Friday, 2 October 2009

Beautiful Books - Katherine Roberts

There has been a lot of press recently about e-readers and the long-awaited revolution of e-books. If we are to believe the manufacturers’ claims, people will soon be downloading entire novels to read on these gadgets – not just one at a time, but hundreds of books all on the same handy little electronic device. This got me thinking about what exactly a book is and (more importantly) what makes people buy them.

I sometimes buy books for the content alone. This might be because a friend has recommended a title, because I’ve read some interesting reviews, because I need a certain title for research, or because I've enjoyed other books by that author. In this case, I don’t really care about the packaging and am happy to read it in any form of packaging, however dog-eared. I suppose it’s possible I would read such a book in e-format, though I tend to find print easier on the eye than a screen so it would be no great pleasure for me.

But I also buy books on impulse because I am attracted to the cover image, the title, the colour, the sparkly bits, the fonts used, the illustrations, the feel of the book in my hands, its smell, its age, its value if a first edition, its memories if signed by the author… all the things an e-book cannot deliver. The packaging is especially important if I am buying a book as a gift for someone else.

It's interesting to note that I buy twice as many books on impulse/as gifts than I do because I know I want to read them. So if you are in the business of selling books, removing the packaging that attracts the impulse buyer seems a bit like shooting yourself in the foot. E-books will have no packaging, other than the e-reader itself. Content becomes all. Advertising and promotion will be the only way of bringing such “books” to a potential reader’s attention. The way we buy books will change.

Does it matter? I think it does. I know that as an author my text never feels quite real until the proofs arrive, and if I am disappointed by the production quality of the finished book then I often feel a need to create a more beautiful version myself to do justice to the work. “I am the Great Horse” will one day be a collection of handwritten scrolls kept in a box like Alexander the Great’s edition of the Iliad that he took with him on his epic journey to India and back, and I know many other authors create book art in their spare time, perhaps seeking something more permanent than the electronic text that can be so easily lost, stolen or abused. In contrast, my latest title is a highly illustrated novelty book in beautiful packaging that I keep wanting to pick up just for the pleasure of looking at it - that's the cover above, though a picture can't show you how the actual book glitters and sparkles in the sunlight. Maybe the e-reader will prompt a return to such art, and production values (which have been falling for some time where mass market paperbacks are concerned) will become more important again? I hope so.

As for the e-reader itself, apparently you can get them in pink. But I bet they don’t come in swirly pink and violet with sparkly silver stars and prancing white horses on them. I know which type of book I want on my shelf - and I'm not even seven years old any more!


Kathryn and Caitlin said...

There's also something about feeling the weight of the pages shift once you get towards the end of the book that is so satisfying! I don't know how that feeling of accomplishment can be matched by an e-reader

Brian Keaney said...

Three good reasons to cheer for the e-reader:
1. Boys like technology better than glitter. We want more boys to read.
2. You won't have to worry about running out of books on holiday
3. You can only get so many books in your house. Mine is already bursting at the seams.

catdownunder said...

Okay so my book stack is getting decidedly unstable to sit on. I'll risk it. I hate, hate, hate having to scroll backwards and forwards. Turning pages is much easier on the paws. Books, real books, do not need batteries. Miaou!

Stroppy Author said...

e-books have their place, and so do real books.

You beat me to it, Katherine - I was going to talk about (a different aspect) of e-books today. Your post is very inciteful - I especially like the point about impulse purchases/gifts. I can't see it feeling the same to buy an e-book as a gift. It would be OK for some people, but for many it wouldn't feel like a real present.

Katherine Roberts said...

K + C... oh yes, I forgot that satisfying sense of "getting through" a book - seeing it beside my bed when I wake up, with the bookmark moving slowly through the pages day by day. (I have quite a collection of beautiful bookmarks, too! What's going to happen to them when everyone has e-readers?)

BRIAN... if it gets more boys reading, that'll be a good thing. I'm not against the e-reader as an alternative method of reading. We already have audiobooks for those who want to "read" in the car or prefer them to the printed word.
I suppose what I'm really worried about is the temptation to publish some (most?) books ONLY in e-format, since presumably it'll be cheaper than printing a physical book and paying someone to design a cover. That will remove reader choice, and anything that removes choice is bad.

CATDOWNUNDER... I agree, and e-readers won't even have plastic mice to play with!

STROPPY... e-readers seem destined to replace the mass-market edition. So if your book goes straight to paperback now, then pretty soon it'll be straight to e-reader... aieee!!!

madwippitt said...

You can read a book in the bath ... drop it in accidentally and it'll (eventually) dry out, if a bit crinkly ... will an ebook survive such treatment? Or any of the other adventures that meet unputtdownable books as you traipse round with your nose firmly wedged between the pages?
And oh that first delicious moment as you sit with a book between your hands, unopened as yet, savouring that moment when you turn the first page and dive into
a new world or revisit an old one ...

Katherine Roberts said...

I've done that! I dropped the hardcover of Philip Pullman's "Amber Spyglass" in the bath. But after I'd scooped it out and dried it off I carried on happily reading... yes, it did go a bit crinkly, but on the whole it still works quite well.