Printed Books: why the Internet hasn’t eliminated them

The thousand and one lives of the paper book.
Pixabay

Dominique Boullier, Sciences Po – USPC; Mariannig Le Béchec, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, and Maxime Crépel, Sciences Po – USPC

We stand amazed by the vitality of printed books, a more than 500-year-old technique, both on and offline. We have observed over the years all of the dialogue which books have created around themselves, through 150 interviews with readers, bookshops, publishers, bloggers, library assistants, 25 participant observations, 750 responses to an online questionnaire and 5,000 mapped sites in France and the francophone world. An impressive collective activity. So, yes, your book carries on living just by staying on your shelf because you talk about it, remember it, and refer to it in conversation. Even better still, you might have lent it to a friend so that she can read it, perhaps you have spent time with people who have spoken about it before buying it, or after having read it. You will have encountered official reviews, of course, and also blogs about it. The conversation goes on even when the book is no longer in circulation.

Paper books circulate better than their digital versions

What first struck us was the very active circulation of books in print, compared with digital versions which do not spread so well. Once a book has been sold either in a bookshop or through an online platform, it has multiple lives. It can be loaned, given as a present, but also sold on second-hand, online or in specialist shops. And it can go full circle and be resold, such journeys made in a book’s life are rarely taken into account by the overall evaluation of the publication.

The application Bookcrossing allows you to follow books that we “abandon” or “set free” by chance in public places so that strangers take possession of and, then, you hope, get in touch to keep track of the book’s journey. Elsewhere, the book will be left in an open-access “book box” which have popped up across France and other countries. Some websites have become experts in selling second-hand books like Recyclivre, which uses Amazon to gain visibility.

Yard sales, antiques fairs, book markets give a new lease of life to countless books which remained forgotten because they were a quick one-time read. The book as a material object, regardless of its age, retains an unequalled sensorial pleasure, and brings with it special memories, bygone times, a sacred piece of craftsmanship with its fragile bindings, or, the nostalgia offered by children’s books or fairy tales.

Whole professions are dedicated to the web, and increasingly so, since it first came into existence. This has turned the second life of books and the recycling of them into a money-making machine for online retailers, and as a result books are kept alive. Some people have become eBay sellers, experts only thanks to the books they sell on this platform. Sometimes even, these books’ lives are extended by charity shops, such as Oxfam. At some stage however, there is only the paper left to give a book its value, once it has been battered and recycled.

One would have thought that faced with the weight, volume, and physical space occupied by books in print, that the digital book ought to have wiped the floor with its print counterpart. This has been the case with online music, for example, which practically handed a death sentence to the CD, or for films on demand which have greatly shrunk the DVD market. However, for books, this simply has not happened. In the United States like in France, the market for online books never surpasses the 20% mark of the sales revenues of books in print. And that is without including the sales revenue of the second-hand book market as we previously mentioned. The digital book seldom goes anywhere once purchased, due to controls imposed on the files by digital-rights management (DRM) and the incompatibility of their formats on other digital devices (Kindle and others).

Paper pleasures

Our interviews revealed the pleasure of giving books as presents, but also of lending them. The exchange of the physical item with its cover, size and unique smell bring much more satisfaction than if a well-meaning friend offers you digital book files on a USB stick containing… a thousand files already downloaded! Indeed, the latter will seldom ever be considered a present but rather a simple file transfer, equivalent to what we do several times a day at work. This also gives rights holders reasons to thus decry “not paying is theft”, in this case the gift of files would also become theft.

Bloggers who exchange books as presents (bookswapping) show that goodwill prevails and puts stress on the backburner. This is done on the condition that the book is personalised in some way: a poignant quote, a meaningful object associated in some way with the book (cakes for example!), and the surprise of receiving a completely random gesture of kindness.

A dense and thriving network reliant on the Internet

What travels even better than books are conversations, opinions, critiques, recommendations. Some discussions are created within or around reading groups or in dedicated forums online such as the Orange Network Library, for example. There are recommended reading lists, readers’ ratings, and book signings with authors are organised. These networks are digital, but they existed well before the Internet, and they remain dynamic today.

On Instagram and other sites, books start up fresh conversations.

