THE BLOG
12/04/2011 04:51 pm ET | Updated Feb 03, 2012

Ornate Books: The Last Gasp of Print Publishing

On the front page of the New York Times today, there begins a long article about the most current attempt by print publishers and editors to hold onto their turf. And the attempt? Elaborate book covers. A dramatic shift from a supposed emphasis on content to an emphasis on packaging.

Sell the cover, never mind the words. E-books don't have tangible covers, so produce unique tangible covers and sell them.

It's not a joke. Quoted among others is Julie Grau, a senior executive at Random House: "We're rethinking the value in certain cases of special effects and higher production standards. Now in some cases, creating a more beautiful hardcover or paperback object is warranted."

The book as an object. Never mind the words, never mind the content, never mind any literary art, never mind the ideas -- it's an object, buster. The editors, salespeople, publicity people, booksellers -- no one needs to actually read anything anymore (if they read anything at all). Just sell the damn cover!

Of course, the shift itself is packaged -- we're told the idea is to improve the "reading experience" -- sales talk words for stockholders.

It's truly a wonderful metaphor for the demise of print publishing. Acquiring editors will now look to acquire books that can be dramatically packaged to seduce brick and mortar bookstore customers. Not e-book customers. Who the hell wants e-book customers? Print publishers and editors want print customers because they think they know how to sell to print customers. And if print customers are drifting to e-books because of a basic interest in content rather than packaging, get them back by packaging print books in spectacular covers. Brilliant originality, isn't it?

Not really. In the middle ages, the covers of books were bejeweled and encrusted with gold leaf, books sold for the equivalent of $5,000 or $10,000 to the very rich, the tiny minority who had money and who could maybe read more than a page without their lips getting tired. Books sold as expensive objects for conspicuous consumption. Gutenberg made print books so cheap, the rich were fearful of the poor getting educated.

At the present time what is going on in American publishing is an attempt to hold fast to a fantasy, the holding fast maybe due to the large fraction of technophobic English majors in New York book publishing, technophobes who have their jobs as a result of nepotism or literati social networking, the difference between an English major bookstore clerk and an English major assistant editor more a consequence of who one knows than what one knows.

An exaggeration? Not really. Most book editors don't do line editing anymore because they lack the skill for it. And most copy editors with high standards and knowledge of details are dead and haven't been replaced.

The consequence of general technophobia and incompetence is a desperate attempt to avoid the natural transition to new technology for writing, producing, and distributing books.

Instead of throwing whatever business and creative talents they have into forging new paths in e-book publishing, print publishers and editors wrinkle their noses at e-books and give us ga-ga words about seducing customers with ornate book covers.

Are they neglecting e-book publishing by design or lack of competence? Maybe both. Here's a pungent example of neglect involving both design and incompetence:

The most prolific and popular author of the 20th century was Georges Simenon. A master of both literary fiction and popular detective fiction (the Inspector Maigret series). Some of Simenon has been translated from French into English. The short detective novels are still popular. Penguin, for example, one of the largest commercial publishers in the world, has recently put out new editions of the Inspector Maigret series.

Consider the following:

The Hotel Majestic by George Simenon (Penguin).
Paperback $12.00. Kindle e-Book $10.99.

As Amazon points out on the web page for the book, the e-book price is set by the publisher -- the high price an obvious attempt to protect paperback sales. But that's just the beginning.

The joker is that no competent editor or copy-editor at the huge house of Penguin has ever read this book. If they had, the e-book would not contain a blatant error that appeared in the print edition.

On page 30 of the print edition, you find the following sentence:

"It was a miracle he didn't choke. What was the point of forcing him to talk, when his throat was constricted as if by a vice?"

Vice? No, friend, it should be VISE.

The translator, we suppose, made the error. The acquiring editor and the copy-editor either did not read the book and catch the error or they were both not competent enough to know it was an error. And obviously the text for the e-book was never read and checked by anyone, or if read and checked it was read and checked by someone who belongs far away from serious publishing.

At the least, the error ought to have been corrected in the e-book edition -- if e-books were taken seriously.

That's the essence of it. E-books are not taken seriously by the big publishing houses -- and the subtext of that is that these publishers are not involved in serious publishing. They are producing and selling objects and not content.

For the most part, the people now in place in print publishing belong elsewhere. The baloney years of publishing are coming to an end -- an end driven by new technology apparently beyond the understanding and competence of the current crew.

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