People used to read books for two reasons: to gain some knowledge or to be entertained. For a few hundred years, bound books were about the only good way to store a large amount of information. People still had voices, and pens and paper, and stone and chisels, but these were transient, ephemeral, or unwieldy. If you wanted to convey a lifetime of knowledge and transmit it to more than one person at a time, your best bet was to print some books.
After a few hundred years, people invented things like records, and film. Printing presses got good enough that dozens or hundreds of stories could be printed each night, ready for consumption and disposal each morning. Books had competition, and creators had new ways to share and store ideas. But, if you wanted to distill a tremendous amount of work and knowledge into something that was easily sharable, a book was still your best bet.
Then, if you’re a traditional publisher, the internet and the Kindle fucked it all up. Now, an author can share his life’s work with the entire world with just the click of a button. Digital copies are plentiful, and sending it to one more person doesn’t cost anything. They don’t weigh anything: you can store thousands of books on a device, or even better, in the cloud, making them accessible from any device, at any time, anywhere in the world. Physical books are surely on their way out, right?
Books as Souvenirs
Sure, there are some people who don’t like reading on a screen, or who love holding real paper. Those people are going to either die out, or be won over once they see how easy and fun reading on a Kindle or other device can be. I’ve already seen die-hard paper-lovers, who claimed they would never give up their beloved hard-bounds, make the switch, and the technology isn’t anywhere near where it will be in 5 years.
But, books won’t die. Books still provide people with value, apart from the information they contain. Books represent things, places, times, events or ideas to certain people.
I have the Lord of the Rings triology on my bookshelf right now, not because I’m ever going to reread them, but because every time I see them I think about the time I spent reading them. After long days of chasing and photographing game in Kenya and Tanzania with my family, I would stay up late reading those books. In some places we were staying, the generators would shut off after 9 or 10pm, so I would have to read with one of those clip-on lights. That little light threw some wild shadows when it blasted through the mosquito net. It’s just as good a souvenir as the carved wooden rhinoceros that sits on my desk.
I have Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone on my bookshelf because it represents the idea of building relationships by helping people, something I’m working to get better at. I don’t need to read the book again (although I probably will — it’s full of great insights), but its physical presence reminds me of what’s in it.
Go the Fuck to Sleep
Adam Mansbach wrote a children’s book for adults about the pains of getting a kid to go to sleep, called Go the Fuck to Sleep. A pirated PDF of the short, illustrated book swept across the web. You know it’s gone viral when your mom asks you about it. Despite the fact that it was widely circulated, and freely available, it shot to the number 1 spot on Amazon’s best-seller list. A month before it was even published.
It was driven by that piracy. People read it, loved it, forwarded it, but then decided they wanted a physical copy. A PDF wouldn’t cut it. Maybe, in this particular case, it’s because a PDF is still hard to share over hors d’oeuvres at the coffee table. But how many people are going to be sharing this at dinner parties? More likely, I think, the majority of buyers wanted a memento, a way to remember the idea and the execution, or to commemorate the event of sharing this irreverent book with people. A yearbook, of sorts.
Whatever the particular reason behind the success of Go the Fuck to Sleep, I think the future is clear: its easier, faster, and cheaper to consume books digitally. In order to get people to buy physical media, you’re going to have to tie it to an event, an idea, or a movement that people want to be a part of, and be reminded of. You’re going to have to make art.