However, the rise of blogs at the start of the 2000s led to an increase in the number of reviews by ordinary people. This provided visibility, even a reputation for some bloggers. Of course, institutional and newsworthy reviews continue to play their role in guiding the masses, and they are influential prescribers protected by publishers. But websites like Babelio, combine a popular expertise, shared and distributed among many bloggers who are sometimes very specialised themselves. The website was created in 2007 and has over 690,000 reader members.

The proliferation of content and publications can easily disorientate us; the role of these passionate bloggers, who are often experts in given literary fields, becomes important because they are “natural” influencers one might say, as they are the closest to the public. However, some publishers have understood the benefits of working with these bloggers, especially in so far as concerns specialist genres like manga, comics, crime novels or youth fiction. Sometimes a blogger, YouTuber and web writer is published like Nine Gorman.

Some bookshops contribute even more directly in coordinating these bookworms, they “mould” their audience, or at least they support the books both online and in their shops with face-to-face meetings. Conversation is a unifying force for fans who are undoubtedly the best broadcasters across a broad sphere.

Platforms encourage readers to expand their domain, in the guise of fanfictions, which are published online by the author or his readers. The relationship with authors is closer than ever and is much more direct, the same can be said of the music industry. On particular platforms like Wattpad, texts which are made available are linked with collective commentary.

But above all, the dialogue about reading has often been transformed into writing itself. It might be published on a blog and may be likened to authorial work but at the other end of the spectrum, it might be something modest like the annotations one leaves in their own book. These annotations, more common in non-fiction texts, can form a sort of trade. For example if you lend or sell on a book, which is also stocked and shared with the online systems of Hypothes.is, it allows any article found on the web to be annotated, and the comments saved independent to the display format of the article. This makes it easier to organise readers into groups.

Printed books have in fact become digital through the use of digital platforms which allow them to be circulated as an object or as conversations about the book. The collective attention paid creates a permanent and collaborative piece of work, very different to frenetic posts on social media. Readers take their time to read, a different type of engagement altogether to social media’s high frequency, rapid exchanges. The combination of these differently paced interactions can, though, encourage one just to read through alerts from social media posts then followed by a longer form of reading.

Networks formed by books constitute as well a major resource for attracting attention. This is still not a substitute for the effects of “prize season” which guides the mass readership, but which deserves to be considered more critically, given the fact that publishers increasingly take advantage of these active communities.

It would thus be possible to think of the digital book as part of the related book ecosystem, rather than treating it as just a clone. To call it homothetic, is to say that it is an exact recreation of the format and properties of the book in print in a digital format. Let’s imagine multimedia books connected to, and permanently engaged with, the dialogue surrounding the book – this would be something else entirely, affording added value which would justify the current retail price for simple files. This would therefore be an “access book” and which would perhaps attract a brand new audience and above all it would widen this collective creativity already present around books in print.


Dominique Boullier, Mariannig Le Béchec and Maxime Crépel are the authors of “The book exchange: Books’ lives and readers’ practices.”The Conversation

Dominique Boullier, Professeur des universités en sociologie, Sciences Po – USPC; Mariannig Le Béchec, Maître de Conférences en Sciences de l’Information et de la Communication, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1, and Maxime Crépel, Sociologue, ingénieur de recherche au médialab de Sciences Po, Sciences Po – USPC

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A world connected by words

Text by Nora Vasconcelos

Tree HousePhotos courtesy of Trish Nicholson

If you ever wonder if someone out there is reading what you write, the answer is Yes! Even though a big silence might surround you, all these words that you’re sending to the outer space, are echoing somewhere in the planet.

And this is when my good friend Trish Nicholson (@TrishaNicholson) comes in. About two years ago, or may be more, Trish and I met thanks to Twitter. Ever since, we’ve kept in touch, no matter the ocean in between.

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Throughout this time, I’ve found in Trish a very nice loyal friend who’s supportive and caring towards her fellow writers.

Her blog Words in the Tree House (http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com/) is like actually being there, inside her tree house, built in a huge pine tree, overlooking a wetland and distant forested hills, having interesting conversations about her various trips, either to the Himalayas or the Philippines; the books she’s read such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, and the ones she’s written, like Inside Stories for Writers and Readers.

