Thursday, August 19, 2010

E-Publishing Consultant Mike Shatzkin Doesn’t Understand Books

Mike Shatzkin of the Idea Logical Co., “a book publishing futurist company specializing in consulting for a wide breadth of aspects of the publishing industry,” has recently written about The Printed Book’s Path To Oblivion.

He posits that e-book sales will surpass printed book sales within five years. And he’s probably correct.

“But for those who question the idea that the switch from paper to screens will ultimately be just about total,” he goes on, “let me offer a way to think about it.

“The critical thing to remember is that, indeed, the book was more-or-less perfected hundreds of years ago. There have been improvements in printing, binding, typography, and paper quality that are not trivial, but that also represent no quantum leap in user benefit. Indeed, defenders of the paper book and advocates suggesting it has a permanent role, point to that fact as support for their belief.

“I think it argues the opposite.

“The e-book, unlike the paper book, advances every month, if not every day. Screens and the reading platforms they run just keep improving: they get cheaper, lighter, more flexible, more capabilities-rich and there are ever more choices of them. Battery life gets longer. They develop the ability to take your notes, keyed in or handwritten. They develop the ability to share your notes or organize your notes automatically. They’ve had built-in dictionaries for a long time (a feature of the very first Kindle nearly three years ago) and now they often offer the ability to get to Wikipedia or a Google search in a click as well.

"If facing pages or pages that are flexible and 'turn' are your requirement, the beginnings of that have already appeared. Facing pages is a feature of the iPad’s iBooks app and just about every reader now offers a choice of “effects” for page turns. The challenge of delivering highly designed pages with pictures and captions and call-outs and on-page footnotes is being tackled, notably by Blio but they’re not alone. One of the reasons I restrict my predictions about ebook penetration in 2015 to narrative books is that it is harder to see yet how fast the development of that presentation capability and the corollary ability to make and reflow those pages for different screen sizes will be. But it will come.”

His argument presupposes that technical progress is the key issue here; printed books are low-tech and will not improve but e-books are getting better all the time.

People who insist on the sanctity of printed books, he continues, “must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. E-books are.”

Putting aside the fundamentally inane logic of that argument, yes, e-books ARE getting better all the time - at trying to mimic what printed books achieved hundreds of years ago: an ease of use that, despite millions of dollars to develop and more to come, still eludes e-book devices.

There’s an underlying issue at play in all of this, the fundamental that books, in whatever their form, are simply text delivery systems. That sort of reductionist approach is true enough - whether ancient papyrus scroll, manuscript copy, printed book, or digital text the essential point is to distribute the  written-word product of someone’s thinking - but the down to earth reality is quite different.

Before books were printed, they were laboriously copied by hand and the text was often illustrated - illuminated - by artists of great skill. The book, very soon, became more than the text. The hundreds of years of perfecting the book were more than technical progression. A large measure of the book’s development has been due to it’s excellence as a medium of  artistic expression, whether through its binding, the quality and appearance of its printing, etc. Long ago, books became a gestalt experience, the actual content surely its primary raison d’etre but not the only reason to appreciate and enjoy them.

Mr. Shatzkin continues, and it’s clear that he is not a person who comprehends a few of the fundamental issues surrounding books and technology:

“It is very hard for me to grasp why anybody would prefer a printed book 30 or 40 years from now. I’m sure by then screen technology will be able to simulate any aspect of the printed book that could possibly be of interest (except, perhaps, for the smell of the paper, ink, and glue, but, then maybe a companion air-wick would do the trick. I wonder if you can use the same aromas for all titles, or whether some customization will be required).”

Snark does not an argument make.

The e-book I buy today will be completely unreadable in 30 or 40 years from now; the software supporting it will be obsolete and the electronic device necessary to read the e-text will be ancient. You’ll need a digital Rosetta Stone to make sense out of it.

The printed book I buy today will be as readable in 100 years from now as it is today. I will not be required to constantly buy upgrades in software or hardware to maintain its usefulness.

The text and delivery system of a printed book are one and the same. E-books require a separate device to read them.

If I lose my printed book, I’m out $20. If I lose my e-book reader, presumably loaded with every book in my e-library, I’m not only out the cost of the e-book reader but the $9.95 each one of my e-books cost. If I have 100 books loaded on it, I’ve lost $995 buckaroos. There is not a publisher on the face of the earth who will replace all the e-books I lost, any more than if I lose five printed books they will be replaced free of charge by a smiling bookseller only too happy to make up for my loss out of his or her pocket.

