E-book creation and lending
LR: One thing that is interesting is how it used to be really expensive to create a book with a ton of different font treatments, layouts, images under text on every page etc., but then with desktop publishing, Photoshop, it got super easy. But now it seems like we’re coming back to square-one: for these formats to work on e-readers or on the web, you really have to pare down the design. You do not have 5000 fonts at your disposal, because that’s just how the web is set up, that’s how eReaders are set up. So my big question is, will these design possibilities gradually come back? This relates to how we were talking about how some genres are just exploding in e-books—mystery, romance, whereas other types of books still sell in the millions on paper. Do you see it getting to a point where it’s totally hybrid and you can replicate whatever print experience in an e-book…
HM: Well no. I think that there are different formats for different purposes, and I think that a coffee table book exists as a coffee table book for a particular reason. It’s not meant to be read from front-to-back. What I find most extremely frustrating as an e-book reader is when I can’t get a particular book in digital form, it drives me crazy. I think particularly on the zine side and independent publishing, there is a real reason to think of digital as the place where the indies can just spread wider, reach way more readers.
Interesting story: The guy who runs the kobo self-publishing portal now—the Chapters/Indigo e-book competitor to Kindle—ran the McMaster University book store for a long time, and he bought, at some point, an Espresso book machine. It’s basically just a giant Xerox machine that prints and binds a book and spits it out in five minutes.
LR: They have one at McGill.
HM: Yeah, my understanding is that they all break down, and no one actually knows how to run them for very long, but he is one person I’ve talked to who had a very successful experience with it. He ended up buying two machines because of all the new traffic that came into the bookstore. People who were publishing their book would run off 100 copies from the machine and then do a launch party right afterwards. I just love that kind of model.
There’s actually something very valuable about the physical space of a library, which is a place people come to, to somehow interact with information and with each other in that community spirit that’s engrained in the DNA of libraries. We just started partnering with a company out of Charleston, North Carolina that does stuff with libraries across the U.S. They’re piloting this program to see if libraries can offer a self-publishing possibility using Pressbooks; they have a platform for the e-books that can serve the libraries. It would be a great development to have libraries get involved in publishing in their communities.
LR: We’ve briefly touched on the limitations for now of the kind of content you can see in e-readers. One of the things we’ve discussed on the Expozine team for years now is whether the newer generation of self-publishers doing zines, many of which are are mind-boggling zines combining different printing techniques and formats, fold-outs, bindings, just wild stuff –will they come up with something for e-books that is totally unexpected? Who knows, maybe some of them will come up with ways to subvert or pervert some of the standard templates, identify functions in e-readers that are mildly hackable and do different things with them. It might not be happening that quickly because e-readers aren’t exactly cool… until they get more exciting or interesting, not a lot of creative people are going to go there. Which is a vicious circle…
HM: The e-book platform is terrible, they’re all awful, awful… what’s been happening is, the web exists, and does all the things that e-book readers do, but instead, the answer was to take a website and zip it up and wrap DRM around it so that it behaves basically like a book, and in doing that, a lot of thing you should expect to be able to do on the web, you can’t do in an e-book, just because of standards and decisions that have been made. So to me, when you talk about people doing cool stuff with ‘zines, what I see there is that blog style content is so accessible and inundates us that it become interesting to look at unique objects in the physical space that can give you something different that what digital does. I think there’s always going to be that interplay.
The Kindle platform has kind of moved towards supporting graphic novels and stuff, but I long ago got annoyed with their e-book ecosystem. It does a very limited set of things. If you want to be reading non-fiction in a serious way, writing notes in or marking pages, it’s also kind of annoying, because your book just disappears after you’ve read it. There’s lots of improvement that could be done without even thinking about really weird and interesting artistic expression, just the fundamental of “how” we’re allowed to use our digital books… that system, I think, is broken.
There is a big movement to improve this in academia, towards open textbooks. It’s about replacing the big, expensive textbooks in academia with faculty blogs, free and open textbooks and just exploring what kind of reading environment you would like to have. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on but the problem is twofold: One is the publishing industry is very conservative generally, and not very enthusiastic about new technology, and then you have Amazon which dominates probably 70% of the e-book market and they have the incentive to do what ever it is that helps Amazon but not necessarily others in the process. So you kind of have these two forces that don’t really want to move things, but they’re still pushing in different directions.
LR: It’s ironic that we think of ourselves in a fast-moving age but in looking back at the history of technological changes like radio or TV, this has been more than twenty years of long, slow period of transition with the Web and even longer with the Internet. Yet the way we are talking about it, it might be another 5 or 10 years before e-books reach their potential and mature as a format, and that speaks to a lot of entrenched interests and business models that people are hanging on to…
HM: Yes. I think the book world looked at what happened in music and said: “We don’t wanna go that route” and so they’ve worked hard to do something different which was: “OK, we’ll provide you these things, and we’ll charge you just as much as we used to charge you, and we’re gonna make it so that you can read on different devices.” It seemed to please book buyers relatively well, but maybe that’s why there is a leveling-off of sales of e-books, because the actual experience isn’t that great. I mean, I am an e-book reader because I like the reading part, but all the rest that goes around your reading life is completely ignored by the print ecosystem. I hope it gets better, eventually, in 50 years maybe.
LR: At least books are still there!
HM: The explosion of sales at kobo—their biggest publisher in number of units sold, their biggest account, is not Random House or any of the big publishers, it’s their self-publishing core. That’s where most of the new content is coming in…
LR: Serialized fan-fiction is helping things too.
HM: I like this development where younger zine-makers are using .gifs creatively, because in a way it’s like the same thing when I was young, like people subverting mimeograph machines or pushing photocopies as far as they will go, you know? Taking the technology and doing something new to do with it…
LR: Like drawing a naked woman on a Commodore 64 using only letters…
EC: ascii-art! (laughs)
To find out more about some of the formats and technologies cited here, check out our resource page.