It seems that every day we are confronted by some dire prediction that reading is dead, books are dead, attention spans are dead, language is dead. Pretty much everything related to the written word is, supposedly, dead. That is, unless you're one of those zombie mash-ups that are selling like mad. And then I guess it's a case of being undead.
Anyway, one strategy for dealing with the challenges facing books is to invest more into the physical appearance of the text itself.
So many people complain about short attention spans and a generation raised on interactive pursuits. Then they churn out books that are nothing more than black words on a white page. They produce books that are not, in a basic sense, very different from something that could have been produced decades ago.
The first book I purchased on an e-reader was William Vollman's 2009 behemoth Imperial. I knew the book was something along the lines of 732,000 pages long, that it weighed approximately 38 pounds, and that it was classified as a deadly weapon. So it was a perfect option to peruse on an e-reader. I did not hesitate to plop down 40 bucks for the electronic version of the book.
But, like so many of Vollman's other works, the book had maps and other cool stuff. I liked the cover image, the spine, and all the extra goodies. As I hit the "next page" button a million times, I realized that I wanted the physical book, I wanted the artifact.
So I got in the car, drove to the bookstore, and dropped another 50 or 60 bones on the real book. And this was not an isolated case. Critics of e-readers allege the technology will reduce the amount of money consumers spend on books. But in my case, it has actually increased my literary outlays of cash.
While working on The Man behind the Nose with Larry Harmon and Igniter Books, our goal was to create just such an artifact. We wanted a gorgeously designed book, something that was appropriate for the rich visual history of Bozo the Clown. And we wanted something that looked good enough to give as a present, something that was visually arresting enough that it would be displayed on a coffee table. We strove to get multiple color inserts, printed on the same paper as the text instead of that glossy paper. We worked with a fantastic designer to create cool borders and layouts. We really tried to create a full experience.
Time will tell whether our strategy is successful. But in general, I do believe the concept is sound. As writers and publishers, we must strive to give readers an experience. We must give them a lot of value for the money.
Yes, I am well aware of the people screaming, "Aren't great stories enough!" and "We're giving them literary art!" And as someone with a master's degree in creative writing, a William Faulkner fanatic, and a general lover of literature, I will agree with you that black text on a white page should be enough. In a perfect world, that is all we need.
But in reality, it's not enough if we want to sell books and reach an audience.
Heavily designing a book is not appropriate for every subject matter and it's not financially feasible for every book. Nonetheless, if we want to complain about everything that is wrong with readers and consumers today, we must also strive to make our books different, to try and reach those readers.