Suffice it to say, if I have 100 printed books in my library the whole is unlikely to ever get lost unless by a careless moving company. Sure they take up a lot of space on shelves but books have been appreciated for their aesthetic and decorative qualities as much for their intellectual benefits for a very long time.

“The printed book will not ‘die’ in our lifetimes," Shatzkin goes on, "there are too many of them already around for that. And I don’t even think the e-book will be ‘the dominant commercial form’ ... in as short a time as five years. But it almost surely will in ten and I’d say that in no more than twenty the person choosing to read a printed book will not be unheard of or unknown, but will definitely qualify as ‘eccentric.’”

Got news for you, Mr. Shatzkin - we already are. Have you read the Personals in the London Review of Books?

This essay is not intended to be a side by side, mano a mano, book to e-book smackdown, winner take all. E-books and e-readers do have their place. I have fellow book-freak friends who swear by the convenience of having a number of books loaded onto a relatively small device that makes reading while traveling much easier. I tend to take 3-4 books along with me for downtime while flying, etc. and they certainly do take up too much space in my baggage. I might, at some point down the road, buy an e-book reader as an adjunct to printed books.

And that is the primary need for e-books - as an adjunct and not replacement, now or at any time in the future, for printed books.

If there is any doubt about this, let us recall (if Mr. Shatzkin is old enough to remember) the “paperless office” revolution that was so highly touted during the 1960s as being soon on the horizon. A brand-new world! No more paper, no more books (no more teacher’s dirty looks!). It hasn’t quite worked out that way; more paper is being generated in offices than ever before. Why? Because business learned, through bitter experience, that stored digital data cannot be trusted 100% Servers crash, data gets lost.

Yes, there are backup protocols. I did what I was told, bought an external hard drive, and backed-up frequently.  That was four years ago. Four months ago, the hard drive's cable went kaput. Need I report that the cord was specific to a model the manufacturer no longer makes, they do not provide replacement cords through their website, and I have not been able to find another new, used, or otherwise, anywhere. I'll likely cost me a couple of hundred dollars to have the data retrieved.

We need paper back-up for just about everything, just in case. And reading off a screen, no matter how big, is not easy on the eyes. When many if not most people see something they like on the Net they, as often as not, print it out to save for later reading.

Nor is this essay meant as a defense of book fetishism. There are folks whose passion for printed books is definitely around the bend, slightly or commitment-worthy. There are also people who are gadget-freaks, Mr. Shatzkin.

It is, rather, a defense against the notion that all technological progress is, by definition, a good thing. Printed books are about as low-tech as you can get. So is a pencil. Pencil sales have not declined to oblivion simply because they do what they do very well and do not require further,  ongoing improvement to justify their existence. Just like printed books. The super-duper $20 Space-Pen is great if you need to write while upside down.  Yet the lowly pencil will do just as well - for 20 cents.

So, let gazillions be spent to make a hi-tech version of a low-tech product that has been time-tested and does what it does very, very well. But it is sheer folly to believe that a high-tech iteration of an invention from 1451 - the printed book - will be better. It will certainly be different but it does not at all logically follow that it will be an improvement.

The digital revolution has improved the efficiency of  communication. It has done absolutely nothing to improve the quality of communication.

Nor, necessarily, its convenience. If I’m on page 238 of a printed book, for instance, and wish to go back to a prior spot in the text but don’t recall the page, I can flip the leaves and in about seven seconds find the mystery text on the unknown page. No amount of hi-tech magic affords that sort of ease. Maybe in ten years. Maybe. I’m not holding my breath.

Experiment: Hold a printed book in one hand and an e-reader in the other. Raise to chest height. Now drop them. You will immediately prove two things: A) Galileo was right - they will fall at the same rate of acceleration. And B) By deliberately dropping your e-reader you have demonstrated that you are certifiably insane; the thing will break and you’ll spend a fortune to replace the device and  likely all the e-books loaded on it.

Now, pick up the printed book, perhaps a little worse for the wear but still usable. Sit down. Read.

