Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Presence of Print

About two years ago, Dan Visel ended a thoughtful post on the New York Public Library’s newly-installed Espresso Book Machine by proposing: “There’s a discussion here that needs to happen.”
In light of the second version of the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) coming out here in England, I’d like to take up his proposal.
First, a little bit about the machine and how it’s improved over the last two years. The machine, produced by OnDemandBooks, put simply, is a device that allows individuals to print books from a digital catalogue on demand. The original idea was to facilitate customers’ access to books on backlist, or, in its more ambitious conceptualization, to function as a vending machine that provided books in places lacking the space in which to store them (think cruise ships). As Dan Visel noted in his original post, the version installed in the NYPL was a hulking contraption that took a long time to produce books outstanding only for their poor quality:
“Holding my copy of Faulkner in my hands, the overwhelming feeling was one of cheapness: the book had been reduced, finally, to being a disposable consumer object, available as easily as a latte at Starbuck’s. The books that the Espresso was putting out every twenty minutes existed for demonstration purposes…I sensed that the books probably wouldn’t be read.”
Since then, ODB have made the size of the machine itself more compact (it still looks like a photocopying machine), decreased the printing time, and significantly widened the material available. As Blackwell’s CEO put it upon the EBM’s installation in its Charing Cross store two weeks ago, “It’s giving the chance for smaller locations, independent booksellers, to have the opportunity to truly compete with big stock-holding shops and Amazon.” Put bluntly, the unique selling point of the EBM from the perspective of book store owners is that the breadth of titles immediately available will lure customers away from sites like Amazon and back into their bricks-and-mortar shops.
Also since then, a lot has happened in the publishing industry. Not the least of which is Kindle 2, as well as the iPhone, Apple’s imminent Kindle-Killer, and the expansion of GoogleBooks’ content (which includes magazines as well as books). Instantaneous access to limited, but rapidly-expanding, content is now expected and easy in numerous digital formats.
So, what has the EBM got that the digital formats haven’t? One thing, really. Presence. While the cost of books printed by the EBM is low, swathes of online content is free, and e-readers will, like all technology, decrease in price in due time. On-screen readability has progressed impressively and may even have an advantage over the smaller fonts used in standard printed books. If the iPod is any indication, people are willing to pay a more significant amount up front in exchange for total and ubiquitous access to their personal catalogue–up until now, of music, but perhaps soon of books as well. Many music stores now allow customers to download music from in-store digital stations in order to avoid purchasing the physical CD itself. The EBM, with a comparable catalogue, suggests that the same will soon be available to people toting along their E-Books to the store. Plug in, download, read. All these factors would seem to spell a speedy end to the EBM.
So again, I ask, what has the EBM got that the digital formats haven’t? And again the answer is Presence. If people are going to continue to purchase paper books, publishers have got to do for books what the music industry failed to do for CDs. While the CD-stand or -case was almost de rigeur in 1990s interior decor, people soon realized that a tower of transparent plastic was not the personality statement piece they imagined it could be. Yet vinyl records, despite their obsolescence, retain their appeal for many, from nostalgic Baby Boomers to cool-hunting teens. Perhaps it is, after all, the sound quality, but I’m willing to bet that the labor put into sleeves and liner notes is what has guaranteed their enduring appeal. Records are fetishized objects, while CDs are shiny detritus disks. At this moment in time, books seem poised to go either way.
How can the EBM and the publishing industry at large promote the permanence of the paper book? Capitalize on what already makes the book appealing. Its Presence. Looking at my own bookshelves at the moment, my eye is pleased to see three elegantly-designed paperbacks of Murakami’s works leaning against one another, while lamenting that the fourth was produced by a publisher with a lesser eye for design and display. My Penguin Classics form a band of black crowned with a single red striation, and my cookbooks’ spines flash an array of color that, frankly, makes me hungry.
Of course, all of these are mine. I chose them, I own them, I feel their presence in my home. But many, many other people also own them. They have what I have like the certain green-and-white paper coffee cups alluded to in the Espresso Book Machine’s name. But what if, instead of being a customer, accustomed to the books that weren’t customized to me, I were a patron? What if books, instead of being made more disposable, were restored their status of belonging? What if printing allowed us to imprint ourselves on the books that we’ve printed? All of this seems to oppose what printing inherently is and what it revolutionized, as Elizabeth Eisenstein argued. But it is easy to argue that standardization was not an inevitable end to a technologically-determined progression.
What if the EBM allowed us to design books the way we want to see them and want them to be seen? At present, the only choice allowed is paper color. And the desire to keep prices low–an appeal that Amazon and online content already have–demands that options be limited. But what if I could change the cover of that fourth Murakami book to a design more fitting with the other three? What if publishers commissioned more than one artist to produce cover designs that competed for our attention and won them pretty royalties? What if I could hide my Harlequin romance novel behind a cover bearing Kafka’s name? What if I could expand the margins of pages in order to accommodate my written conversations with the text? What if I could append an index with a concordance of a single character’s use of the word “phoney”? What if I could print up the journalistically-toned novels of Marquez in Courier font and the Iliad in Herculanum? What if I thought something as precious as Poe deserved octavo? What if I printed the Wife of Bath’s Tale before the Knight’s?
The what-ifs are many and obviously expensive. But what if we could bend and shift the standardization that is the essence of printing? What if we could change printing to be more present that it already is? Physical witness to a choice made now and in the present.