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free books and recreational reading

There’s a lot of recent discussion about whether or not giving free books away on the Internet is a good idea.

Some say that it will affect sales negatively. Some fear that the book will be pirated. I think that’s all nonsense, especially if the book given away has already sold many many copies. See some of the discussion here and here, both of which are links Gaiman published in his blog (sorry the links are broken – and I can’t currently seem to find the articles to which I linked, as google is having a fit).

How many times does one copy of a bestseller get read? In theory, lots! In actuality, they are oftentimes “bestsellers” because libraries order 10 copies of Barbara Taylor Bradford because the bindings are crap. Think of all the copies in libraries everywhere. Kind of like the video store when there’s a new release – lots of copies. Then in a few months, fewer. Then in a few years, fewer again. This happens a little more slowly in libraries. Just a little.

Of course I’m being just slightly facetious – I agree strongly with Gaiman’s comment that there are fewer and fewer recreational readers. Ask around – how many of your friends will spend the evening or weekend deeply involved in a book? It’s kind of like getting caught with a somehow embarrassing friend, if you’re caught reading in public. You can’t tuck a Bestseller away in your pocket, discretely. You need one of those wheely carts to lug your book around with you — and so you never take it out to dinner, preferring the solitude of your apartment and some takeout…if you still read, that is.

It’s tragic, really. Lost is the image of the elegant bohemian, book in hand, seated on a park bench with elegant wee volume. Instead, the hipster with iPod or iPhone in hand. “How are they in sunlight? Oh, you’re not reading. Sorry!”

So, no, I don’t think sales of American Gods or any other book will be affected negatively by this or any other free book offer that involves having to read the book online. Aesthetically, laptops are nicer and nicer, but it’s still not the same thing as curling up or walking out with a good book. Screen reading on a park bench. Hum. Not for me, thanks.

If publishers want to seriously increase book sales, look at book aesthetics!

It’s darned hard to curl up with a bestseller. Most of them are bladderbusting behemouths that have only barely enough glue on their spines to get them through five readers before falling apart or being completely twisted out of shape. They are huge and heavy and seriously unpleasant to take to bed, much less to hold in your hands for hours. They often smell bad. When they fall out of bed, they wake the neighbours and send the cat shooting across the room. Sounds like something you really want to take to bed, doesn’t it?

Sounds remarkably like a laptop, too – though instead of smelling badly, I find the fan noisy, especially when the computer’s been on my lap or a blanket for a bit. And you don’t want it falling off the bed…

What happened to Everyman- and Modern library-sized books? Small and sweet to hold in your hand, they fit relatively easily into a bag or pocket of an overcoat. They are portable, they are nice in bed, they don’t hurt if you happen to rest them on your body. They are economical – less paper, smaller print, smaller format. They take up less room on your bookshelf, they take fewer boxes to move, and weigh less. You can take them to dinner or to the park, without needing extra wheels. An All-round better choice!

Everyman books still exist, of course. You can find them here. Above, I am specifically referring to Everyman books published between 1905 and 1934 – they measure 4 3/8? x 6 3/4?; however, the slightly larger (taller, wider) editions from the 30?s to the 50?s were still quite nice. So are the Modern Library editions. They weren’t particularly fancy (and are more-so now), but they aren’t particularly low-end either. Meant to last, many have.

To me, the size of the book forms a significant and serious part of the aesthetic – I am often greatly and unexplainably pleased by the fit of a book in my hands. This is definitely something I seek in a book. I want the paper to be pleasant – not blinding white, but something softer, a bit more off-white. The paper should have a nice feel. And it should be ecological as well… recycled, oxy-bleached, acid-free…

Mass-market paperbacks, while ostensibly physically small, have grown cubic over the years, they are almost without exception hard-to-hold and hard-to-read. Often printed on newsprint with stinky petroleum inks, they are not meant to last, and they don’t. The “ideal” throw away – when booksellers return unsold copies, they remove and return the covers, and throw away the books. That’s right. The books go in the garbage. You knew this already from reading the Bantam copyright pages, though… right? If you want to re-read something, you’d better get the Trade Paperback edition.

Trades are kind of “close but no cigar” in my book. They are still too large (often 6 x 9 or 5 1/2 x 8 1/2), and still suffer the worst excesses of the HC format. Though they are considerably more portable, both the TP and HC are victims of the same typographical crimes: Type is typically set in some “default” QuarkXPress or InDesign format – “double spaced” 12 point type, kind of like a careless Large Type book or high school essay. The book itself, or its jacket, looks like a “billboard” at, typically, 6 1/2? x 9 1/2? with a loud [red] cover.

A book is a book. It is the author’s content — and it is far more than a pile of paper or a digital file or a four-letter word. The word “book” is a spiritual thing. It means so much more than “papers bound together”. A book is memory, it is nostalgia. It is growth and change and discovery. It is laughter and tears and daydreaming. A book deserves the very best package we can make for it, to honour it, to treasure it; that package starts with dimension and weight and smell and texture and … memory.

I will buy (and not just borrow) more books when they are no longer ugly, heavy, hard to hold, and impossible to read. Which basically outlines ones’ possible on-line reading experience, too …


4 comments to free books and recreational reading

  • fran

    @leather jacket – many comments in the past have been spam. Askimet is merely a preventative measure. I think it could be a bit more accurate, though – these two comments weren’t spam, so I have to basically sit at the computer all day to approve comments? I might opt for a captcha instead. Are you looking to trade services? email if so!

  • Had errors viewing the website in Safari on the Mac, but I still loved the post. :)

  • Zvi

    Interesting thoughts: “A book is memory, it is nostalgia. It is growth and change and discovery. It is laughter and tears and daydreaming.” Clearly you are very passionate about books! I too am ‘addicted’ to books, but I am not so attuned to their physical form. Of course I prefer a hard-cover to a paper-back, and a well-made book to a cheap one, but given the ‘cost of my addiction’ there will always be trade-offs.

    Some years ago I read a rather interesting book about the impact of technology on culture (Gregory Rawlins – Moths to the Flame). I found the chapter on the future of publishing particularly interesting. Here is a section on ‘The Frailties of Print’: http://archives.obs-us.com/obs/english/books/rawlins/moths/ideas/4.html

  • fran

    thought I’d add this – how free material encourages sales, rather than hinders them:

    Monty Python put their stuff on Youtube for free, after years of being pirated. They also put links to their free downloads off Amazon, where you could buy their dvds. Increase in sales? Yes. Want to guess how much? 23,000 per cent increase.

    http://www.slashfilm.com/free-monty-python-videos-on-youtube-lead-to-23000-dvd-sale-increase/