David Robbins: E-books may be the future, but you simply can't put a price on memories
Published 26/02/2012 | 06:00
My brother was a keen student of psychology, even from an early age. He knew, for instance, that our father would never sign the book club order form for the complete works of Charles Dickens bound in red leather and embossed with gold lettering.
Displaying a cunning -- and an initiative -- beyond his years, he simply forged his signature. He called it "cutting out the middleman".
The books duly arrived. The "leather" turned out to be of petro-chemical rather than bovine origin, the leaves of the book were wafer-thin and the text was minute. But they were real books, with spines, frontispieces and new-book smell.
My father, who favoured detective novels, was quickly on to us, and cancelled the order after four or five instalments. He muttered something about "cheap book-club editions".
But we didn't mind. We had our own Dickens "library" and had inadvertently acquired something even more valuable and long-lasting: that love of holding and savouring a printed book.
The little line of red spines took their place in the family bookcase. They stood out among the blue of the books our father collected. The spines of his books were very plain compared to our gold lettering and hand-tooling. They said simply: Form Guide.
My brother was ahead of his time: kids nowadays routinely "borrow" a parent's credit card and buy e-books, games, apps and God knows what else online. To them, our hankering after a "hard-copy" book would seem quaintly old-fashioned.
The fate of the printed book is a subject that keeps writers, publishers and booksellers awake at night. Sales are falling, markets are shrinking and the rise of the Kindle and other e-readers seems unstoppable.
Amazon sold over four million Kindle readers last Christmas. Revenue from Apple's iTunes store (which includes titles for its iBooks app) could top $13bn (€10bn) by 2014. In Japan, they're serialising books in bite-sized chunks to be read on mobile phones, and the rich-media e-book (with click-able links to footnotes, video or other extra content) is becoming more common.
Writers are ambivalent about this revolution. Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom and generally hailed as the saviour of middle-brow literary fiction, hates the Kindle.
It's not permanent enough, he says. It feels like you could move the text around, change it, even delete it. He likes the specificity of taking down a particular book from his shelf at a particular moment in time and space. (Fans will recognise this as classic Franzen glib profundity.)
And Jodi Picoult has lamented the diminishing royalties that flow from e-books -- basically, authors get a smaller percentage of a smaller download price. Booksellers don't like e-books either because they have to buy the content from an aggregator first and then sell it on and the margins are too small.
And yet. And yet there are signs of hope. There seems to be a growing market for the book as an artefact in itself. People still want to own a hand-some edition of som-ething, with stitch-ing, maybe, and nice hard covers.
Take McSweeney's, a literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers. Each issue is more like a book, completely designed from scratch. Sometimes it's a book, other times it's a box of printed sheets and other literary odds and ends.
Despite the unlikely premise (initially, it published only material that had been turned down by other publishers) and the price ($28 per issue), it has proved a success. There are still people who enjoy owning something that doesn't contain a battery and flash memory.
Then there's the success of Dublin 1911, published by the Royal Irish Academy late last year and another huge seller over Christmas. Edited by Catriona Crowe, the book is much more than a chronology of a momentous year. Its design is its chief attraction and proves that a printed book can be as inventive and visually interesting as anything digital.
My brother tells me that the Dickens editions are holding up well. The 'pleather' has melted in places and the gold lettering is worn to illegibility. He still likes to handle them from time to time and recall his first foray into literature -- and fraud.