Speaking to an ex sales rep friend the other day, I learned that the thickness of a book can contribute to its success or failure on the shelves. Specifically, a very thick book will mean that only two or three books will fit in a ‘pocket’, which is the space one book facing out takes up on the shelves in a store. If only two books fit in a pocket then the bookstore is that much less likely to order more, as it will need constant maintenance and replenishment.
The physical limitations of the paper book permeate the entire process of writing, editing, publishing, selling, buying and reading books. Most books published fall somewhere between 300-400 pages long. Almost all books published as trade paperbacks are in multiples of sixteen pages. If there isn’t enough content to fill those sixteen page sections, then the end of the book can be filled up with advertisements or just have blank pages at the end. There are certain tricks used to squeeze a book into a smaller amount of pages, and tricks used to pad out the page extent when it won’t be long enough. Too short? Make every chapter start on the right hand page, with blanks beforehand. Too long? How about we put the dedication on the copyright page? In some kinds of books, the words themselves are changed so a sentence fits better on the page, or around an illustration.
At the moment, paper books are by far the dominant format, so ebooks inherit all the idiosyncrasies of the print world. But what if this wasn’t so? If you take away the physical limitations of a printed book, what makes it a book? How short can a book be before you still call it a book? Would you be less intimated to read a gigantic novel (like Gravity’s Rainbow or 2666) if you couldn’t feel how heavy it was in the hand, and see how much there was left to go? Will publishers be more likely to publish really big books, or illustrations and maps, if they know they won’t have to pay any extra to print it? One friend who has just started reading ebooks says that she feels ebooks give a false sense of progress as you read. Because you turn the page far more often than in a printed book, it gives the impression that you’ve read more than you have. What other ways that we can’t even imagine yet could electronic publishing change what we think of as a book?
At least these changes will not be sudden. Even the most enthusiastic forecasts don’t have ebooks making more sales than printed books for a very long time. Even when it does happen, it’s likely that the paradigm of the printed book will last beyond the limitations of technology. But eventually, it has to be assumed, what you think of as a book now may be a very different artifact. What do you think? What smell-of-books type things will you miss? Is there anything about printed books that annoys you? Sound off in the comments.