Why Books and Magazines have Edges

Nicholas Carr has an interesting short essay in the Wall Street Journal two days ago. In Books that are never done being written he considers the possible disadvantages of a world in which books are continually being edited and revised, post publication. Carr has just self-published a book through Amazon and he has taken advantage of the ease with which he can make changes, even though the book has already been sold and consumed by some of his readers. He notes that the apparent immutability and objectivity of print books had certain advantages:

Beyond giving writers a spur to eloquence, what the historian Elizabeth Eisenstein calls “typographical fixity” served as a cultural preservative. It helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law. The preservative qualities of printed books, Ms. Eisenstein argues, may be the most important legacy of Gutenberg’s invention. Books that are never done being written

Carr contrasts this relative ‘fixity’ of print culture with the mutability of ‘ebooks’:

Once digitized, a page of words loses its fixity. It can change every time it’s refreshed on a screen. A book page turns into something like a Web page, able to be revised endlessly after its initial uploading. There’s no technological constraint on perpetual editing, and the cost of altering digital text is basically zero. As electronic books push paper ones aside, movable type seems fated to be replaced by movable text.Books that are never done being written

We should notice that this is a rather specific problem with the ‘ebook’ paradigm now dominant: EPUB, mobi etc, the malleable file formats in which digital books are currently published. Such ebooks are designedly books without heavy design, they are mostly books with linear text, which can ‘reflow’ to meet the needs of different ereading devices and the preferences of individual readers. Highly designed books, newspapers and magazines which are published as apps, or as digital editions (cf the page-faithful format favoured by Google Books or the magazines in Exact Editions) will have significant design and editorial costs accruing from major changes in an existing text. Its not a simple matter to mess with the content in an app. The process will be much less expensive than with print and it will be much easier or more feasible to update the existing user base, through systems of ‘version control’, but there will be costs: pages may have to be redesigned, illustrations may need to be reconsidered or rearranged, pagination altered. Publishers do sometimes ask for a few pages to be changed or corrected in the Exact Editions version, and we are generally able to do this. But a complete re-write or a ‘new edition’ is another matter. The ‘external’ costs even of moderate changes will also be non-negligible to the extent that pagination and format is used by bookmarks, databases and citations. Its one thing to ‘stealthily’ push out an upgrade to a text through an overnight upload, its another matter to require third parties to ‘correct’ the references or quotations that they may have made from an earlier version. There is still much value in the idea of an edition and of a dateable publication moment. So, ebooks may need to recover the stability and certainty that goes with this. Nicholas Carr also cites the rather marvellous short speech that John Updike made at BEA in 2006. A speech in which he made plain his alarm and disdain for a culture in which the unity and integrity of the book might be lost:

Books traditionally have edges, some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few at least at my extravagent publishing house are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill where are the edges? The book revolution which from the renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets. So, booksellers defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our human identity. BookExpo America 2006 John Updike speech – Podcast

Updike has a point. Would he have been happier with the notion of a book or magazine as an app? This would be hard to judge — and given Updike’s rather mournful, elegiac, tone in the speech I think perhaps he would not — but when it comes to edges, he would perhaps be mollified. Apps certainly have edges and they do have editions or issues. Apps have been criticised for being too ‘restrictive’, too bounded, for not enabling links to the web or to external resources — though there is no reason at all why they should be restrictive in this matter. Some ‘magazine’ apps are web-like in their indefinite extensibility, continually updated and delivered snippet-wise to the reader in a steady flow, but other magazine apps are determinate and issue-based. The entire issue is released/published on a specific date, the way that Apple has organised their iTunes newsstand shows a strong preference for the traditional process of ‘issues’. In the iTunes newsstand a magazine or newspaper has specific editions which are in a predictable and periodical fashion followed one after the other and they should not be malleable and they do not include blogs or user-generated content which pops into the app in an unpredictable way. It is the very fixedness of the newsstand app which is perhaps the main reason why newspapers have by and large NOT followed magazines by diving into the system that Apple has established. In the US iTunes list of top-selling newsstand apps, only the New York Times, the iPad specific Daily and the Houston Chronicle occur in the top 25. The remaining 22 titles are all magazines. I suspect that John Updike would have approved of the fact that the New York Times app was top, and I think he might have enjoyed the New Yorker app (a very creditable 7th position) enough to play with it on an iPad.

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