"To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
It's true, it really does. And I don't know if you've ever used a walkie-talkie, but for the first few minutes you talk as if you're in an old Anthony Hopkins action flick. It's all "roger roger" and "Alpha foxtrot, I did not copy, over" and then you settle down and say "sorry, mate, what was that?"
The point is that technology exerts a glamour. When you've got a tool, you look for ways to use that tool, and you have to stop, and focus, and consider carefully whether it's the right tool for the job. You probably could use a hammer to untangle two strands of a glass chandelier, but you'd do better to use your hands.
All of which is an eliptical way of approaching the idea that digital is not a suitable format for all books in all situations. It's not just a question of practicality - although I have recently been experimenting with reading on an iPad while in the bath, and I can confirm that nerves, steam, wet fingers and weight are all factors which detract from a perfect engagement with the book. (Along with my wife's desire to play Plants vs Zombies.)
It's also - and more importantly - a question of creating the right experience.
I decided to post this this morning because I've just read Tom Gold's post about it over on his blog, and that crystalised (or perhaps more correctly, 'precipitated') my feelings nicely.
Books are not just text. They are design, yes, and layout and so on, but they are also history and context, and sometimes, the digital road won't get you where you want to go. I tend to read on my phone when I'm on the tube or on a plane, mostly because I don't want to carry around the three or four books I may be reading at any given time, but also because my handluggage these days is largely composed of distractions for a sixteen-month-old.
Don't get me wrong: I love electronic books, and I think they're a huge plus in terms of convenience and accessibility. I still think we have a long, long way to go in terms of typography, but it's the experience which is sticking for me at the moment. When I get home from my crowded tube, I want the intransient, generous, tactile pages of a paper book with deckled edges and a matt cover - just in the same way that I want tea and a lot of cushions rather than a hi-tech office chair. I want my sofa and my wife sitting at the other end of it with her books, and I want her to poke me with her toe when it's time for us to go and make some dinner.
After a few years of enjoying and thinking about electronic books, paper still has a very specific place in my world - in fact, it has regained some ground. The depthless grey of my Kindle screen and the gloss brightness of the iPad or iPhone are fine and good, but they are not the hearth and home experience. For that, I want paper, with its grain and flexibility. I want to be able to manipulate pages in three dimensions, riffle through them, flick back. I want to be an ape with an object for a while, relax into my physical universe while my mind generates the world of the book.
That may be an artefact of my age; perhaps younger readers won't have it. But I'm not so sure. It seems to me that one way our digital co-evolution could go is a growing understanding that digital is perfect for a specific set of activities, but bad for others. Much of what we do, especially as a family or in the arena of play, requires the creation of a particular mindset, an experience. And paper is a specific experience, with a set of requirements, realities, advantages and disadvantages.
I think we will ultimately learn when to use the digital hammer, and when to use one made of wood and metal.
That has obvious consequences for publishing as a trade:
1. paper won't die, but it will shift in significance
2. bundling will become more important
3. we need to start to sell books in context: how will they be read, by whom. We should be talking about lifestyles and experiences almost as much as plots and characters. Books are an identity, and a way of being in the world.
4. some books won't lend themselves to one format or the other, and while we'll want to produce a version for those who really need a copy in the wrong format, we will want to sell the book chiefly for the right one.
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