On Literature

    Publishing Lives On... But in What Form?
    How the Significance of Books Is Changing

    Book makers fear the demise of the book, and this fear is yielding strange fruit. Books themselves are becoming ever more beautiful, even when the content is not especially valuable. Valuable content, on the other hand, is migrating to new media. A consideration of the compatibility of media and content, now and in the future.

    In an early short story by the English science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, the first-person narrator is unexpectedly given the chance to spend an hour in the London of the future. Catapulted from 1953 to the year 2054, how should the time traveller make the best use of this chance of lifetime? Go to the library, leaf through old newspapers looking up all the Derby winners, and make a fortune betting on the horses? This is too precarious, he thinks, so he decides to go somewhere he’s convinced will still exist, even in the future: Foyles, the legendary London bookshop. And indeed he finds it.

    My heart beat excitedly as I passed the robot doorman searching outgoing customers. Eagerly, I ran from counter to counter. Book fashions had altered surprisingly little. Although novels were mainly royal octavo and technical books demy 16mo in two volumes, they were still printed on nothing more exotic than paper. (Brian Aldiss: A Book in Time)

    Aldiss’ imagination, so extravagant in his other writings, fails him here. By this time he himself was probably already too much of a book person to be able to conceive of any other future for books. But will this rare case of cultural optimism stand the test of time? Will there still be bookshops in the year 2054?

    This is a question that seems to be considerably easier to answer than the question of how the market for printed books will develop in the next ten years – which is, of course, the one that has far greater urgency for all those working in the industry. The decisions that must be made today relate to this immediate period; no one doubts that, in the long term, the triumphal march of the e-book will be unstoppable. So what developments lie ahead in the next few years? What are books still worth? You can make these sorts of prognoses in terms of economic decisions that must be made; but you can also ask what changes will specifically affect the object concerned, namely the printed book. The second perspective is the one taken in this article, for the crisis in the book market – ongoing for some time now – is also increasingly changing the symbolic significance of the printed book.

    For centuries, this significance was unequivocal: the book as stronghold of culture, bearer of erudition, intellectual authority. When people today speak of the ‘publisher’s function as gatekeeper’, this continues to express the idea that in order to appear in book form, content must first have a certain value. The reverse argument also persists: that if something is written in a book, it must be right. But as the technology for creating books becomes more accessible to ordinary people, this apparently irrefutable truth begins to unravel. Alongside all the practical, economic considerations, we are also experiencing a struggle for interpretational sovereignty over what a book actually is these days. In this I see two predominant trends, which are to some extent in opposition but are nonetheless mutually dependent.

    First of all, there is the reaction from conservative cultural circles. These are, on the one hand, publishers specialising in literary texts, their corresponding readership among the educated classes, and the apparatus that mediates between them – agents, dedicated booksellers, literary supplements. All are noticing the cracks in what was for so long their closed world, and where their response is not simply to go into shock, we are increasingly observing a phenomenon for which once, during a podium discussion, Jo Lendle (then still with DuMont, now a publisher with Hanser) used the delightful word Angstblüte – blossoms of fear. The crisis affecting the printed book has resulted in increased attention suddenly being paid to the material constitution of the medium. Hardcovers are dispensing with dust jackets so that the high-quality linen binding catches the eye; endpapers are being rediscovered, not to mention the renaissance of the ribbon bookmark.

    So far, the pinnacle of this development is represented by the novel S, currently available only in English. It’s a collaboration by the author Doug Dorst and the Hollywood producer and director J.J. Abrams. The book can only be purchased in a sealed box, as between its pages it contains various accessories: bus tickets, postcards, newspaper cuttings, napkins. All these serve to substantiate the basic fiction of the project: that this particular book is the library edition of the novel by a mysterious author, which is being alternately borrowed by two people who communicate with each other through handwritten notes in the book. A typical postmodern metafiction, then, implemented here with extraordinary meticulousness.

    The book as fetish object

    What makes this project particularly interesting is that the man behind it is, of all people, J.J. Abrams – not someone previously suspected of involvement in high culture. This goes to show that bibliophilia is no longer confined to a particular social class. However, it also represents an even more significant shift: the printed book definitively becomes a fetish object. The decoupling of content and carrier medium is more clearly apparent than it could ever be in an e-book. By this logic, the more attractive and elaborate a book’s production, the more inconsequential its content. Thus the culturally-conservative milieu is making a decisive contribution to the demise of the book, the very cultural asset it so reveres. This tendency develops unintentionally comic aspects when combined with stupidity. Thus, for example, in an article on the publisher Suhrkamp’s blog, a renowned book designer mocks tablet-user snobbery without even remotely registering that he cultivates the same snobbery in his work when, for example, he holds forth about the correct weight of a book’s paper. In both cases, the issue at stake is lifestyle product design: only the target groups differ.

