As many other bloggers have mentioned over the past week, Google recently came out with an announcement that there are 129, 864, 880 books in the world. This post explains how Google got to that number (very interesting), defines what a “book” is (”‘tome,’ an idealized bound volume”), and references a silly April Fools joke (adding a turkey probe to a library’s catalog).
Another big announcement from recent weeks was Jeff Bezos’s statement that Amazon.com is now selling more ebooks than hardcovers prompting (once again) the endless string of “OMG print books are almost dead!” articles. This one by Malcolm Jones fits the “I’ll miss physical books” category of reactionary pieces, but still implies that the days of hardcovers and paperbacks are numbered.
Which, taken to the extreme, brings up an interesting idea—what are we going to do with these millions of books (and billions of copies) once we fully convert to an e-world?
One idea comes from Matej Kren’s art installation “Scanner”—currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Bologna, and which looks a little something like this:
This week’s Consumed by Rob Walker (whose Buying In is an all-time favorite book of mine) is all about books as art:
For starters, books have served as useful raw material for conversion into an impressive variety of artworks. Jacqueline Rush Lee has created a body of work that turns books into organic-looking shapes — sometimes pages are rolled, sometimes they seem to grow from their open covers, sometimes they’re squashed into wholly different forms. Su Blackwell’s intricate cutouts rise from old books like impossible pop-ups; Stephen Doyle has made tanks and staircases from paper pages, resting on open books that serve as pedestals. Guy Laramée and Brian Dettmer have each created compelling three-dimensional objects by carving or otherwise restructuring books; Robert The has cut books into gun shapes. Thomas Allen has made vivid images of figures rising from lurid pulp paperbacks. Photographers like Paul Octavious, Victor Shrager and Abelardo Morell, among others, have made pictures that linger over book details, or rearrange book groups, in memorable ways.
(Although honestly, the coolest, almost meta, bit of this article is the final paragraph about Busted Typewriter, which hollows out books—including Buying In—to serve as Kindle cases, giving you the feel of a “real” book to go with the convenience of e.)
All of this brings to mind Julio Cortazar’s short story “End of the World of the End,” which opens with a sort of vision of the electronic, self-publishing world:
As the scribes will persist, the few readers there are in the world are going to have to change their roles and become scribes themselves. More and more countries will be made up of scribes, and more and more factories will be necessary to manufacture paper and ink, the scribes by day and the machines by night to print the scribes’ work. First the libraries will overflow the houses, then the municipalities decide (now we’re really into in) to sacrifice their children’s playgrounds to enlarge the libraries. Then the theaters will go, then the maternity homes, slaughterhouses, bars, hospitals. The poor use the books like bricks, they stick them together with cement and build walls of books and live in cabins of books.
This isn’t enough to stem the flow of books, so a new idea is proposed:
The President of the Republic gets on the telephone with the presidents of the republics, and intelligently proposes to cast the leftover books into the sea, which act is accomplished simultaneously on every coast in the world. Thus the Siberian scribes see their works cast into a sea of ice and the Indonesian scribes etc. This allows the scribes to step up their production as the earth again has space to store their books. It does not occur to them that the sea has a bottom and that at the bottom of the sea the printed matter is beginning to pile up, first in the form of a sticky pulp, then in the form of a solid pulp, and finally a tough though viscous flooring which rises several feet a day and will finally reach the surface. Then much of the water invades many of the lands and there is a new distribution of continents and oceans, and presidents of various republics are replaced by lakes and peninsulas, presidents of other republics see immense territories newly open to their ambitions, etc.
As time goes on, this landmass of pulp becomes home to nightclubs and casinos, causing the scribes to store all their books on land once again. The ink and paper companies go bankrupt, the scribes write on “slabs of wood or rock or on stone tiles, etc.”
On the earth the race of scribes lives precariously, doomed to extinction, and at sea there are the islands and casinos, or rather the ex-transatlantic liners, where the presidents of the republics have fled to refuge and where they hold enormous parties and exchange wireless messages from island to island, president to president, and captain to captain.
And there you go.
