BEA 2011 Talk: Why Ebooks Will Save the Book

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[Below are the slides and text of a talk I gave Thurs. May 26, at BEA. Feedback is welcome!]

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Hi, I’m Ben Clemens. I work at a company in San Francisco called Blurb, which has a set of tools for making beautiful printed books.

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I’d like to talk to you about e-books however, because as much as I love printed books, I love e-books more. And I think that e-books will turn out to be better for authors, readers, and publishers than printed books are.  I’ll try to explain why in a minute.

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First, let’s go over why e-books are awful.

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The main reason is that they make people say things like “printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.” (Jacob Weisberg in Slate)

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or “it’s so ambitious to take something as highly evolved as the book and improve on it” (Jeff Bezos quoted in Time).

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Ugh. If people, even successful businessfolk, say that they’ve reinvented something that has been around for hundreds of years, take it with a grain of salt!

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But the very worst part about e-books is just how many of them are written about …marketing e-books, spamming, or content farms. The way that people talk about e-books has the same high-pitched, perky tone that people do when they’re selling you something on an infomercial late at night.

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Nicholson Baker complains ebooks have “a way of reducing everything to arbitrary heaps of words”; specifically about quoting from a Kindle ebook; he says referencing the phrase “…she was on the verge of the mother of all orgasms” to “location range 1596-1605” is unsatisfying (and I suppose he would know).

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…and the effect of e-books on printed books is to “kill their joy.” Information overload is desensitizing us to the power of words and pictures, devaluing them and our culture.

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It’s enough to make anyone who has lost themselves in a good book want to forget the whole thing, or mutter darkly about the end of civilization.

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Or more to the point, talk about “the end of the book.”

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Now, as a way of sounding like a wide-eyed geek, I want to quote “Battlestar Galactica.” Those who watched the new series will remember that a refrain in the mouths of many of the characters was “all this has happened before, and all this will happen again.

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In the case of books, this is actually true. You will see that everything that people say about the benefits and evils of e-books has been said about other incarnations of books, stretching back hundreds of years.

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We can start, in fact, 541 years ago. In The Body of the Book, Jan-Dirk Müller recounts how, a man in 15th century Paris named Guillaume Fichet was worried. He was starting to see the effects of the invention of movable type, created 30 years earlier, and he didn’t like them. We’re not talking the blogging software, but the actual metal type that was being used to print books in large quantities for the first time. In 1470 he wrote that if “everything that can be thought can immediately be written and preserved for posterity [by this new technology] the memory capacity of the cultural system will be overstressed and oblivion will be the result.”

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In Defining the Initial Shift, Elizabeth Eisenstein tells us about a Swiss naturalist named Conrad Gesner who, in 1545 (after almost a century of printed books) bemoans the disappearance of hand-lettered manuscripts. He demands that the Swiss government set up institutions to protect them, as they had “unique authority” and the “aura of truth” that printed books lacked. Gutenberg’s printing was the cause of the “death of quality” literature and design.

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Around the same time, Tycho Brahe, one of the original humanist scientist-publishers, got into several disputes about his appropriating the work of others, publishing scientific texts as his own just because he could (his friendships with royalty meant he owned paper mills and printing presses). As more and more valuable printed books were made, “piracy” of content was the issue then, as now. Tycho believed that the elites who were wealthy enough to own presses should be the arbiters of true authorship and authority, and (according to legend) drove a poor mathematician named Ursus insane with the shameless plagiarism of his work.

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In 1951, the critic Harvey Swados looks at the flood of new paperback books available in drugstores and bus stations (later to include Penguin editions of new literature), and worries that whether “this revolution in the reading habits of the American public means that we are being inundated by a flood of trash which will debase farther the popular taste, or that we shall now have available cheap editions of an ever-increasing list of classics, is a question of basic importance to our social and cultural development.’’