    The cultural decline of the book is, however, in the very early stages. It still has sufficient allure to attract an army of authors who would never previously have stood a chance of producing a published volume. This is the second great trend of recent years: more and more self-publishers are bringing their books onto the market. Every year, thousands of titles are added that never make it into actual bookshops; instead, they sit waiting to be ordered as books on demand. The fact that it is still possible to do business with BOD (books on demand) in the e-book era is a clear indication of the status printed books still have. Some big publishers have very cleverly managed to turn this situation to their advantage. They have founded subsidiary companies with which they can now also make money from titles they previously wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole. The website www.neobooks.de even promotes itself by saying that the best books have a chance of being picked up by Droemer Knaur Verlagiv. Conversely, this can only mean: none of the others are actually good enough to be printed by the publisher, but as long as people pay for them, why should the publisher care? Seldom has cynicism found such a charming mode of expression.

    The final renaissance of the printed book

    Digital printing keeps on getting cheaper, and in future it will spread to very different fields. Memoirs published in very limited print runs could soon supersede the professional family portrait photo as a precious birthday gift. Regardless of what it is, put something inside a book cover and it acquires weight. Thus, paradoxically, the digital revolution is bringing about a final renaissance of the printed book. But it’s as with any form of inflation: the value decreases until eventually it’s worth next to nothing. In this sense, the vamped-up books of which we are seeing more and more are the counterparts of the banknotes for hundreds of millions of Reichsmarks that we cherish as a curiosity of the last phase of the Weimar Republic. Without realising it, then, the supposed custodians of culture and those profiting from the fact that the entry barriers have finally fallen are actually working hand in hand. Together they are eroding the significance of the printed book – one by declaring it a fetish object, the other devaluing it through the sheer weight of numbers.

    However, in addition to these two dialectical tendencies, there is also a third trend. Instead of wasting time with rearguard actions, an intellectual avant-garde is tackling the issue head-on. They ceased to see books as the Holy Grail a long time ago; rather, they see them as a historical medium with a fixed expiration date. Stephan Porombka, a professor for text theory and text layout at the Berlin University of the Arts, is a particularly trenchant exponent of this position. In a programmatic article for the Tumblr txtudk, which he administers with his colleague Karl Wolfgang Flender, he writes:

    We cannot leave the definition of what constitutes ‘intellectuality’ to milieus that hold fast to books. It’s far too restrictive of the range of possibilities for keeping up with the times. It makes it almost impossible to observe, try out and critically analyse the defining phenomena of the present day. In short: it impedes intellectuality.

    Even if, at first glance, some of Porombka’s interventions suggest that he is simply playing the iconoclast – as, for example, when he smears books with butter and jam like slices of bread – it is nonetheless clear that, for him, more is at stake. If it’s true that books once fulfilled an important cultural function, that they were media of knowledge and tradition, then their value is linked to their fulfilment of this function. If they no longer do so – because they have congealed into mere symbols of distinction, for example, or because there are now other media that fulfil this function better – then books as material objects have become superfluous. And if that is the case, we have no reason to mourn the slow death of the book, which is what lies ahead.

    Even if, in his short story, Brian Aldiss believed rather too naively in the printed book’s immortality, he already also clearly foresaw, in the mid-1950s, the fetishisation of books. The time traveller the first-person protagonist meets travels into the past to steal books which, back in the future, he is then able to sell for a high price as antiquarian treasures. Value is finally added entirely divorced from content: a capitalist dream come true. At the same time, though, the content also profits, as now it is free to seek its own media.
    Thorsten Krämer is an author who lives and works in Cologne. His novel Neue Musik aus Japan [New Music from Japan] can be downloaded for free from his website.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2015
    Related links

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Fikrun wa Fann as an e-paper

    Take Fikrun wa Fann with you as an e-paper. In Arabic, Persian, English, German. Go to download...

    Order now

    Application form

    Institutions or people in Islamic countries who are employed in the journalism or culture sectors have the option to obtain a free subscription.
    To the application form ...