Words of a child, words of a woman
Trish started writing when she was very young. Back then, she pretended to deliver stories about animals for a newspaper, although, she says, at that time, her writing was taken over by school work.

Once she finished her studies in anthropology, she spent a good deal of time travelling in 20 or more countries. “During those years my writing was for my personal journals, not for publication,” Trish says.

Most of her early trips were decided by her work in rural aid and development, so they were often in isolated parts of developing countries. Other travel was for research, in Asia and Australia.

A good place to start
By that time, she settled in New Zealand, and took advantage of the opportunities that the digital publishing industry was offering. It was then, when the idea of writing travelogues started.

She saw that Collca (http://www.collca.com/), an electronic publisher, focused its work on non-fiction short eBooks and Apps on a range of topics. “They wanted to start a BiteSize Travel series and I made a formal submission to them with a few ideas based on my own travelling. The result was my first two travelogues: Masks of the Moryons, and Journey in Bhutan”, Trish remembers.

According to her experience, small independent and digital publishers can be more flexible, “and the whole process is simpler and quicker. It is also easy to have colour photographs which would be too expensive in a print book”.

As Collca accepts direct submissions, she didn’t need an agent, so, for new authors, Digital publishing is a good place to start, Trish says.

Did you ever think that you could become a published author?
It wasn’t something I thought about or consciously aimed at in the early days. It just happened a step at a time: the published articles came first, then I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book; a publisher commissioned me to co-editor and revise a book on tourism, and another publisher accepted my submission of a book on management.

What has been your experience of working with Collca?
Mike Hyman at Collca works closely with me, discussing every aspect of the work including my views on titles and covers. We work on marketing together. And he is innovative, always open to new ideas – he accepted my study of human evolution and storytelling – From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters – as the first in a new popular science series. He doesn’t mind my writing in different genre. This is a freedom I really appreciate.

Her latest book
Trish has recently published her latest book, Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, where she explores the relationship between a reader and a writer when a story is read.

InsideStoriesPbookCover-web (1)

“I discuss inspiration, character, theme, voice etc. analysing 15 of my own stories to reveal insights into story elements. Although it is about creative writing and reading, it is not a how-to book, but more like a companion or an entertaining friend.”

How is this book different from the BiteSize ebook you published last February?
Inside Stories is a full-sized book, and is available as a paperback as well as an eBook, which gives readers more choice – some people like both. And there is a bonus, From Apes to Apps will be included in the print book.

The craft of writing
Rather than a strict routine, Trish has the habit of writing during the mornings after breakfast, stopping at any time when she feels tired, or keeping on, if the words flow especially well. Often, she edits or researches in the afternoon, and reads in the evening.

What kind of stories do you enjoy writing the most? Why?
I especially like writing flash fiction – very short stories of around 500-1000 words – because it has a tight focus on a particular issue, and there is a challenge to use just the right words and find a resolution in such a small space. The shorter ones take a lot of editing to get right, they are often more difficult to write than longer stories.

What story would you like to write at some point?
Although my stories are based in various locations – Texas, Scotland, England, New Zealand – they are all in Western cultures. I would like to write stories set in other cultures, in places I have travelled. My doctoral studies were in anthropology, so this is of particular interest to me.

Can you share some of your experiences as a blogger?
The two most important things I found in having a blog are, first: to be realistic about how often to post so that I could write good quality articles. I keep to the same standards as if I were submitting a piece for formal publication, and second: it is essential to use social media – I use Twitter – to relate to people and let them know the blog posts are there. I post every week – articles about travel and about writing, photo-essays, or reviews. It is a good discipline to have to write an interesting piece each week.

Around the world
Trish’s journeys to India, China, Peru, Bhutan, Tibet, Italy and Spain, have given her the opportunity to cultivate her interests in cultures, mountain trekking and old cities, enthusiasm that might as well take her one day to countries like Sri Lanka or Mexico.

However, her most recent idea for a book is focusing on a long travel narrative about the years she spent in Papua New Guinea. “It shares my adventures working with local people in isolated parts of West Sepik Province. This country has the most diverse cultures and challenging environments on earth, and it’s one of the last stands of wilderness, both beautiful and dangerous.”

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