Tuesday, June 23, 2009

I make buggy whips, and business is fine

Thanks for asking.

There has been much in the press lately about how e-books are coming of age with the Kindle. Oh, there will be shakeouts and Kindle may or may not be the default reader of choice when all is said and done, but that’s not the question. The question is about the viability of books on paper and whether the craftspeople who make them have obsolete skills. As one of those craftspeople, I’m interested.

So here’s what I think. I think the book buying public consists of two groups, in the main.

One group—possibly the larger group—is interested in the words and unconcerned with the format. Before Gutenberg, they gathered in the town square to hear what the crier had to say or they waited for Sunday to hear what their pastor had to say or they gathered in a theater or a tavern for the storytelling. After Gutenberg they bought books and newspapers. Today, a lot of the same people get their news and stories from television, radio, the Web. The books they read are likely to be mass market paperbacks, the sort of books you see in grocery and discount stores. They are delighted with the idea of carrying around a lightweight device that can provide enormous quantities of words at the right price, and when the price drops below what they’re paying now, they’ll gladly buy a Kindle or some other reader.

The other group buys books because they like the look and feel and smell of a book. They experience a book visually and viscerally as well as intellectually. An e-book, at least as we currently understand where the technology is going, does not provide a satisfactory experience for this group.

This difference in the way these two groups appreciate books represents a real and fundamental psychological difference between what we shorthand as left-brain and right-brain activities. And as long as there are people who want to keep both sides of their brains activated when they read, I’ll still be able to earn a chunk of my living designing books. Editing is necessary regardless of medium. So that’s not going away anytime soon, either.

Business is good.

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