Rob Walker—author of Buying In, one of the best marketing/business books of the past few years—just found a listing on Etsy for a hardcover copy of Buying In that “has been sealed and cut by hand to fit Amazon’s Kindle 6” Wireless Reading Device.”
Seriously. Here’s the full listing:
Love your Kindle but miss the feel of holding a real book?
Do you get a kick out of seeing objects being used in a way other than their intended purpose?
Then I bet you’ll enjoy carrying your Kindle hidden inside a book.
This hardcover copy of “Buying In” by Rob Walker has been sealed and cut by hand to fit Amazon’s Kindle 6” Wireless Reading Device.
(Please note that the Amazon Kindle seen in the picture is NOT included.)
This is an official Don’t Judge Me# piece.
Granted, this is kind of cool . . . And if it becomes really popular, Rob still gets his royalties . . . but there’s something perverse about having your work carved apart to cloak a Kindle. Although on the other hand, this could be the perfect solution for people who miss the tactile sense of reading a real book, and who want to show off to the world what it is they’re reading . . .
Paradoxically, the proliferation of digital media that is arguably the biggest threat to traditional publishing also offers authors more opportunities than ever to distribute and promote their work. The catch: In order to do that effectively, authors increasingly must transcend their words and become brands. [. . .]
In today’s fickle marketplace, the Internet—with blogs, videos, Twitter, and other promotional tools like Amazon’s Author Stores—is the modern-day equivalent to hand-selling. [. . .] In a way, authors are empowered in this new model, provided they can leverage their networks into living, breathing communities who have a stake in—and benefit from—an author’s ballooning platform.
With the examples in the article being people like James Patterson, John Grisham, and Mitch Albom (where’s Tom Clancy? Dude has videogames named after him), I’m glad Jill Priluck pointed out the insanity and danger of this all:
The overemphasis on platforms means that authors sink into brand-speak to get their projects sold, even though their writing—and often their reputations—gets short-circuited. With limited choices, they trade depth for instant gratification, visibility, and higher advances. Ironically, their longevity, supposedly the marker of a good brand, falls by the wayside. It seems that unlike a detergent or a car, an author who is branded too quickly will often fizzle out just as fast.
This “author as product” mentality is pretty insane and really devalues the work itself. It also completely fits in with the changes that have gone on in the publishing world over the past couple decades.
Through mergers and corporate acquisitions, any “branding” that publishing lines once had (and by “brand,” I mean editorial vision and identity, something readers can recognize and appreciate, not the Open Letter XBox game) has been completely dissolved, and the name on the spine of a lot of books is sort of meaningless. So the author’s name/reputation/brand is more important than the publishing line, something that is the exact opposite at independent houses, which are often introducing unknown authors to the reading public.
Andre Schriffrin’s The Business of Books (which should be required reading for anyone in publishing, but is strangely out-of-print) gets into this exact issue, especially when he takes Michael Korda to task for his lackadaisical attitude toward this shift—and the cheapening of publishing as a whole—in his publishing memoir, Another Life:
Korda describes these authors, on which the firm’s fortunes were increasingly to rely, with remarkable disdain. They are demanding, their clothing is vulgar, they do not know the right places in London at which to order custom-made shoes, or the appropriate restaurants at which to eat—subjects on which Korda is very well informed. At the same time, he describes their books as the unavoidable wave of the future as publishing becomes increasingly tied to the entertainment industry, and the styles and values of Hollywood become dominant. Celebrity books are the titles that will make or break firms and Korda, with his boss, Richard Snyder, are determined that it will be the former.
In the time Simon & Schuster was bought by Viacom, owners of Paramount Pictures, and for a brief while it was even renamed Paramount Books. While Korda is frank in describing the economic pressures of these changes, he is nonetheless firmly wedded to the assumption that these are the books on which publishing should focus, and he is proud of his successes with them, if not of his associations with their authors.
Schiffrin then related a bit about Korda attacking Harold Robbins for Robbins’s shame at going from a literary author to a commercial one, concluding:
It seems that in today’s publishing it is only authors who despise themselves for selling out. Publishers merely anticipate inevitable trends.
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