08 November 2008

Speaking of change

I've set up shop on the Tools of Change for Publishing site. My dedicated readers (both of you) can find my latest post here.

13 September 2008

Signs of printing's future

I went to the Print Buyers International conference in Boston this week. Margie Dana, the show's organizer, is a combination coach and cheerleader for the printing industry, and boy, do we need one.
When I wasn't manning the RR Donnelley booth in the library-quiet exhibit hall, I managed to take in a session by Frank Romano on digital print. Frank's lectures are noted for their imaginative use of video, and I was reminded of a YouTube video that was making the rounds among my graphic-arts buddies last year.
In it, a printer stands outside his shop, pumping his fists and screaming, "I f--ing love printing! I love the smell of ink! Love to spread it on my toast like f--ing Nutella!" About halfway though his three-and-a-half-minute rant, he shouts, "Now they try to tell me that computers are replacing printing! No, we conquered the computers! Now they work for us! Can you string a computer across the wall at a party that says 'Happy Birthday'? Can you fit a computer on a water bottle that says 'Evian'?"

I was inspired to start blogging in part by a conversation I had with Scott-Martin Kosofsky, the incumbent president of the Society of Printers, a 103-year old Boston institution often mocked as the Dead Printers Society (and of which I am a past president).
Scott and I were pondering the perennial paradox of the Society of Printers: that very few of us are actually employed in the printing trade. When I joined SP, I was working as a book designer, and part of the group's appeal to me was its unspoken principle that book printing was the only real printing. Everything else was just ephemera, stuff you might collect as a hobby, but not make your life's work. Maybe that's elitist, but elitism doesn't feel so bad when you're on the inside looking out--which I was, being a book designer.
These days, SP's program of lectures leans toward printing history, graphic design, book collecting, and limited editions, and its membership is increasingly composed of scholars and librarians. Books are less something to be made than something to be preserved, like an endangered species.
Which they very well might be. When the guy who spreads ink on his toast proclaimed there are things a computer can't do, he didn't mention books. He talked about ephemera--signs and labels. If he were to give a lecture at SP, he would have a field day with the idea that we still depend on printers to make stuff we're going to throw away--the Happy Birthday sign, the Evian label--but our culture's most important ideas end up in the most ephemeral form of all, tiny electric charges that are only made human-readable by devices that will surely be obsolete by the time Mr. Ink-on-Toast's grandchildren learn to read.
And by regarding the book as a collector's item rather than a commodity, the Society of Printers may be anticipating the future more than clinging to the past.

09 August 2008

What matters and what sells

Last month on Good Experience, Bit Literacy author Mark Hurst wrote about the sometimes-painful lessons he’d learned working with mainstream book publishers. “Drop any illusions about spending time with book lovers,” writes Hurst, “this is business.”
“Publishers and bookstores want a book that sells,” he warns. “[I]f your book will sell, it doesn't matter what you're writing about.” Publishers have one-track minds, but so does Hurst. Why doesn’t he flip that argument around? If what you’re writing about matters, it will sell, whether it’s a book or not.
If you read Hurst’s essay as I did, without having read his book or its title, you would have no clue what his book is about: A novel, a weight-loss regimen, a Western Civ. textbook, the results of his research on porphyrins? It doesn't matter what you write about, he seems to say, as long as it ends up being made of paper and ink and prominently displayed in a bookstore.
Why doesn’t this acclaimed Web innovator counsel aspiring authors to say, Here are my ideas. What channel(s) will they sell best in? Traditional book, e-book, web site, TV show, movie, etc.?
Don’t blame the book publisher for putting you through the old-school publishing wringer. That’s what book publishers do. But they’re not an author's only choice anymore.

23 July 2008

Paper or plastic

Economists and environmentalists alike shake their heads at our thirst for bottled water. America has the world's safest water on tap, but we spend almost $12 billion a year buying the stuff in bottles.
Most Americans are connected to a grid that pumps fresh, clean water right into our homes, schools, and workplaces. We can use as much as we want, for a fee that's a tiny fraction of the price of bottled water.
So why, whenever we want a drink of water, do we pay for a new container, when we can have the contents piped into our homes 24/7? It's inconceivable! We wouldn't dream of buying anything else that way.
Okay, we buy newspapers that way, but nothing else, just water and newspapers. And magazines. And books.
Hmm, maybe the publishers should call up the bottled-water people and ask them what the trick is.