“If They Like Printed Books, They Should Be Buying the Damn Things”

“If They Like Printed Books, They Should Be Buying the Damn Things” September 21, 2011

Richard Nash validates my take on what I call the “But I Love the Smell of Books” argument against the digitization of the traditional codex, focusing on the fact that if books are so important as physical artifacts, they are not being treated as such by the industry or even consumers:

If they like printed books, they should be buying the damn things instead of whining about other people’s preferred mode of reading. So I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years.

… Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore.

Nash argues that those who truly value the physical book will continue to purchase it, that this product will always be available as long as demand exists (which he presumes it will). The real problem for publishing, he says, is one I’ve seen made in a similar way before at Booksquare, there is too much emphasis on what a book costs in terms of dollars rather than on the quality of the content or the experience:

What does a person do when they want something to read? One of the big mistakes that often gets made in publishing is we focus a lot on price. We focus on how much a book costs and we decide whether it’s worth it or not. Now we’ve got a lot more books that are absolutely impoverished. The reality is that people’s decision-making process has a lot more to do with time than with money. It’s 15 hours in the inside of your head. Books are so cheap compared to the hours of entertainment they provide. The problem is, do they provide entertainment? Is it in fact a book you want to read? If after four hours you hate it, what most people say is “I can’t believe I spent fifteen dollars on this.” But what they really mean is “I can’t believe I just wasted four hours of my life on this.”

This is particularly salient for me. I’m not a terribly fast reader — I’m told I “subvocalize” which condemns me to the literary slow lane — so the quality of time spend with a given text is more important to me than almost any other aspect of a book. Yes, I think on the whole 20 to 30 dollars is too much to spend on most books, but, for example, the quality of the experience of reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem was worth far more.

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