Welcome to the Book Clubby Sarah Hromack
“It’s not anachronistic; it’s eternal; it’s money.”
Such was the comment left on the San Francisco literary website The Rumpus in response to a blog post on “In Print We Trust,” a piece first published in the Brooklyn Rail’s July issue. Writing on the blog-to-book phenomenon that has swept the publishing industry in recent months, I wondered, “how strangely anachronistic is it that those who participate in perhaps the most monumental democratic exercise ever—and who do so daily, often for a living—would seek to tame the great, unbridled, immaterial beast that is the Internet with some high-gloss stock and two binding boards?” If The Rumpus’ commenter was right—if the user-generated book model is first and foremost a byproduct of rampant consumerism—then we might consider what it is, exactly, that we exchange our precious bills for during this seemingly-backwards shift in material culture (because the change is, at least in part, a matter of, well, matter). What is the return on one’s investment in a print version of a website? If the relative success of the blog-to-book niche proves that readers do want and need to feel digital content, then what does that say about books themselves?
It is a very specific sort of book that I refer to here: feather-light, just slightly larger than a pocket-sized romance novel of the airport bookstore variety. Design-wise, covers are usually flimsy and garish, but painfully so. Type is often oversized and lazily set; the paper tends to be coarse and cheap, a couple of pounds heavier than newsprint. Generally priced in the $10-$18 range, this genre occupies its very own corner in a literary limbo reserved for weight loss plans, how-to guides, and Salt-Water Aquariums for Dummies (For Dummies, 2002)—information manuals collated, bound, and marketed slapdash for mass market appeal. The production value of these books (which undoubtedly correlates to their profit margins) belies a sense of apathy on the part of publishers desperate to maintain a degree of topical relevance by forcing a painful pas de deux between content and form.
The blog-to-book union is an awkward one, and that discomfort is palpable in the underbelly of McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street, where a few such titles are carefully propped on a dark wooden table beneath the stairwell, flanked on either side by two modern club chairs. The public restroom lies around the corner, and this domestic tableau has been arranged for the momentary amusement of those waiting on line. A slim paperback, Stupedia: The Most Useless Facts on Wikipedia (Nicotext, 2009) is propped on an adjacent bookshelf, cover facing outward, hastily abandoned by some impatient patron whose turn had finally arrived. At the Barnes and Noble on Seventh Avenue, in Park Slope, the “Humor” section is relegated to a single shelf deep in the back of the lower level. Guided by one of several computer kiosks positioned throughout the store, one may find the coffee table version of the online Post-it note repository Passive Aggressive Notes: Painfully Polite and Hilariously Hostile Writings (Harper Paperbacks, 2008), situated just left of the cookbooks between “Transportation” and “Sports.” Jammed alongside it are If You Don’t Love Books, You’re Going to Love This Book (Sterling Innovation, 2009), the print version of someecards.com, a repository of irreverent online greeting cards and Go Tweet Yourself: 365 Reasons Why Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and Other Social Networking Sites Suck (Adams Media, 2009).
These woeful scenes suggest a similar lack of confidence amongst booksellers, who, like literary agents, must render their wares desirable to a book-buying public. It’s a true (and truly visual) marketing challenge. As Twitter’s web designers would have it, the Fail Whale fares better on-screen as a blob of blinking pixels—the Internet’s bubble-lettered brand of cute simply doesn’t translate as effectively to the cover of a paperback.
It surely does at the Urban Outfitters on Broadway, however, where several dozen copies of blogger and self-appointed arbiter of Caucasian taste Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Taste of Millions (Random House, 2008) are spread atop a plywood kiosk, interspersed with other titles. Piles of kitschy t-shirts complete the carefully-honed display of teenage ennui that defines the company’s brand identity. In equally deliberate vignettes throughout the store, books are paired thematically with clothing and novelty items, such as decorative throw pillows, vintage sunglasses, or late-model Polaroid cameras. Here, the blog-to-book finds its true home, as the individual object is subsumed under an overarching lifestyle statement. Fashion begets books; books beget home décor; home décor begets life, love, and sartorial bliss as illustrated on page 63 of the Fall 2009 catalogue.
