Thursday, February 17, 2011

Beauty in the Age of E-Books

I've been thinking a lot lately about books, book publishing, and the future of both. Because so much of our business depends upon long-document production (from brochures to full-blown books and catalogs) the future of the visual word is a matter we take seriously here at The McNaughton Group.

I count myself a book-lover, but sticking my head in the sand about the surging popularity of e-books seems particularly suicidal, in the business sense. While "the death of print" has been "right around the corner" for a couple of decades now, something is really going on this time, and it looks an awful lot like the first few years of the transition to digital photography from its analog roots.

I actually have no problem with e-books, per se. I have Kindle on my smartphone and I use it. I'm quite seriously considering the purchase of a 'hardware' Kindle in the near future. I see the value in digital book distribution.

No, my problem lies in the notion of CRAFT. Just as the mobile editor with which I'm writing this post forced me into emphasis-by-capitalization instead of the more elegant use of italics for that purpose, so too the current e-book world is a wasteland of craftless... I hesitate to actually use the words 'typography' and 'design' here.

Kindle and ePub (the latter format is used by Apple in its various iOS devices) are both based upon HTML, the language used to lay out web pages. Very little of the nuance and craft available to me in print books is even an option in either of these formats.

So where does someone like me create value in a world of vanilla e-books? Is it possible to create a truly BEAUTIFUL e-book, as much for its visual appearance as for the content contained within that appearance? I think the answer to the latter question may, indeed, be 'yes', but as with all transitional periods, there are few, if any, tools to properly accomplish the task. We're very much back to the 'Dark Ages' of digital production, in the fashion of the worst early days of 'Desktop Publishing', building craft again in a new land. And in that process lies the answer to the former question as well - without efficient tools, beauty becomes an unaffordable, unmarketable luxury in many cases. So we'll be looking at this whole subject very carefully here at The McNaughton Group, and doing LOTS of testing!


  1. Feel free to use us as your Test Market/Guinea Pigs, Mr. McNaughton.
    - Tess Baxter

  2. I don't think books will ever go completely away. Where they may evolve is into more of an art form--instead of practical use. A book publisher or layout artist such as yourself, will be more like the scribes of ages past. Books may return to more of an elaborate artistic piece for a coffee table or advertisement.

    People love books. There are those who, like me, simply prefer them to digital. I have a Kindle on my smart phone as well. I tried it. It's not the same. In fact, I even went out and purchased the same book in print that I had downloaded on my Kindle. I want to hold a book. I love the feel and I love the smell. I love the feeling I get when I am curled up with a good book, a glass of wine and a purring cat. A Kindle might be more modern and "with the times," but hardly gives the same satisfaction. This is the common thread I hear when discussing the virtues of e-books vs. real books.

    Photographers who use film are now leaning more towards it as an expression of their "art" rather than a "tool". Books might go the same way.

  3. I think the issue begs the question of the similarities and differences between books and, say, camera film. Film was supplanted almost overnight. I agree that books will be around, in some form, for a very long time to come. Yet last year Amazon sold more e-books than paperbacks, and Borders declared bankruptcy in part because of their poor handling of the e-book market as compared to Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

    Books "as art", as collectables - as 'things worthy unto themselves' - would seem to be something that people will want to have, I agree. But can one hang a business model on this? What authors and publishers will be willing to lay out the extra money for the craftsmanship and attention that such books require, or is the mass-market margin on e-books so strong that, with time, producing 'craftsman books' on paper becomes an unsustainable luxury item, much like a smoking jacket or dairy delivery might be today?

    Interesting questions!