Print vs. Digital
March 26, 2013
When I was young, there was a newspaper strike. People noticed – partly because Tales of the City was serialized and no one liked to miss an installment. Of course, there was also unease about missing the weather report. On perhaps the second day of the strike, as I left the office, criers on the street were hawking ‘The Weather Report’ … people scooping up what turned out to be a letterpress broadside of a poem by, as I recall, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Because print ephemera have declined with the advent of online options, folks often forget its importance in publishing. This is a mistake. Ephemera and other forms of self-publishing accounted for many seminal works in the American revolutionary period, and in my own time, the anti-war and civil rights revolutions. This form of print publishing continues. One example is the local Mission recovery ‘zine Drinkwater that offers a corrective for the worst failures of a fad-bound publishing establishment.
Virtual publishing can offer a similar escape, but putting aside the obstructive character of publishing houses, is there anything good about publishers and print? Well, that same
obstructionism. A printed book demands commitment. It’s not easy to get agents, editors, copyeditors, designers, typesetters, printers, publicists, marketers, warehousemen, bookstores, clerks, librarians and reviewers on board with anything. Surmounting that level of challenge ensures a degree of robustness.
In the world of design, limitations are generally seen as conducive to creativity. One might say that sneaking Gulliver’s Travels past the censors made it the great work it continues to be instead of some sniveling diatribe about a dead political order, evidence that a similar rule might apply in writing.
My attraction to ephemera is also to their physicality. I keep them. I tack them up on my walls. As with books, physical presence provides an ongoing connection. Have I re-read Les Fleurs du Mal? Maybe once. But six times a month I notice it on my shelf and touch, in my mind, those clumsy pages, renew my association with those words and all the times they have spoken necessity to my need.
When lying on my back in the park, reading upside-down in the sun, I don’t want the type to flip or the page to reflect passersby. I do want the heft of the work, time marked by the turning of pages and the slow accumulation of those read. I do want to feel the book in my pocket. Noticing titles others read on the subway has led me to many a treasure. All this is merely physical, but part of what it is, for me, to read.
So let’s see, that’s now four reasons to like print? As with the Ten Commandments, count them, I dare you. In any case, here is a fifth: Bookmaking is my craft. I enjoy the simple pleasures of a book well designed and well made. I relish the rare, perfect line of Bodoni, the yellowing pulp novels of the war years, the tooth of a letterpress page.
Dior is dead and so much of what passes for fashion is derivative, ill proportioned and badly constructed. I feel the same about books: some people feel empowered to think of themselves as a designer, since they have purchased a device or program that does design, yet not everyone knows how to judge design. That’s not the fault of, nor unique to, the print medium. But I notice how the book my son just sent, Shelley’s Frankenstein in an awkward presentation from Fathom Information Design, depends absolutely on being a work on paper.
The Frankenstein experiment pushes partial, virtual .pdf fonts through statistical matrices to compose a print work that devolves, along with the book’s characters, into chaos. This forced typography is a visual, statistical review of the use of fonts in virtual publishing. The data bring no surprises. But reading, turning pages, immersing in the story, experiencing the results of this statistical summary in the chains of physical time, as a text on paper, held in my hand – here, I experience a virtual, typographic landscape. Abstract data become personal reality.
Reality being the keyword. One that turns pages knows – as the bulk shifts, as the typography devolves, as the monster claims his right to exist – that the details of the experiment are here, together, in one place, now. This. Is. It. All.
So, six reasons? The paper book has her faults, but if one only speaks of Frankenstein, how do we love him? Oh, yes, cyber-sex can get you off. But nothing like waking up next to your mate in the flesh on your six- or seven-thousandth dawn.
Revolutionary and Ambiguous
The divide between analog and digital life is no more clearly seen than in the evolution of the technology for digital production and distribution of our text-based communication. Whether in book form, magazine, brochure, manual, etc. our approach to written communication is forever changed. We can look at this effect from three standpoints: the consumer, the publishing/distribution system and the author (now more of a producer).
From the consumer’s standpoint, it is hard to argue with the benefits of having instant access to millions of titles through a small electronic device located in your hands. As the devices have increased in capabilities (audio, video, interactivity, color touchscreens, etc.) so have the audience’s choices. The marketplace is ever expanding with new, more powerful devices and we are buying them at a record pace. Although we use these devices for many activities, reading books on them is a bottom-line capability that we insist on having.
The pure benefits of digital publishing from the publishing/distribution standpoint are obvious: instant access to worldwide consumer markets, no costs associated with printing production and storage of inventory, no returns of excess stock. Downloadable content is fast becoming the most common way we consume written communication. Amazon saw a 70% increase in eBook sales for 2012. This increase is mainly due to the proliferation of inexpensive e-readers and tablets and the disappearance of brick and mortar stores (bye-bye Borders). Multimedia Internet-connected e-readers are key, whether Kindles, Nooks or iPads, it doesn’t really matter. No one wants to sit and read a long form novel on an overheating laptop with a two-hour battery life. The cost to benefit ratio is clear from the publishing side, but what about the creative side, the people who produce the content?
In the creative realm, there will always be a schism between the traditionalists and the innovators (those taking new tools and ideas to evolve and expand an art form). I believe this is where we are truly seeing some new, unexpected and thought-provoking forms of communication that are not available with print books. The traditional process for creating a book is a very solitary activity: ideation/research, development, writing, editing, proofing, publishing. There are some collaborative moments with the editors and any illustrators or designers who may be involved, but it is by and large a solo endeavor. The new electronic evolution of this communication allows (if desired) a much more collaborative environment for the creation of the work. One can obviously get instant feedback and work closely with a fellow writer (or even crowd source one’s fictional characters on Reddit), but the medium allows for a far richer involvement with other producers of a wide range of media that can deepen and enhance the reader’s experience.
The democratization of all aspects of media production; audio, sound design, graphics, animation, HD video production and editing have led to an avalanche of content, opportunities, and experiences. The new author is becoming both author and producer/director, weaving video, sound, graphics, original art and animation into the fabric of their written work. There are numerous multimedia platforms available now for creating and distributing this type of work, including Adobe Digital Publishing Suite, Apple iBooks Author, Aquafadas, Atavist, Inkling, etc. The interactive feature set that is being baked into these multimedia books is impressive, including:
Markup and search
All forms of web-links
All types of images slideshow
Guided tours with additional info
Spin, zoom, and pinch 3D models
Layer peeling for closer looks at hot spots
Full screen videos
Immersive audio or straight-forward author reads
Social media connections
Maps and timelines
And the list is ever expanding as the tools spread to creative developers around the world.
There are obviously many carryovers from analog publishing, as successful works will require thoughtful writing, careful editing, and a clear vision of what you want your audience to experience. Yet, in today’s version of an eBook, the author establishes a more direct connection with their reader. The eBook can be an evolving, living document that can change overnight if desired. With a traditional book, you start reading and you know that after a certain fixed and predictable amount of time you will reach the end of the book. With the ever-expanding linkages and multimedia content that can be embedded in the digital form, the reader can estimate where the end exists (based on only reading the text that is presented), but that estimate can easily change as content is added or links proliferate from the source that is the eBook.
These forms of communication are becoming media experiences that the reader visits and absorbs, contemplating the atmosphere of the writing, video, soundscapes, and web links to form a rich picture of the author’s mind.