Print Is Dead: Books in our Digital Age

Tara Brabazon

January 10, 2008

Stroppy books about books make great reading. Recent highlights offering witty trawls through the written word include Nicholson Baker's Double Fold and John Maxwell Hamilton's Casanova Was a Book Lover. In contrast to this punchy literature, Jeff Gomez, director of online consumer sales and marketing for Penguin, has produced a text in which readers can ponder the losses to literacy in the wireless age. When his writing career "didn't really work out", Gomez moved into selling e-books. But, unlike Andrew Keen's experiences, as detailed in Cult of the Amateur, Gomez did not allow digital failures to change his views. He runs the road of pixellated screens, ignoring hardware and software relics on the footpath.

He describes the book as "a tidy one-stop shopping experience for the future of the book debate". Three sections organise the argument: "Stop the presses", "Totally wired" and "Saying goodbye to the book". He does not discuss digitised reading in education or libraries, or the Google Book Search project. He offers a streamlined argument: publishing must change in light of digital "reality".

The problem is that e-books failed. If Gomez's argument were self-evident, the facts would fit the narrative. He terms commitment to paper-based books as "slightly hysterical", with no explanation as to why young "digital natives" did not buy e-books. Parts of his argument explore the lessons to be learnt from the iPod by the publishing industry. While sonic media has been washed by platform transformations, codex has remained stable for centuries. Instead of realising that stability may confirm a good product, Gomez argues that "since the 1500s the evolution of books has become stuck at one of the early stages (somewhere between vinyl and eight track)".

A fact that shatters Gomez's digidream is that publishing has changed: writing, editing, proofing, distribution and marketing have transformed in the past decade. For his argument to function, publishers and readers become straw men trapped in the past and reading print on paper is pathologised.

Instead of labelling Luddites, Gomez could have probed how different media platforms activate diverse styles of reading. Scrolling through a screen is effective for some research modes; movements through print on paper are useful for others. Configuring an artificial choice between books or e-books, paper or screen is an inaccurate rendering of current readership practices.

There is a context for books such as Print Is Dead. Ten years ago, bestseller lists were filled with books about sex. Correction: about relationships. Mars and Venus peppered our personal lives and self-help gurus filled the talk-show circuit. But now that sex gets in the way of shopping and relationships are replaced with social networking sites, new gurus pump up the wonders of digitisation instead.

In a post-Marxist, post-feminist, post-postmodern age, there are few theories of change. We describe crisis. Bookshelves are filled with tipping points, long tails and the wisdom of crowds. My favourite subtitle in this oeuvre is Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. This phrase embodies a celebration of experience and feeling, rather than rationality. It is significant that, the first great hybrid company digitally distributing analogue products, has created Kindle, an innovative platform for digital reading - and unmentioned by Gomez. Amazon is selling while thinking.

Print Is Dead: Books in our Digital Age

Author - Jeff Gomez
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 232
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 97802305164
Published 5 November 2007

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