The Value of Complete Books in a Fractured, Digital World
Today is my first day back in the office after a four-day weekend at Long Beach Island, New Jersey. Yes, despite the chill, autumn breeze, I lounged on the beach and braved multiple limb-numbing dips. And despite the cool weather, I'm still sporting a sunburn.
Although I was in the midst of a break from Book Business, publishing debates pervaded many of the conversations I had with my family over the past few days, and they left me with a stunning realization. My parents are passionate defenders of print, in spite their iPhones and digital newspaper subscriptions.
Their print devotion was embodied by the handful of massive New York Times that swamped the coffee table throughout my stay. Each morning, my father purchased a copy of the New York Times, despite his online subscription, and he, my mother and uncle engrossed themselves in its content. My family viewed the complete print edition as a rare treat, something sacred in the increasingly digital world. My father added in proof of his print loyalties that he subscribes to more print magazines today than he ever has in his entire life.
I argued that the model they yearned for, the complete, print newspaper, the glossy magazine, was a fading trend. Consumers don't want to buy a huge packet of stories. They want an article from the New York Times, a few articles from their local publication, and articles from digital-only sources like the Huffington Post. And they want it sent directly to their e-reading device. Why pay for the whole bundle, when consumers only want to read about 10% of the content?
The argument reminded me of an article we ran in Publishing Business Today, which asserted that as magazines and newspapers are fragmented and digitized, they lose value, but that the book is largely immune to this fracturing pressure. When a consumer purchases a book, especially a trade book, he wants the whole story. He doesn't only want to read the second chapter where the heroine runs away from home and then the thirtieth where she returns victorious. He expects to read every detail of her struggles and her growth. The nature of the book as a long, continuous narrative protects it from the devaluation the rest of the publishing world has faced.
But I wonder how long that statement will remain true, as an increasing number of book startups present new ways to consume content. Slicebooks, which is largely focused on academic works, already offers a model for users to select chapters from a number of works in order to create a customized ebook, while LeanPub provides in progress works to readers to gain feedback for the author. If these models continue to grow, will the book too lose value as rapidly as newspapers and magazines have? Or is the very nature of the book indivisible, and therefore valuable?
Perhaps I inherited some of my parents print-enthusiasm, but I have confidence in the book as a complete entity. Yes, Slicebooks and LeanPub are exploring exciting avenues for developing content, but I think their work will only supplement the continuous narrative of a traditional book. If I can echo the words from Steve Wasserman's Keynote at the Publishing Business Conference and Expo, crowdsourcing and data collection like LeanPub's may help authors edit their works, but they are no replacement to genuinely inspired ideas. It's those inspired ideas, which link the entire work, that I think will save the book from the fractured devaluation many publications now face.
In our debate, my parents and I did not discover how to save the newspaper, or pinpoint the exact value of a complete New York Times, but I did make a 200-page dent in my latest fiction purchase. The hours spent on the beach, listening to the continuous rumble of the waves and devouring those words was well worth it to me.