The Book in Your Hand
Tangibility and the Writer
A writer likes to tell stories, connect ideas, and bring about their vision of art. Writers use words to create places and characters in the mind’s eye. And bound with that is the desire to add tangibility to the space they are creating. Books can have a physical sense: their weight, the sound of the turning page, and the way books even smell based on their age and where they are kept. Might holding a text be just as important as reading it? While some readers like to read physical books, when an author holds their own book – does it change the experience?
There is a lot of data on preference between physical book and e-books, but none of it speaks to the creators of the content alone. Thousands of articles speak to research that finds more people still prefer print to electronic versions for a myriad of reasons. If you follow the money, according to the 2014 Pew Research statistics, the print book will garner higher revenues when distributed to bookstore outlets by $5,000 – $9000 per title, as compared to printed books sold online. “Similarly, although the difference was not as large, self-published books in the sample that were sold in bookstores – only 12% – earned a median of $500-$999 compared to $1-$499 for those that weren’t,” according to the report. Writers with the resource of a publisher to distribute the book to bookstores gained more than non-distributed writers.
The PEW report went on to say that in 2022, only 9% of people will be reading exclusively digital books. Thirty-two percent of the readers are reading print only. E-book sales increased, but that has not changed the sale of tangible books that much. In fact, readers are combining their book-buying habits to include e-books (for the convenience of getting them quickly), but then also buying physical books by their favorite writers. Book people continue to covet the collections stacked in their bookcases. With the uncertainty of books turning to a digital-only option (which the sales don’t support), collectors and book lovers are more inclined to stock their shelves through local second hand book stores, Thrift Books, and other second hand outlets.
What about the writers? Writers are constantly considering audience. Even if not directly, writers think about the people that will read their work, and how those readers will consume their work. Should a writer also think about the format that their readers choose? This may be more a marketing question than an artistic one. Many writers have become artists, agents, marketers, and speakers all in one package. At some point, a writer will ask – how will I get my work to the reader? Does my audience prefer a book that can be held or a cheaper, quicker-to-arrive, electronic version of the work? Does the notion of holding a book vs reading a screen change the intention of the book or what the writer produced?
Writers I connect with have come to desire tangibility in a book. They find that reading and the ideas that connect to that act are all about imagination and things they construct in their mind. So, it makes sense that the very foundation of the books – pages, glue, binding, art work – be tangible. In fact, bibliophiles relish the idea of holding, touching, and reading books. In an example, like S. by J. J. Abrams, the physical book becomes the means to the plot. This innovative book is described as “the chronicle of two readers finding each other in the margins of a book and enmeshing themselves in a deadly struggle between forces they don’t understand.” It is proclaimed a “love letter to the written word.” That being said, the book itself is also the mechanism to tell this unique story. Tucked in the pages, you will find margin notes, letters, pictures, and all kinds of para-textual information. When you read this book, you are pulling out ephemera, reading scribbled notes, and physically discovering the world that is unfolding in the story. The physical design and nature of this book is the essence of tangibility in books.
Is there prestige in a print book? Is there an inter-social class system to publish based on print and electronic formats? Do print books symbolize the backing of a big publisher? Does it connect with the idea that the writer’s work is distinctive enough to catch the eye of an editor or agent? Anyone can send a file to a Kindle, but when it has an ISBN number and a release date from a New York publisher - that has a significance that changes the way we see the work, and perhaps the author.
Perhaps, it is merely permanence. In the world of digital connections, we may remain skeptical of the transferability of media through systems. Considering how well my VHS collection survived the shift into the new millennium, I would say that is a fair concern to think in the back of your mind: physical books will be gone. Still, it is more than just concerns about transference, but also permanence in the face of time. The book a writer creates has the potential to outlast their body and their place in the world by hundreds of years. It also has the potential to be lost into obscurity with other volumes in discarded warehouses and book repositories.
The sense of permanence comes more in holding a book. When I read a book published in 1898, I feel like I am not only accessing older knowledge, but I am also digesting it in its native form. The act of reading old books also feels like reverence for the past. It is a grounding for those lost in the ethereal connections on the page. If we are learning from the past, do we have to experience it as it was originally delivered? A timelessness that is as much a mystique as it is a reality.
Josh Catone’s article, “Why Printed Books Will Never Die” mentions that “People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred.” He goes on to say, “Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel.” Thinking about this concept, I can’t help think of all the trinkets I’ve discovered in reading other people’s books. Your Kindle won’t have recipes and four-leaf clovers tucked away in their digital pages, but then again, some people don’t like those little surprises tucked into a book. Small gifts come from books; people shove a note, a recipe, a letter, a flower in books all the time. And the result is that you get to touch a bus ticket from 1943, or see a four leaf clover on a page only discovered because you read all the subsequent pages. The sense that a book is more than an object but an experience for many people always makes me happy. This path to ideas is one that other have passed through, connected with, and left a little trinket from their lives.
Looking at the numbers, the preference for tangibility of books still dominates the market. But do we value the object or the ideas contained inside of it? I personally find myself torn between the tactile elements of owning a book, and the desire to read it digitally, instantly. If it is a book I deem important, I will buy it and shelve it when I am done. Some books are complete once you finish, once you know who did it, once the story is complete. That is an electronic purchase for me. I am constantly balancing my immediate desire for the contents of a book with how I plan on interacting with the book in the future. And in some ways, how I’ve interacted with a book in the past impacts the decision.
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Tangibility and permanence may be a generational thing. For writers who value the printed book as a symbol of their success and value – these writers are holding on to the past. The thought is: I’ve been inspired by writers in print, so this is what I should be doing. For older writers, this is a dream fulfilled. This is the crowning achievement. Does that mean that a whole new generation of writers, currently attending MFA programs and writing their first novels will value printed books the same way? If it is a matter of increased income, and the current publishing model endures, the answer is yes they will value it. However, millennials may not see the value in filling their apartments up with books, preferring to build a 2.0 audience based on social media and smaller micro-interactions.
Do all writers dream of holding their printed book in their hand? Perhaps their dream has always been to see their book on table at a chain bookstore. And perhaps we have created a kind of hierarchy where printed writers are prestigious and e-book authors are struggling to make it to the market. When I walk into a chain bookstore, I am often overwhelmed. I wander to obscure preferences. Sometimes, I don’t even buy anything because I just can’t focus. Like streaming video services, where people can watch anything they want, books, too, are becoming more specific to a generation that needs to read specific and meaningful books without the act of browsing the shelves and discovering a book just for the sake of looking. Perhaps we all still desire to hold on to those stories, really hold them in our hands, to remember why they are important. Perhaps we all should just have a few books that changed our lives and remember that it wasn’t just words and ideas, but that there was something else about them that changed us. Perhaps we aren’t that far from the past. We still need to hold on to those books, to ground us in our own tangible stories.