Whether Print or Digital, A Book’s Form Holds Meaning
Editor's Note: Karen Romano is a senior publishing production executive and independent expert. She spoke at the 2014 Digital Book Printing Conference. You can listen to her entire presentation below. The 2015 Digital Book Printing Conference will be held on October 27th at the New York City Union League. Register for the conference here, and use the code DIGI50 to take $50 off of your registration.
It was a dark and stormy night, statistics materializing in reassuring torrents -- except when checked by violent gusts of uncertainty, fiercely agitating the pundits of publishing, and rattling digital presses across the country, when this print geek was obliged to examine her ink-stained digits and consider our complex ecosystem which can no longer separate print and digital media.
Whether your prose is "purple" or "beige," engaging storytelling is what shapes our industry. And even the formats in which we publish are languages unto themselves -- conveying information, creating an experience, and ultimately developing a bond with the consumer. But with technology shifting the landscape, it has become necessary for us to respond more quickly, tailor our products, and essentially be multi-lingual.
Reading is a remarkably human process of decoding, navigating, visualizing, and formulating new constructs. In any format, words are just abstract representations of real things. But books have the ability to help define who we are. They can transport us and all of our past experience into a very private space. It is our collective job to facilitate this process and to give the author an audience, but given the stormy climate, we're forced to reexamine the best strategy to thrive.
American lexicographer Erin McKean tells the story of "The Ham Butt Problem." A woman preparing a ham for dinner cuts the butt off the ham and starts to throw it away. She stops and thinks "This is a perfectly good piece of meat, why am I throwing it away?" Since her mother always did she picks up the phone to ask, "Mom why do you always throw the butt of the ham away when you are making a ham?" Her mother answers, "I don't know dear, your grandmother always did." So they call grandma and ask, "Grandma why did you always throw the butt of the ham away when you made a ham?" And the grandmother says, "Because my pan was too small."
There may be a parallel in the evolution of the ebook, with publishers initially creating, pricing, and dispersing electronic content based on old paradigms and designs -- many of which they now have to rethink. Recent research has demonstrated that the brain actually anchors meaning to structure and that limiting or changing how we navigate through a text can actually inhibit comprehension. So, despite the fact that we are changing the shape of the content delivery mechanism, design and rigorous execution will continue to play a critical role. In short: You need people working on ebooks who understand design, and you still need people producing print that value quality.
Last spring, in a small diner known for its breakfasts, I ordered "sunny-side up" eggs. Grounded in buttery childhood memories, over the years I would order them at diners and coffee shops. But somewhere along the way people forgot how to cook them. After experiencing a distressing range of runny to rubbery I eventually changed my order to "over-easy." But that day I ordered what I actually wanted -- sunny-side up eggs. Ten minutes later slammed down in front of me were two over-easy eggs. Accounting for the erroneous order the cook explained, no one ordered sunny-side-up eggs anymore, so he automatically assumed what I wanted.
I believe we can do a lot to drive the future of our industry. But if we keep downgrading our products and underestimating our customers, they will become accustomed to and start asking for the lower quality item, expect to pay less, or give up entirely and move on to other things. With ebooks at 20-30% of the market, we may be at some sort of tipping point, yet it is clear that print is not vanishing. Young people are still reading for pleasure, and statistics demonstrate that many actually prefer print. But unless we believe in what we are doing, the consumer certainly won't.
Different languages survive because they are unique and culturally specific. Being bilingual is the ability to think, converse, and dream in more than one language. So I challenge you to embrace the idea that "innovation" isn't synonymous with "electronic."
Order your eggs sunny-side up: Don't underestimate the consumer who does value quality. We have to be careful what biases we as an industry are imposing on the consumer.
Make sure you don't have a "ham butt problem": We can frame problems based on the past but must be careful not to perpetuate obsolete solutions to our business issues.
Innovate: As the definition of "author" expands and changes, there will be more reverse engineering of self-published content into traditional publishing channels, especially as print runs get shorter. Since we don't seem to be able to dramatically improve forecast accuracy, we must continue to improve our technical response.
Finally, remember that books are powerful technology too. We are physical creatures who respond to tactile and sensory experiences, and science makes clear that our very evolution predisposes us to navigate and comprehend more efficiently when dealing with print.
Last year I stood on an outdoor train platform, juggling a cup of coffee, newspaper, tote bag, and an umbrella, when it started to rain. Holding the umbrella downward, struggling to open it, I was oblivious to the fact that I was also pouring my coffee into the umbrella. In one graceful arc I righted the umbrella and to the amusement of my fellow travelers, poured an entire cup of coffee over my head. So, let's not sit down a year from now and say: "I never saw it coming, and I did it to myself."
Related story: Creating An Interoperable Publishing Ecosystem