In an article published in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, economists B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore coined the term “experience economy” to define what they saw as a shift in consumer expectations away from individual products and toward broader interactive experiences. Their now-ubiquitous book The Experience Economy: Work is Theater & Every Business a Stage extolled the virtues of eliciting emotional responses from the customer as a means of conferring value on the experience itself. Pine and Gilmore didn’t break new ground, per se—futurologists espoused similar models as far back as the 1960s, while marketing research linking consumers’ psychological reactions to shopping was published in the early 80s. Yet their study of the corporate cultures at Disney, IBM, Starbucks, and other companies gained traction at the turn of the millennium, and its popularity in the American business community is at least partially to thank for the sensory overload-as-sales-tactic favored by retailers.
If the blog-to-book phenomenon has done little for the book as a discrete object, we might consider its potential as a means of creating an experience economy in the publishing industry that does more than simply plop a few overstuffed sofas and a Starbucks in the lobby of Barnes and Noble—one that positions the book as a catalyst for the social encounters the Internet helps facilitate. Ambitious, yes, but I would argue that we are already there, to a certain degree. A book that sources its content from the Web arrives to market with a built-in readership, however small, primed by the undeniable ego boost that comes with seeing one’s name in print. In this case, the book grants its buyer a sense of entrée into a community; a group that convenes in the comment box or under the same Twitter hashtag is bound together literally, and the power of their camaraderie shouldn’t be underestimated, online or off.
Content—its quality, not quantity—remains a problem in the blog-to-book equation. Lest the book go the way of the Frappaccino, we obviously need to consider new ways to engage with the Internet for much longer than 140 characters. Last year, San Francisco writers Timothy Carmody, Matt Thompson, and Robin Sloan of the blog Snarkmarket.com partnered with Revelator Press to publish New Liberal Arts, a compendium of 21 essays written by a team of media pundits that explore 21st century ways of “doing liberal arts.” (In their introduction, Carmody and Sloan cite blogger Jason Kottke’s coinage of the phrase “liberal arts 2.0” as a departing point for the project.) “To me, the appeal is almost 100% social,” writes Sloan. “If you’re buying a physical book that’s the culmination of a process or a community that you’ve been a part of, even in a small way—it’s almost like that’s the trophy you get for winning the race. It’s something to read, but also something to be proud of!”
Sloan’s ambition is infectious, if earnest: 358 people have pledged nearly $10,000 in support of his current project, a novel-in-progress, via kickstarter.com, a Brooklyn-based startup that helps secure micro-financing for creative endeavors by allowing so-called “project creators” to offer products, services, or other benefits in exchange for funding. In Sloan’s case, a mere $3 will net a PDF copy of the final product, while the highest price point, $59, will aid the international launch effort for the printed edition. Funds are processed through Amazon Payments only when the project reaches its minimum funding goal (Sloan’s was $3,500) and patrons are kept abreast of progress via regular email updates and blog posts to Sloan’s Kickstarter site—all are important psychological components of the value-added user experience.
If the blog-to-book deal is about objects—that and money, remember?—then publishers might look to these and many other independent projects and startups not as oppositional forces or flights of fancy, but as possible models for a future relationship between the Web and the book publishing industry. New Liberal Arts was printed as a slim, limited edition chapbook that sold (and sold out, fast) for $8.99; the manuscript is also available in its entirety as a free PDF under a Creative Commons noncommercial license. Unlike its made-for-bathroom contemporaries at Barnes and Noble, NLA’s design is clean and well-considered. The fonts are carefully chosen; the text is readable. It is a book and it takes itself seriously as such. It is a book that I would buy.
Sarah Hromack is a writer living in Brooklyn.