's okay, because it turned out to be overrated anyway.

3. vintage is a thing right

analog is totally making a comeback. we can be hipster together and listen to some LPs while reading kerouac in paperback. i'll take some polaroids and we can pay for things at urban outfitters with pennies. this was purposely written in helvetica.

4. Turn on a dime

Now I'm going to pretend like I know what the hell I'm talking about.

Lets talk about ebook publishers and distributors. When they sell you an ebook, is it really yours? How easy would it be for them to take it back? Or decide not to sell it to you in the first place?

Back in 2008, Amazon ruffled some feathers when they deleted copies of Orwell's 1984  and Animal Farm from customers' Kindles. Of all the books to delete. The copies were illegal because they were sold from an unauthorized publisher. So it wasn't some sort of Orwellian censorship of....Orwell. But what bothered people was the realization that Amazon could (and would) take away things you thought you owned. And they didn't have to break into your house to do it.

In Fahrenheit 451, teams of firemen had to locate, invade, and incinerate entire houses filled with illegal books. In the age of ebooks, it takes one button. Imagine George Jetson sitting at his job, pushing one button over and over. His finger slips, he hits the wrong button. Poof, the entire canon of Western literature is erased. George Jetson shrugs and goes for a jog on his outdoor treadmill.

And the money? Publishing is a business after all. The dime is the bottom line. And what's a better way of making money than selling someone a book they don't have to pay to print, the customer has to buy an expensive device in order to read (which constantly outdates itself and has to be replaced, and oh looka there, is manufactured by the same distributor who sold the book), isn't covered by first sale, can't be shared, sold, or transferred, and after all that, still charge the same price for it as a print book?

That's not a dime. That's a billion dollars.

But a billion isn't nearly enough, says Penguin, who recently withdrew their titles from Overdrive, a popular ebook platform for public libraries. Why? Because they're afraid it would ultimately affect their sales. Access to ebooks, they claim, is too easy for patrons. They're actually reading the literature we publish! For free! The horror! What is this, a publicly sponsored program to promote literacy, education, and information regardless of an individual's background or income? Sounds like socialism to me. We'll take our ebooks over here, thank you very much.

Funny thing about print books -- you can't pick and choose who you sell them to.Or suddenly change your mind and take them back.

My issue with ebooks is entirely over the ownership thing. You won't find me over in the corner stroking paperbacks and mumbling conspiracy theories about the FBI on the internet or anything. What I'm saying is when you buy an ebook you end up paying for the experience of reading it. Which is totally fine and wonderful and I do it too. But that experience, and not the ownership, should determine the pricing.

When I pay for the experience of seeing a movie in the theater, my $10 is paying every single person listed in the credits. Take, for example, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. 1,895 people listed in the credits. That's a half penny per person when I get my ticket. Really it's less since part of it goes to the theater. A fraction of a penny! Those greedy bastards. Next time I hear someone complain about expensive movie tickets I'm going to punch them in the wiener. Then when the movie is released on DVD, the price is higher. Because you're paying to permanently own that movie. On a thing that exists.

When you're paying for an experience, and not an item, the price should be reflected accordingly. Support the publisher and the asshole who wrote the book. But we shouldn't be paying for a printing press, shipping costs, and a bookstore front, when there aren't any. As of now, the prices haven't evened out, and publishers are making a killing off of selling thin air.

This has been a fairly grumpy defense, and I apologize. I promise I'm not a mad mountain woman living next to a Walden-esque pond, yelling at trees and debating with squirrels. I'll end on a light-hearted point.

If print books disappear, how will we make animated videos of books coming alive at night?

See also:
(From 1946 and 1938. So yeah, be prepared for profound racism.)

What would Sebastian steal from the store?


Possibly diet pills. Someone send Macaulay Culkin a pizza. Just make sure it's plain cheese.


  1. I'm currently considering chastising you for venturing into my field of expertise. But I may save that for an entire blog entry about the price of movie tickets. My take, we're all being incredibly ripped off.

    Also, I'm impressed with your style of writing. Lots of good imagery in a topic that would have been bogged down by a straightforward approach.

    P.S. I use the term "expertise" very loosely.

  2. I'd really like to hear your take on movie tickets. I know there's definitely some discrepancy and BS going on in the pricing; after all, there's a theater in Radford that only charges $3.50 for a matinee, while pretty much anywhere in Roanoke charges twice that amount. But truth is I've always been willing to fork out the cash for a theater experience.

    I wouldn't necessarily call punching someone in the wiener "good" imagery :D

    1. Lol. I was referring to lines like "climbed up one of those rolling ladders, glided along like Belle (holding back the urge to burst into song)".

      It's not that the ticket prices are so high, its just that the theater experience isn't what it should be. The technology used to project a movie is decades behind what is capable. Movies are still projected and filmed at the same framerate as a they were during Charlie Chaplain's era.

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