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In 2009, Paul Constant warns of the “the slow, moronic death of books as we know them,” stating that “…if nobody can afford to publish John Grisham, that doesn’t mean that Grisham’s readers are suddenly going to pick up a quality literary novel by, say, Dave Eggers or Stephen Elliott. It just means they’re not going to read anymore. And when the number of people reading decreases at the top of the mass-reading market—the Twilight and Stephen King readers—there will be fewer people filtering down to the serious literary experience, and the idea of reading printed books will be a tiny boutique experience, not unlike collecting vinyl.” (Sort of a “trickle-down” theory of literary quality; I guess he’s a supply-sider.)

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In 2011, an excellent designer named Joel Friedlander writes of “The Death of Book Design”: “…book design finally succumbed to a far deadlier virus that swept the world, infecting everything: digitization. Objects—formerly a part of the real world—slowly decayed into a series of ‘1’s and 0’s’ (whatever they are). Book Design was no different from Music, Art, or even Typing.”

It seems that people cannot stop bemoaning the state of the world, talking about how nothing is as good as it used to be, etc. (And far be it from me to stop people from doing that, it is a pleasure I indulge in too, being in my 40s and working with people much younger than I am.)

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But there was no death of the book with the advent of printing, nor with paperback books, nor will there be one with e-books. To talk of things being “killed” is to say the technology has morals. The answer to whether the latest technological change will produce good or evil is always: yes.

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Instead, something much more interesting is happening: books are, more than ever before, what we make them. And I don’t mean this in some pseudo-psychological way, I mean literally we can all make books into what we want them to be.

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No one reads “texts” in some disembodied or immaterial sense: we read books, material manifestations of texts. As Bill Savage says, readers don’t shop at textstores and have monthly text clubs. Readers want good books in the textual sense, of course, but the materiality of books matters. Books will always mean something in the world of reading and readers.

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One more example from the paperback revolution: Bill Savage wrote about the fascinating 1956 publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, in paperback only, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights press. At that time, the incarnation of Howl as a paperback was not just a random or economic decision.

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It was a specific choice and was part of the aesthetic of the poetry to place the words “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” in a slim, undersized, cheaply printed volume that would fit in the pocket of blue jeans, the clothing of choice for the working class.

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The physicality of the text mattered to Ginsberg and the reader he electrified; it was just as much a rejection of the cultural norms of the day. However strong the text was (and is) as poetry and art, his readers then and now read books, not texts. The material of the book is a medium for stories and ideas, to be used as we see fit.

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So, if we don’t want a faded Kindle screen, that looks like someone faxed me a romance novel, we don’t have to make books that way. If we want to publish through storied publishing institutions or on our own, we can do both. Or as Ben Johnson put it in 1612 about his plays, “in themselves they have neither hopes, nor fears, their fate is only in their hearer’s ears.”

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So let’s talk about what e-books do, what they are, and some tools for what they can be. And yes, let me take my best shot at convincing you that e-books are better than printed books. Why? Because for me, the biggest advantage of e-books is their ability to reduce, even if only a bit, the overall amount of bullshit in the world.

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First crap-reducing mechanism: e-books re-focus books around their essence: words and images, assembled and carefully edited.

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How can you tell? Well, every e-book reader has some version of simulating a printed book, a “skeuomorphic” experience: “a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to a structure that was necessary in the original.”

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Reader devices all feel it important to show, at the very least, fancy animations to simulate the turning of a page (even the Kindle does this, but it is not the default).

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Here is a patent application Microsoft made, USPO 20100175018, for “virtual page turning” simulation technology, that is the subject of several current lawsuits.

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But why all these page simulations? Haven’t people heard of computers? Isn’t scrolling better? We’re all plenty used to that on web pages. But, it turns out the answer is that human beings are better at handling knowledge that’s broken up into reasonably sized pages.

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Pages are what makes a book something more than just a long string of text. E-books (and their silly page simulations) make that fact more apparent. E-books aren’t fake books, they show us the essence of what reading really is.

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And because they have no pulpy smell, no metallic embossed lettering, TV tie-in, and no fine leather covers, e-books rely much more than ever on the intrinsic quality of their content. E-books are both good and bad, but it’s never been easier to tell them apart (and never been harder to pass off a mediocre ebook as a thing of value).

