It is now commonplace to debate the future of the book. Book sales have been dropping for a decade or more, while the retailing of books has undergone seismic changes, from the rise and fall of bookstore chains to the runaway success of Amazon. Publishers are merging and buying out rivals. Are these changes putting the book itself at risk?
Books: The Next 500 Years
An Article by the Managing Editor
The printed book began its life as a technical advance. Printing, paper, and moveable type were developed by the Chinese, but until Renaissance times the closest analog to printing in Europe was coinage. Royal mints made coin-shaped slugs of gold and silver, then struck them with a heavy stamp engraved with the sovereign’s seal, thus producing many identical coins from a single prototype. In the 1400s a goldsmith living in the Rhine valley, J. Gutenberg, developed a practical printing technology for European languages. He replicated the characters of the Latin alphabet in a metal alloy, set them as pages of text, and used a machine to firmly press the inked plate of movable type against a sheet of paper. The printed sheets were then bound together to form a book. Where the medieval scribe copied sacred texts using parchment and pen, the printer operates a machine that applies the ink to the paper. Printing is a forerunner of mechanized production.
As with all new technologies, the printing press raised questions for which society had no ready answers. The first question—how many copies do you want?— would not have occurred to the medieval scribe, for he could only do one at a time, and the work might take months or years. Also, no scribe would ever have counted the instances of each alphabetic character on a page, but printers must have realized early on that E is far more common than Q and that they needed to make more instances of the former. Since the individual characters are made by pouring molten metal into molds, all the instances of a letter are as identical as coins struck by the same stamp—so the uniform typeface emerges effortlessly from the constraints of the technology. Moreover, the sheets of paper have to be made identical in size in order to run through the press. Printing is a process that encourages measurement and standardization in a way that calligraphy does not.
Thus the printing press is not simply a more efficient way of making copies of the Bible. As historians have pointed out, the printing press was associated with a host of social changes in Europe that we now recognize as precursors of modernization, such as the dissemination of Bibles to people who were not clergy, the push for widespread literacy, and the replacement of local dialects by a standardized language. By making books into products available for sale, the printing press helped to consolidate a literate class that was independent of the Church while encouraging literature written in the vernacular.
In subsequent centuries, printing continued its close relationship with industrial production on one hand and capitalism on the other. Gutenberg’s Bible was funded in part by a money lender who later sued Europe’s first printer for misappropriation of funds, so capitalism was an intrinsic part of the new technology from the beginning. Machines require capitalization, and over the next four centuries printing became increasingly industrialized. By the 19th century there were printing factories where steam-powered conveyor belts moved paper in a continuous flow through a series of printing, folding, cutting, and binding operations, much of it mechanized. Printers became corporations, and books were shipped to distributors who resold them to retailers. Yet books continued to be written primarily by members of a literate class composed of property owners and clergy, while the printing of books remained the task of merchants and tradesmen.
In the 20th century, however, as mass production merged with mass marketing, publishers began manufacturing authors along with the books. It became a standard practice to publish books written (or ghost-written) by celebrities, thus undercutting the prerogatives of the literate class. Hitler’s Mein Kampf became a best seller, while Bill Clinton, according to Forbes, pocketed $38 million from books that he “authored” after leaving the White House. Such trends are likely to continue because the major publishing companies are now owned by international conglomerates that see books as just another form of intellectual property that can be leveraged across a wide range of media. Nowadays, a movie is more easily made into a book than vice versa: Star Wars, for example, spawned a host of “novelizations.”
When the computer came along, the book became an ebook. Printed books are heavy, physical objects that suit the age of heavy industry, whereas the ebook better expresses the global mobility of the digital era. The ebook is a formidable competitor to its printed precursor. Once a book is written it can easily be converted into an ebook format, and once this is done an unlimited number of copies can be reproduced at negligible cost. Copies can be sent around the world in an instant via the internet, and people can read them in remote locations where Federal Express has never gone. There is no need for special editions for the sight-impaired for the type size is easily increased on the fly. Ebooks can even be read in the dark. Also, one can fit a whole library of ebooks on one’s smart phone, an almost inconceivable convenience to anyone who has ever hauled boxes of books from one apartment to another. To make the transition easier, ebook programmers have emulated some of the physical properties of the printed book, such as creating an illusion of pages in a medium that has no need of them. Given these advantages, some have argued that it is just a matter of time before paper books are replaced by digital books, as dray horses yielded to internal combustion engines.
