It is no secret to anyone at this point that e-books are here, they are real and, as reported this week, they are adding up to a sizable chunk (often 20% or more) of publishers' sales. With Amazon plotting to release its own tablet and the national book store chains struggling (or in the case of Borders, simply ceasing to exist), it seems like a real possibility that both paper books and the brick-and-mortar stores that sell them could become the next great endangered species in our media taxonomy.
Still, despite the dismay that so many feel when they imagine a generation of readers more comfortable staring at a screen than flipping pages, hoping to stem change through vehement objection is probably futile. This is the way the industry is shifting, the natural course it will run with new technologies, the manifest destiny of virtual ink. What is worth fighting for in the new landscape is not printed matter itself (which will likely survive either way, as a rarified collectible even if nothing else), but the preservation of reading as a special act.
What's really in danger is the unique bond between book and reader; a pact that is sealed with an artifact to prove the connection — the creases and marginalia we leave on physical books show that we were there; a human touched and absorbed these words. What's lacking from the digital experience is this sense of ownership and a concrete relationship with the material. E-books lead to a grand flattening of the titles we read. War and Peace on a Kindle weighs as much to lug around as The Sun Also Rises. A reader takes the same clicking actions to purchase Danielle Steel as she does to buy Homer. The web is one big, fluorescent superstore where every title exists in equal and judgment-free aisles, and we have the whole store to ourselves.
This shift has, in many ways, infused democracy into the reading process. It allows for self-published authors to rise along with those minted by major houses, and it frees customers to stock up on the genre fiction that they might have otherwise been embarrassed to bring up to the counter at an indie bookstore. But what we sacrifice, that spark of excitement when opening a new book for the first time, that moment we seal the pact — it's that thrill that cements many a young reader's lifelong love of books, and it is a lot to lose.
So how do we make reading an extraordinary experience in the age of flattened text? This is a question that many publishers and authors are trying to answer right now, not only to keep up profit margins, but to preserve the energy that got them into the business in the first place.
One new idea, which comes from the Brooklyn independent publisher Melville House, is that of the "Hybrid Book." The idea, says publisher Dennis Johnson, is to both distinguish the Melville House e-reading experience from others, and also to push paper books by offering a little something extra on the top. The program, which launched in August, adds the equivalent of DVD extras to books in packages called "Illuminations."
Often the Illuminations are longer than the book itself, stuffed full of illustrations, maps, articles, photographs and historical documents. It's the kind of trove of information you might find if, after reading, you decided to Google everything you could about the author and the book's subject. Melville House has simply run the search for you, and is hoping you'll find their curated findings to be frosting on top of the text. They're offering the Illuminations via QR code, e-pub file, PDF — and if that doesn't work, you can e-mail a member of Melville House's staff. As Johnson says, "If you want to get the materials, we will find a way to get them to you."
The idea is interesting in that it provides a bridge between the e-book and print copies (both come with "Illuminations"), and gives booksellers on the frontlines more ammunition to use when trying to push physical books. But it's also meant to make the e-book experience feel differentiated, and to give the reader the sense that a person (in this case, one of Melville House's editorial staff) lovingly selected the companion materials and is presenting them directly to you. If it works, it can create another kind of pact.
"The best publishers going into this transition are the ones that are not trying to change the experience, but are going to create new delivery systems that enhance the experience," says Dennis Johnson. "Reading has always been a social act, has always been about influencing you as you go out into the world. The Hybrid Book is social as well. It's a person giving you a gift of extra information. There's nothing to be afraid of with digital media if you think of ways to maintain an organic experience."
The first set of Hybrid Books are five classic novellas, all with the title The Duel (from Chekhov, Conrad and others). One of the Illuminations is a list of "10 People You Would Have Never Wanted to Duel," which earned its own gallery on the Huffington Post. Perhaps the new business model — if books stop losing steam on their own account — is to provide complementary materials with the potential to go viral. Just as you have to buy the DVD to see the behind-the-scenes featurette, books could become vehicles for a bonus if the Hybrid Book catches on.
Melville is not the first publisher to infuse books with extras (the company Vook was built on the idea), but they see their Hybrid Books as an effort to maintain the magic of reading and to make their own enthusiasm for it into a selling point. "What we are sharing with people here is passion," says Johnson. "We didn't hire someone else to do this. The Illuminations really reflect the way we read and we feel about his particular text."
Johnson says that the company will be experimenting with guest curators soon, which is an idea that could pique the curiosity of both readers and publishers (what if Patti Smith provided her own Illuminations for Just Kids? Or if a certain copy of The Hunger Games came with insights from Suzanne Collins?).
This is the way of the future, or at least one way. Whether or not it can preserve the same effect that reading has had on us for hundreds of years remains to be seen. Perhaps it will even make the experience richer and more enlightening. What do you think? Will you combine cracking the spine of a new book with tearing into a PDF? Or are Illuminations not enough to turn your head from the traditional books you've lovingly dog-eared?