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Second crap-reducing mechanism: This is just the first draft of ebooks. What an ebook is will evolve, and fast

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There’s a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about making ebooks. The discomfort comes the current immature state of ebook forms, from not wanting wonderful stories and ideas to be rendered primitively, for there to be a large value attached to books, as there should be.

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But this is a brittle view of culture and books; culture is what people do, not what people would like to believe they do. Books have been practical vessels for stories for hundreds of years, in much more primitive forms. The books themselves don’t need special protection.

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We haven’t yet found the final form of what an ebook is; it is the beginning of lots of experimentation. For Blurb, not least of all. And we don’t have to wait to see what will work for consumers, we can just try it.

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The future belongs to what ever publishing formats work the best for authors and readers, and nothing is inevitable. Publishing ebooks does not require lots of upfront investment, so we can keep trying different ways of making ebooks until there is a scheme that works well.

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To extend the idea that we’re still rubbing two sticks together: Amazon. Is Amazon’s walled garden for ebooks the future? Or is it more like AOL’s early dial-up service for Internet access? AOL was a very nicely vertically integrated content service too…

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Amazon may be dominant now, but open networks always win eventually. In fact, I would say that Amazon really is more the kindling than the actual fire.

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And ePub is not the future of eBooks, it’s just the present. We can push the technology to give much more beauty and subtlety to eBooks than what ePub allows. We can use the same open technologies available now for web sites, but have yet to come to ebooks (or Apps).

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Third (and final) crap-reducing mechanism: The measure of how good ebooks can be will be in the measure of how good the tools are for making ebooks, so authors and book-makers have creative freedom. The way to make better ebooks is to make good books.

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…it’s been somewhat mysterious to people how exactly ebooks are made. It sounds scary and esoteric, and too much about code, to be about an artistic enterprise. In this area, I can announce (here, now) that Blurb has some news: we are launching an ebook machine, soon.

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Why is Blurb is launching an ebook product? Well, our current business is like the print publishing business, where people create books, design them, we print them, and they then market or gift them.

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But this hasn’t been working so well, as people disrupt the traditional publishing steps with ebooks, social networks, and author e-publishing. All of these disrupt our business, and pit us against the authors and bookmakers.

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So we’re moving to a model where we support the creative process with a full suite of tools, anywhere that the author wants to take their ideas and stories.

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Some books may be e-book only, some will be printed, some will be sold person to person, and some will be professionally marketed and delivered via major digital marketplaces. The more we enable people to make great ebooks, the more people will want them.

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So finally, why are ebooks better? Because even more than printed books, they are what we make them. If you don’t like they way they work, or the way they’re sold or how they are for readers, there is little stopping you from changing those things.

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Ebooks are not so much a technological revolution as an opportunity to return to what made you fall in love with books in the first place.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Ben, just read your talk back. It’s brilliant, thanks for the inspiration!

      May 23, 2011 – 9:36 pm   Permalink
  2. Thanks very much, really gratified you like it!

    By benclemens
      May 26, 2011 – 6:54 pm   Permalink
  3. Ben – this is super inspiring and funny and interesting. All of these. So excited to get this show on the road! Let the games begin :)

    By Claire Alcock
      May 26, 2011 – 11:52 pm   Permalink
  4. Ben, just came across this the other day, a terrific job and I only wish I had been there for the live presentation. Kudos.

      July 7, 2011 – 10:01 pm   Permalink
  5. Sorry not to join in with the general praise, but thank goodness I didn’t have to sit through that eternal Powerpoint presentation! Ninety percent of those slides could have been culled with no effect on the message.

    You may be super-hot on ebooks, mate, but you could have a lot to learn about how not to kill an audience with the torture that is Slow Death By Powerpoint!

    By Rob J
      August 15, 2011 – 7:59 am   Permalink
  6. Looking forward to blurb’s new publishing model…..it’s going to be very flexible and an outstanding resource for authors……!

      September 30, 2011 – 4:56 am   Permalink
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