Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Books #2

David Pearson
For the past few centuries the book industry could be sure about one thing: the format. Despite some worries about magazines or television, one thing could be taken for granted: if people want to read, and they will read books. They will spend money on buying the paperback/hardback you published, or at least go to the library and grab it there. There simply wasn't anything that could replace the paper-based books (audiobooks probably never sounded like too much of a threat).

But hello there, 21st century! The age when the old folks cry over the values they used to believe in and bury their belief in the new generations under the ground of sorrow. Should books be buried there too? I don't think so. And until the end of the paper-based book era, I strongly believe the current situation should be taken as nothing else as a package of new challenges. Everyone deserves a good kick in the ass once in a while, and therefore I made a little list of how book publishers could be helped by the designers (after all, we do tend to judge the book by its cover).

1.Concentrate on what you can offer that they can't.

Barbara DeWilde
 Since I'm analyzing the issue more design-wise than content-wise, I just have to note that there are some features of books as objects, which can't yet be replaced by mere text on screen. Of course, e-books are not standing in one place. As Stephen Brown says in 40KBooks, there’s no stopping them. They’re the way of the future. We’ve only scratched the surface thus far. I think they’ll have very far-reaching effects once publishers / authors / illustrators / designers start to really explore the possibilities (interactivity, hyperlinks, special features, audio-visual aspects, etc., etc.). Some people see them as the “death of the book”. I think they might be the beginning of something truly wonderful. But as for the time being, there are things that can't be replaced by a little plastic box. 

Such as using the book as a shelter from the rain, borrowing them from someone you like, keeping things you don't want to get wrinkled, making notes or decorating your room to make an impression. Or even falling in love just because of a few book titles (I honestly can't see this happening with e-books. Doesn't it even break the whole idea of libraries?): I finally found the short film Rare Books and Manuscripts by Bruce Webb, which I was trying to find for ages since I saw it a few years ago.

Never did that?
When the war (can we actually call it a war?) is on, traditional book publishers have to indulge every single feature that makes them better. So why not introduce a series of books with water-proof covers, special boxes for the owner's phone number, pockets for important things and margins for notes? 

Beegee Tolpa
And another niche which can never be replaced by e-books is the children's books. And not only because parents will soon notice the problem that when given a thing with a screen, a kid will hardly choose to use it for reading; publishers dealing with children's books have long used some particular ways to satisfy kids' needs. Just when you think about all the pop-up, 3D and texture tricks, books with musical boxes or toys installed - you can clearly see that kids enjoy holding on to these. And eventually kids grow to enjoy books with simple illustrations and finally books that don't necessarily have to be stuffed with additional material. Everything happens step by step, and I personally believe that valuing books is a key part of a person's culture.

Beege Tolpa, pop-ups
The onscreen culture has already affected it remarkably. Publishing a children's book and expecting a positive reaction and good sales already takes more than writing the book itself or spending a fortune on its design.  Publishers are trying to entice kids to read books by offering companion Web sites that are graphic-rich and able to plunge young readers into the story. Along with the tale on the page, kids can dip into online videos and games, win prizes, create Internet identities and get into social networking. It is a tricky gamble for publishers, one requiring a deep commitment of time and money, says Stephen Lowman in Washington Post.

Of course, e-books are aware of the additional challenges the kids market throws. It would be naive to believe that things will stay the same and kids will never be hooked by reading onscreen more than physical books. But honestly, I think there's still time for that: as long as the new generations don't completely change the previous ones, the latter will encourage their children and grandchildren to feel what's so special about the physical books.

2.Grab their attention with your uniqueness, make them wanna touch the books, feel it and carry it around and display it in their shelf, proud; prouder than having the latest model of iPad
      Even though I am fascinated by the variety of fiction covers today and could spend HOURS in the library/bookshop exploring them, I feel it to be a crime not to mention another type of books. Books that are literally bought for some desire to indulge one's visual needs, more powerful than coffee or chocolate. I am a victim of this phenomenon myself, and it is amazing how much freedom is given to the designers who deal with these books. 
       I know, there are also thousands of breath-taking books about trains, dogs, landscapes or cars. But I feel obliged to give a little space to the very king of visually lovely books - TASCHEN. Books that make your fingertips tingle as you turn from one page to another, as you take them out of the shelf when researching the subject, or books that you are simply proud to keep. And while I am certain that e-book culture will inspire the designers to create something absolutely magnificent with all this material, there's still a reason to believe some things don't have to disappear too quickly.

3.Push the sentiment button. 
Coralie Bickford-Smith
That's one more thing I don't believe e-books will ever manage to pull off. What kind of sentimentalism or nostalgia can we talk about when we think about things that are safely stored somewhere where real life isn't able to do its job? Just remember your first book, the one you read under the blanket with a torch, the one you lent and never got back, the one you borrowed and never returned, the one you keep because of its cover, the one you keep despite it having no cover any more.  Hardbound and paperback books may never totally disappear, but they could become scary scarce — like eight-track tapes, typewriters and wooden tennis rackets, Linton Weeks says in NPR Books. Will anyone ever be able to attach these sentiments to files on screen? Don't underestimate the power of nostalgia. And that's a thread designers shouldn't cut off. 
Coralie Bickford-Smith
Here's another touching sentimental article on the topic. However, those make me a little irritated, really. Because whenever you stumble upon something like that, you're obliged to feel bad about the time you're living. I don't want that. I want to enjoy the mess I'm in, and be able to brag about this to my children, without making them feel miserable about what they missed.

      What can designers do about it? Well, the first thing should be reissuing some of people's old favorites, applicable in the world of today, and yet remembering to be modest, classical and intelligent. Nostalgia's powerful, and for this reason I hardly believe there is any real threat for Penguin. Just check out my amazing discovery, designer Coralie Bickford-Smith, embodying everything I had in mind. How can one dispose of books when beautiful things like this are created?
 4. Let them be aware that e-books aren't cheaper.
Wordsworth publishing
      This was a bit of a surprise for me, but apparently, physical books are not necessarily more expensive
      Yet another thing to keep in mind: the budget factor. The designer's role, especially in challenging times like this, is to let people know the book you're selling is affordable, but not cheap. I recently bought a budget version of Mrs Dalloway (I was running out of time and library wasn't an option), and I grew to be terribly disappointed. The book is amazing, but owning that particular copy didn't make me proud or happy; and this is not a feeling that would lead to me buying a prettier version of it. Sadly, weak design is not likely to make a reader spend more money on the same book once again. It's a mistake that can't be forgiven now, when every copy sold counts. 

       5.The green factor.
       I only make a note about a promise to make an entire post on this topic. Would be such a shame to squeeze one of the trendiest topics of current times into a mere paragraph.

See you soon. Do yourself a favor and spend the upcoming 30 minutes reading that book you had promised yourself to read.   

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