Yet electronic media and the internet have reduced the need for books of any kind. In the age of industry the format of the printed book was commonly used to convey information that is essentially ephemeral, as with telephone directories, product catalogs, and travel guides, and these have been largely replaced by online databases, which are much easier to access and keep up to date. Conventional printing also gave us newspapers and magazines that focused primarily on topical or recurrent events presented in the form of short articles. Electronics has occupied this niche as well by means of web pages, television, and social media, reducing the importance of print still further. As the digital juggernaut advances, modes of discourse and domains of knowledge that have historically been the prerogative of the literate class and the printed book are now being incorporated into broadcast media and the internet.
It is not an accident that technocratic, capitalist society invented a bewildering array of high-speed vehicles, instantaneous communication, and in-your-face media. How could a newspaper hope to compete with a helicopter filming a famous football star as he flees across Los Angeles pursued by a fleet of cop cars? So electronic media appropriated the newspaper in the guise of the weather report and the news show, with just enough analysis and fact-finding to retain the name journalism. The news hour was succeeded by the all-news radio station, then by CNN, which tends to broadcast an endless repetition of headline stories and video clips stripped of their history and context. In the 21st century, the boundaries separating news, fiction, and entertainment have broken down completely. Reality TV merges the genres of documentary and drama, while fabricated news circulates on the internet and is promoted in political campaigns. The pervasiveness of the broadcast media, which assault us in a wide range of public spaces, from waiting rooms to bar rooms, make it into a kind of drum beat to which all other cultural forms must accommodate. Where books encourage us to sit down, imagine, and reflect, capitalism revels in an endlessly changing flow of realtime information.
The merger of fabricated news with omnipresent media is not a new phenomenon to readers of history or of fiction—it is recognizably Orwellian. In 1984, endless newsreels of military invasions keep the populace fearful and the war machine rolling along. As O’Brien explains to Winston Smith: who controls the present controls the past and who controls the past controls the future. For this reason, electronic media, through its immediacy, sound bites, and slogans, are essential to any totalitarian regime, whereas the book preserves memory and facilitates thought—so it is necessarily a threat. Since the fascist regimes of the 1930s, smart totalitarians have learned that the banning of books is tantamount to free advertising. Far better to ratchet up the work load, dismantle the welfare state, and merge publishers with Fox News. That way, there is no need to ban books, for no one will have the time to read them, much less to think and reflect.
Books are a mental construct, part of a culture of literacy, and they cannot be defined in terms of the technology used to produce or distribute them. The Odyssey has existed as scrolls, codices, printed books, ebooks, and PDF files. A book is a substantial body of self-contained text that is intended to tell a story or make a point. Books may have pictures, but a book with no text at all is pushing the boundaries of anyone’s definition. Bound books with a low text-to-picture ratio are often denoted in English by adjectives beginning with C: children’s book, coloring book, comic book, coffee table book… Even though ebooks are made out of bits, they display a substantial body of self-contained text written by an author, so they are “real” books by the above definition. And because both ebooks and print books exemplify the same art form, they will stand or fall together.
A book presumes language and literacy. We can see a foreign film and get a sense of the plot, but with a book we are lost if we do not know the language and how to read it. In a corporate web page, the text is a dynamic aggregate of data pulled in from a variety of sources, but a book requires a self-contained body of text written by an author. Nor is a book instrumental to some other medium, as with subtitles in a movie. Rather, the text of a book is designed to be read by itself, and it must be substantial in the sense that it requires concentration even by someone fluent in the language. Nowadays, when text is often a verb, limited in length to 140 characters and with the shelf life of an ice cube, books rise above the horizon like Everest, enticing readers to make the climb.