I recently had a book from 1503 pass through my hands. Despite being 507 years old, I could still read it; I did not require a hi-tech device completely dependent upon electricity to deliver the text to me. I’m fairly confident that with care that book will be around for another couple of hundred years at least, and if English has not evolved into a language as foreign as the medieval English of Chaucer, I’ll have little problem deciphering it. In twenty years, the computer I’m currently composing this on will be as old as the hills. Backward compatibility for software and hardware only goes so far backward before it stops and you’re left with useless code-gibberish and a hunk of junk. Libraries that have undertaken huge and expensive digitalization of their holdings understand this. The process is similar to that of painting the Golden Gate Bridge. By the time it's finished it’s time to start all over again in an endless cycle of precious man-hours and mega-bucks.

Finally, "the smell of the paper, ink, and glue," that Mr. Shatzkin so breezily dismisses lies at the heart of the matter. That's a very satisfying aroma. It is a deeply human, flesh and blood response to the physical, to printed books. Reading printed books is a sensuous experience involving the sight, smell, and touch of their natural materials, and it is, in this physical dimension, warm. The e-book reading experience lacks that very primal and desirable human dimension. Take a breath of thermoplastic polymers. It's springtime!

Mr. Shatzkin, how can you possibly be an effective, knowledgeable consultant to the publishing industry if you strictly worship at the feet of digital technology while being well nigh unappreciative if not completely ignorant of the true nature of the plain, old-fashioned printed book that has sustained the industry you consult for far longer than you have been alive?

With thanks to LISNews for the lead.


  1. You go, Book Guy! An eloquent and thorough argument for printed books. Thanks for expressing many of my own thoughts.

  2. It seems to me that ebooks are for people with low self-esteem. They don't think highly enough of themselves to believe that they deserve the joy of reading a book without having to twiddling their thumbs all around. But it would be pointless to try to convince gauche individuals like the one you are here deconstructing of the worth of books. He would not be able to comprehend the wonder of the 1503 book you recently handled. Remember the Bible's admonition not to cast your pearls before swine.

  3. This is a gorgeously written, extremely well-positioned article. You made my (book-paper-manufacturing-professional) heart happy today.

  4. Thank you! I wonder how he would translate a wonderful photography/ art/architecture or design book into an ebook. Yes, in theory you can see all the pictures on a screen but there will be no texture and no depth. I think ebooks will be great for the genre reader, generic non fiction and maybe some cookbooks but not for a lot of other books. It just will never be the same experience.

  5. "And that is the primary need for e-books - as an adjunct and not replacement, now or at any time in the future, for printed books."

    This says it all. I read books and I use an e-reader, each for a different reason. I enjoy both and fully expect I will continue to do so.

  6. A very nicely done, in-depth analysis. Thanks for taking the time. Last December, I voiced similar concerns on my blog at

    And I tend to irritate a lot of folks by noting that an eBook has zero intrinsic value. The content may be valuable, but the "thing" itself is worthless (if you can call an ethereal collection of ordered data a "thing").

    By the way, besides writing and publishing print books, we produce a lot of eBooks for our own and clients' books.

  7. I agree that physical books will never go away. Maybe this shift will make it difficult for big bookstores to stay in business, which might not be so bad if it results in a renaissance of indie bookstores. My personal opinion: the key will be down the road when we have a generation of children who grow up reading on cheap ereaders, when you can buy a $79 reader loaded with a dozen popular books kids will want to read. When everyone begins to be raised on digital reading, the physical book will then become secondary, the collector's edition, and the dynamic will have shifted. Regardless, the physical book will never go away, and maybe, in the end, the rise of digital will make people appreciate them more.

  8. Wait until they'll take off the prohibition on cannabis and industrial cannabis becomes legal. Then you'll be able to print books on paper that is cheaper and better (doesn't get yellow).

  9. I agree that the hype on e-books goes too far.

    Printed books will always have a place - how large of a place is always the question and no one really knows.

    Good news is that eventually content owners will have to figure out what "you" want and provide it to you in that format - the bad news is that the pricing will vary depending on how many "you"s want the same thing.

    PS- if you lose your e-books - the good sites that you buy them from also keep a back up copy that you can access - also you should always back up your own files. So you will be out the cost of the reader but probably not the books.

  10. So many things that I liked about this post . . . But it will have to simply say, I enjoy both traditional books and e-books, and I do not see it as an either/or choice.


  11. You make a very good point about the software and readers becoming obsolete; does anyone still have a computer that runs on Microsoft Windows 95? (I still have an old Compaq laptop that does; I gave it to my 3 year old son to play with, so that he wouldn't be tempted to play with my HP.)

