The Roll of Publishing and Toilet Paper

by Adam on March 3, 2010

I’ve always been a big Seinfeld fan – I think the situation that publishers are facing right now is referenced in a particular apropos moment in Season 6, in an episode entitled “The Face Painter:”

George: “Take toilet paper for example. Do you realize that toilet paper has
not changed in my lifetime? It’s just paper on a cardboard roll, that’s it.
And in ten thousand years, it will still be exactly the same because really,
what else can they do?”

If you think about it, publishers are going through a similar moment right now. Look back at the history of publishing (err, printing on paper) and think about all the changes and advancements that we can account for. Outside of Guttenberg, there hasn’t been much going on in the world of print books for the past 600ish years.

Okay, so one can argue that the development of digital printing, POD and advancements like the Espresso Book Machine (more to come on that in a later post) are all huge steps forward and I would agree. But it’s all still printing on paper.

Short of audio books and a few other small advancements, things have stayed relatively constant in the world of publishing. And now digital has come along and while publishers try to capitalize on the opportunities it could provide, a problem arises. That being that since the industry hasn’t had the opportunity to innovate throughout much of its life cycle, publishers just aren’t used to doing it. And so we’ve ended up with publishers recreating the print experience digitally. (I will say that this doesn’t apply to all publishers…quintessential example in Sourcebooks and all that Dominique Raccah has done with it).

All the talk of taking ebooks and “enhancing” them with video, audio, photos, etc is a step forward. And apps on mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad offer the promise of a new interactive experience. But I have to wonder if we can get outside of ourselves and find a way to move forward that isn’t so much about the book itself as it is about creating a new experience with the content.

I can’t say that I am quite sure how we get beyond enhanced ebooks as just video, audio et al, but I know that we have to. Because honestly, maybe I’m in the minority, but if I’m reading a fiction book, I don’t want to watch a video of the scene I’m reading about. It lives in my head and that’s the point (although some genres, like cookbooks and how-to are givens). But with advancements in interconnectivity and ability for user engagement, there’s something here that makes sense to pursue – imagine being able to take notes on a book that you’re reading and publish those notes direct to a blog (especially useful if you’re review a book). Or if a cookbook had the ability for notes in a book to become comments in an online recipe database.

And of course, integrating social media into the experience is another step as well – when eading a book of poetry, why can’t we have the ability create a shareable postcard that can then be sent to a friend? Talk about a promotion that brings them back to the book. Same with cookbooks, again, and there’s nothing like a recipe card in your inbox to make you want to start cooking. (Zinio is doing some interesting things in this regard online, but it would be great to see the technology become more widespread).

Of course, we’d need to get the technology there first, but it’s so much more an active experience than just reading, watching or listening to something. Now, you’re actually doing something.

At the end of the day, I don’t want publishers to look back 10,000 years from now and think we’re still just paper on a cardboard roll, or paper bound between a front and back cover, or epaper confined to eReader of some kind. We won’t, I know that, but I want that change to be because of our innovation, and not because we couldn’t think outside of the publishing box.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rebecca Springer March 4, 2010 at 1:29 pm

I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that there has been no innovation in either content or process. Think of all the types of book that simply didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago (for better or for worse). Media tie-in novelizations. Lift-the-flap board books. Everything for dummies. Even the routine use of full color and glossy paper. Not to mention digital production workflows that have freed us from the need to proofread character by character since no one is picking the type slugs out of a little box anymore. Spend some time browsing in a used book store if you want to see how far book production values have come. For all the painting of book publishing as a backward industry, we are actually a pretty creative, resourceful bunch. And we will make use of whatever technologies are available to provide readers with something novel, informative, and occasionally, transcendent. However, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we work for *readers*. Personally, the idea of embedded videos in any kind of book, even cookbooks, leaves me underwhelmed. I’d prefer to see enhancements that still privilege the written word. Trying to turn ourselves into the movie and video game industries will only sacrifice too much of what people love about books.

Adam March 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Rebecca –
This is a good point and I do agree that we’ve had a number of advancements in the production and presentation of our printed materials. I should adjust that to be more appropriately about printing on paper, which we’ve done and continue to do, regardless of how we’ve improved that piece of the business. My biggest concern is that we approach the digital as another form of printing, when it can be so much more.

I also feel that video is a bit of a catchall that we’re embracing for this idea that books can be more than words in digital if we want them to be (although I see what you mean about not wanting to dilute the content at all with these kinds of additions). Penguin is doing some fascinating things with their digital content – actually sidestepping proprietary formats to code in HTML. While some of this could have video game like aspects to it, you can take examples such as the star-finder application as a way to extend the functionality of a book (or as something to be used in conjunction with it). It’s incredible what’s possible when we get outside of a front and back cover…take a look here: http://bit.ly/dy4V2b

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