In reading a book, one needs to imagine any situation and character that the writer describes. With the visual arts, in contrast, it’s the picture that tells the story. In the theater, movies, and television, the creator takes great pains by means of costumes, sets, and makeup to provide an image that is immediately accessible to the senses. Also, digital technology has greatly enhanced realism to the point that it is hard to tell a documentary film from a simulation—a development that reduces the need for imagination even further. Yet too much immersion in visual media can lead to the stagnation of the active imagination and the domination of one’s internal imagery by content made by others. To watch a gunfight on TV we need our eyes and ears, but to read about one we need our imagination.
Since books bypass the immediacy of the senses, the reader’s mind is filled with thoughts and imaginings of one’s own, guided (but not determined) by the skill of the author. When this mental content becomes the subject of reflection, it enables a level of abstraction that transcends the immediacy of perception. In fiction, one can identify with this or that character, trying on different personas and learning the social implications of different actions and personalities. Also, one can explore other historical periods and imaginary worlds, landscapes of the mind that better define the boundaries of what society considers to be real. In nonfiction books, the characters and events are intended to be veridical, but prose is removed from the emotional expression of the people being described, making it easier to observe them dispassionately. Even dangerous situations can be calmly discussed because the reader is in no real danger of being swept away by a tsunami or hit by a fusillade of bullets. Books move mental activity from the sensory/motor level of function to the conceptual level, thus training the mind to deal in abstractions.
Due to its facilitative effect on three mental processes— fluency in language, active imagining, and abstract thinking—the book performs a unique and critical role in the life of the mind that cannot be duplicated by any other medium. News stories are too short for thought, while visual media provide sensory images that typically bypass the imagination. The immediacy of broadcast media hampers reflection. But with a good book, we envelop ourselves in language, imagination, and thought for some sustained period of time.
The sensibility needed for reading is out of step with casino capitalism. As one of my psychology professors liked to say, business is busy-ness, a frenetic state where there is always more money to be made and opportunities to be pursued. Where in former ages, wealth gave one leisure, now the rich are like gerbils on a wheel, rushing from one meeting to another while talking on a cell phone. The elite don’t relax: they allocate time for recreational duties that maintain a thin waistline, as if one’s mental and spiritual well being were primarily a matter of time management and girth perception.
Leisure is more than having time on your hands—it is time made available by physical and economic security. However, for many people in the world today, especially members of what economist Guy Standing calls the precariat class (the world’s fastest-growing demographic), one is either over-worked or scrambling for the next job. Under these conditions, leisure is almost impossible. Indeed, even salaried workers (now a shrinking class) spend their lives in corporations that favor workaholics, so even the well paid rarely see their children except by appointment. As capitalist busy-ness trickles down to the hoi polloi, leisure vanishes from our lives, along with play, childhood, and literature. Books are part of a world that is in danger of disappearing.
The fate of the book will be determined by the culture of literacy and a population with the leisure to enjoy reading. This requires a redefinition of the role of the publisher. Traditionally, publishers have made money by making books, but in the capitalist model, making books is instrumental to making money— which puts literature in a subordinate position. Although in the past there were for-profit publishers devoted to literary quality as well as legendary editors willing to nurture a talented writer, the institutional changes in capitalism make such economic compromises increasingly unlikely. Publishing companies are now run by MBAs who make decisions based on spreadsheets, not by littérateurs with one foot in the business world.
From an historical perspective, there is no intrinsic connection between literary culture and capitalist economics, and now it is time to jettison this increasingly problematical alliance. Among the critical problems of our time are the suppression of democracy and its replacement by a transnational corporate class unrestrained by law or ethics. It is unrealistic to think that publishing companies that profit under capitalism will ever publish serious critiques of the system that sustains them. Even worse, the present system makes authors into capitalists since the most successful ones think in terms of royalties and the number of copies sold.
The publishing company must preserve the culture of literacy while helping to foster a society in which leisure is possible. One way to achieve this is the author cooperative, an enterprise in which the producers own the means of production—an idea not entirely original with us. The cooperative model ensures that fairness and literary culture remain an intrinsic part of the organization even as it functions in a capitalist environment based on greed and self-interest.
Great Divide Books publishes works that question the dominant ideologies of our time while offering visions of alternative futures accessible through language, imagination, and clear thinking.
We hope you will join us on our journey.
Peter C. Reynolds, Ph.D.
Cofounder and Managing Editor