One question rarely posed to commentators predicting the imminent demise of the book is, what about the tactile appeal of print-on-paper? I don’t mean to suggest that the love of dead trees is going to counteract a tide of digital information, but I do think that there is something very particular about our attachment to ‘papery-objects’. That phrase is one I owe to Dave Eggers, a man with a bona fide passion for paper. Recently he’s taken to making affirming pronouncements on the continuation of print publishing and the continuing possibilities for print newspapers, but it’s something he said a little earlier on in his career that I find most interesting about the possibilities for publishing now. In an early issue of his journal McSweeney’s, he explained his reasons for starting up his own publishing house:
we are talking about smaller and leaner operations that use the available resources and speed and flexibility of the market […] to enable us to make not cheaper and cruder (print-on-demand) books or icky, cold, robotic (electronic) books, but better books, perfect and permanent hardcover books, to do so in a fiscally sound way, and to do so not just for old time’s sake, but because it make sense and gives us, us people with fingers and eyes, what we want and what we’ve always wanted: beautiful things, beautiful things in our hands – to be surrounded by little heavy papery beautiful things.
Things, things, things! You can practically taste the whimsy, but Eggers’ incantation, as I read it, reminds us that books are lovely in large part because of their thing-i-ness. A book’s value is caught up in how we relate to it as an object. That might mean the emotional associations we have with a particular title (it might’ve been a gift, a beloved bed-time story, and so on). But it might just as easily mean how we relate to the feel of the paper, the look of the typeface, the touch of thick paper. To me it’s this quality that goes some way to explaining the continued (and growing) popularity of independent publishers, journals and zines in Australia. It also suggests that there is space for print to thrive. I’m not talking about vast forests of printed material here – more like well-tended veggie gardens.
Like veggie gardens, this model of print publishing is about sustainability, and the satisfaction of a DIY project. It’s also a useful antidote to the sense of futility and frustration that current discussions about the future of publishing can induce. “We’re tired of all the END OF PAPER, the END OF PUBLISHING AS WE KNOW IT stories”, read a blog post by the Baltimore independent bookshop Atomic Books. “We’ve been hearing and reading about it ever since we’ve been open (which is going on almost 20 years now)”. Which is where the Revenge of Print project comes in. It’s a challenge organised by Atomic and a collective of like-minded print and paper advocates to encourage anyone “who’s ever made/self-published a zine, a comic or mini-comic before to dust off the ol’ photocopier and make at least one more new issue in 2011”.
This idea is already gathering enthusiasm from zine-makers past and present, and it looks likely to encourage those who have an abiding belief in the pleasures of DIY and print-on-paper to get themselves back into the habit. It’s certainly true that, despite predictions, print and paper are still an important part of our lives. Remember discussions in the 90s about the inevitability (and wonder) of a paperless office? Well, email may have trumped the fax machine but there’s still plenty of paper floating around the laser printer in most workplaces. It’s true that email has changed our work habits, just as e-books will change our reading habits, but that doesn’t make papery-things obsolete. In fact, digital communications technology makes paper all the more valued and valuable. Eggers is pretty careful, for instance, to make it clear that he doesn’t love paper because he’s devoted to tradition and the idea of ‘old time’s sake’. He wants to invigorate print because print is a beautiful way to read. Books feel good between your fingers and are easy on the eye (particularly those published by McSweeney’s). Eggers has realised that the key to success is making a product that is irreplaceable and indispensable, and more small publishers are catching on.
When commentators talk about the end of publishing as we know it, what they most often actually mean is the end of publishing according to a very specific corporate model that proved popular (and lucrative) over the last fifty years. That model (think the conglomerate-owned publisher, the celebrity autobiography, the movie-tie in) is on the way out. But that doesn’t guarantee some utopian world for authors. As John Birmingham pointed out last week in the Australian, big corporations like Apple and Amazon and Borders are trying hard and fast to capitalise on the possibilities of money-making through digital publishing, with little interest in aesthetic considerations, be they the development of literary talent, or the look of books. Perhaps there’s hope for print precisely because it’s starting to lose its appeal to corporate publishers and corporate bookstores. If books are heavy and costly and slow, they can make the most of this, reminding readers of their their tactility, weight, and shape – their printy-ness, if you will.
‘Revenge is a dish best served cold’, said Dorothy Parker, but it isn’t cold-blooded emotional detachment that motivates the revenging zinesters, ‘big-time’ indie publishers like Eggers, or the multitude of local small presses and literary enterprises around our towns – it’s a passion for print and paper and a feeling for (the feel of) books.
Caroline Hamilton is a research fellow in the Department of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. Printed Matters is the blog she maintains as part of her research project examining the effects of digital culture on small publishing in Melbourne. She is also the author of a book on the publishing success of Dave Eggers called One Man Zeitgeist.