Ebooks don’t furnish a room
By MICHAEL CAINES
You might think twice about buying eBooks after reading this. Sainsbury's takes over Nook e-books business in the UK. Apple to pay $450m settlement over US ebook price fixing. "End of the beginning for e-books", says Tamblyn (i.e. Michael Tamblyn, the CEO of the ebook service Kobo). I was prompted to look up the latest headlines about ebooks by the Channel 4 news story above, called "All in a bind".
The story stars a bookbinder whose work I've admired for some time now, Michael Curran of the Tangerine Press, as well as that man of many talents, Billy Childish – both of them have interesting things to say, I think, within the rather straitened either/or context of this report. It tells us that we live in an age of analogue versus digital, books versus ebooks, traditional craftsmanship versus PDFs and print-on-demand. Does it really have to be like this?
I suppose countless books will be bought and sold before anybody can give a definitive answer to that question, and the headlines quoted above show how it's early and unsettled days for the ebook business. As with the publication of short stories, though, I find it strange how often this kind of discussion is presented solely in terms of revenues and percentages. I'm not denying it's significant that ebook sales are "cruising nicely", as Mr Tamblyn puts it, at 20–30 per cent of all book sales, or that the five biggest publishers' ebook sales actually fell in the UK last year, as the reporter Boya Dee notes for C4. "The rise of the e-book may not be as unstoppable as you might think."
For me, the strangeness lies in the pitching of, say, buying Iris Murdoch's letters through Amazon, for consumption via a Kindle app (as I have done), against the unimpeachable artistic quality and value of a Tangerine Press production. Ignore the money for a moment, and there is, as Billy Childish says, no contest – in fact, don't ignore the money but think about what you're paying for when you buy a text in physical form. Mr Curran, a former carpenter, underlines the difference between that and its electronic twin: "it's not anything you can get hold of, it's not something you can pick up and smell; but I think when you've got an article that's hand-made . . . that's just so much more". J. C. makes a similar point in the TLS:
"Many people find convenience in ebooks and e-readers, and if they are happy, we’re happy too. . . . A book is a book is a book. You cannot own an ebook. It has no aesthetic properties: no ornamentation, no weight, no smell; in short, no character. It offers no choice between nice-to-handle and that experience’s opposite. It does not furnish a room."
(This is from J. C.'s Perambulatory Christmas Books series, by the way; it comes to mind because I did a spot of perambulating myself this morning and, on the cheap, picked up three good-looking books, from 1963, 1946 and 1927 respectively; none of them requires an update.)
On the other hand: when I say I'm consuming Iris Murdoch's letters on the Kindle, I actually mean that I'm searching them, copying and pasting lines I happen to like and carrying 688 pages around as if they weighed nothing at all; I won't be giving them a star rating on Amazon.
In other words, given the interests of the industry, setting analogue against digital no doubt makes sense – but some readers perhaps prefer both/and to either/or. (That's one reason I'd like the wise heads to tell me why the book world hasn't widely embraced the model of simultaneously selling readers physical and digital versions of the same title, as you sometimes find with music, film and newspapers.) For purely selfish reasons – and I'd be interested to know if other readers feel the same way – I have an as-yet-unshaken conviction that physical books are best, but I'll take what I can get, and very gladly exploit the advantages of an e-reader without feeling that this marks an evolutionary leap into the future.
One other fact whispers to me that analogue versus digital is a literary red herring: Tangerine Press specializes in publishing limited editions of neglected writers and works of a distinctly alternative spirit. I first heard of Curran's work when I reviewed his edition of The People of the Abyss by Jack London, and later went to see the workshop C4 more recently visited; since then, I've found much more to enjoy in Tangerine editions such as James Kelman's revised story collection A Lean Third, as well as In the Enemy Camp, a selection of the morphine-riddled and otherwise scarce poems of William Wantling. Can we interpret the care that goes into the making of such books as a sign of especial respect for their contents? And isn't it less a case of one format versus another, than of what a determined small press can do, and which, given the esoteric nature of such projects, it wouldn't make any sense for a a big publisher to take on?