    Another thing that people should remember: hard drives are designed to be replaced every 3-5 years. And CDROMS have an average lifespan of 25-30 years. CDRs and CDRWs have a maximum expected lifespan of 10 years. The longest lasting electronic storage medium is solid state components, such as USB thumb drives and/or flash memory cards; they can last up to 50 years. This is all assuming that the storage media is protected, and kept in the ideal environment. For all of our advances in micro-technology, the lifespan of these gadgets doesn't begin to approach that of the good old, paper and ink book. Not even close.

    But don't get me wrong, we shouldn't abandon electronic storage and e-readers; but by the same token, we shouldn't abandon books, either. Each have their place. What we need is a blended approach; take your e-reader with you to the office, or on vacation, for easy access to your book collection (or whatever other documents are stored on your e-reader.) But when your e-reader is on the charger, or when the book isn't available in electronic format, relax, and grab a real book off the shelf.

  12. Before coming to work in the rare book business, I was an academic librarian in charge of digitizing unique or hard-to-find books and materials in order to make them more widely accessible. We most certainly did NOT throw out the books after we digitized them, and the thing that kept me and every other professional in the field awake at night was worrying about digital preservation and long-term accessibility, from both a hardware and software point of view.
    While I was working at the university, a number of professors approached me with digital copies of their dissertations, asking if I could convert them to Word or HTML. Most of these were in the Wordstar format and were stored on 5 1/2 inch floppies. I had to ask them for a hard copy of the document, which I could then scan and convert to machine readable text.
    I'm in no way opposed to e-book readers, and would like to have one for two reasons: so I don't have to lug around 4 or 5 books with I travel and so I can download out-of-print and hard to find books from Project Gutenburg, the University of Virginia E-text center, and Google books.
    There is a place for both print books and e-books, but the latter should never be viewed as anything more than a temporary and ephemeral thing. Great post, Steve.

  13. Just FYI, if you lose your Kindle you can reload all of your books onto another Kindle — and you can also read them on other devices — so you're not out the cost of your whole e-library.

  14. You are going to enjoy a book I am publishing next year, Jean-Claude Carriere & Umberto Eco's THIS IS NOT THE END OF THE BOOK: A CONVERSATION (Harvill Secker, May 2011). It argues exactly this, with lots of wonderful digressions about their book collections en route.

  15. Wonderful argument. Having two nephews, I can't imagine trying to read them a bedtime story off an e-reader. No pictures, no chance to explain the pictures, to point out the action.
    I refuse to buy an e-reader. If only because I won't spend $100 for it and THEN have to buy more books. how many books could I get for the same price? Exactly.

  16. Right on, Stephen. what Shatzkin does not grasp is a simple fact: Whether we talk about books or other means of delivery, we are talking about vessels, about form and the appropriate form. A simple analogy: anyone with a decent palate or some esthetic sensibility knows and makes the choice of glass (and the right shape of glass) over papercups, the choice of china over paper plates, the choice of a suitable or elegant dress fitting the occasion. Same with books. A literary person who also knows a bit about printing, binding, paper, typography etc., appreciates the book for esthetic reasons, as well as for its intellectual or literary substance. Thus you choose. Yes, you don't need yards of shelf space any longer for multi-volume reference works. Yes, you don't need to log half a dozen paperbacks around for vacation or airplane reading; and news junkies can be perfectly content with consuming information in its paperless format.
    But with literature you live with, be it all your life or a good part of it, you have an interest in joining form with content. It's a matter of good taste, style and a touch of class.
    Helmut Schwarzer
    Newbury, NH

  17. Well said-- the book as physical object will live on.

  18. While you make many good points, the decision will ultimately rest with the publishing companies, and when they look at the bottom line and their dwindling profits, digital makes sense in a way printed books do not.
    The only reason it is taking so long for a complete change to digital publishing is because publishing insiders love printed books so much--they are very resistant to this change. However, at some point they will have no choice but to go digital if they want to stay in business.
    The situation is similar to that in the music business. I love vinyl records, but have not seen any in years, because the record companies made the transition to CDs. Now many record companies are making the transition to digital downloads. Financially, it just makes good sense. If people want a CD, they can burn it themselves
    For the same reason, in time the only books being printed will be POD, because publishers will not print them any longer.

  19. In a #bookmarket Twitter chat last week, the authors of the recent scientific, statistical study on ebooks pointed out that ebook buyers often buy the paper version of books they love and want to keep forever.


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