The Smell Of Books – Mythbusters’s Edition

The “smell of books” is an evocative phrase and a contentious subject. Our ebooks’ (or should that be ubooks’) blog was even originally named for it with the first ever blog post taking on the idea directly. Fans of the paper book (or “dead tree”, as it is less kindly known) rhapsodise lyrical about the joy of the feel and distinct smell of older books, and during the week I came across a tumblr image giving what seemed to be a scientific endorsement of that love.

The image is that of a quote, apparently from a book called Perfume: The Guide, which reads:

“Lignin, the stuff that prevents all trees from adopting the weeping habit, is a polymer made up of units that are closely related to vanillin. When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.”

A quick google revealed that the quote has really got around with over sixteen thousand results from bookshops and book-publishers and book bloggers and more.  It’s a wonderful quote; evoking instant nostalgia for browsing second hand book stores and dawdling in comfy chairs in the library. It sounds, simply, too delicious to actually be true.

Well, there’s the sad bit – it probably isn’t true. Old books don’t always smell of vanilla – as a quick sniff through the more elderly titles on my book shelf told me. Even with my beloved copy of the Never-Ending Story (30 years old, and done in three different shades of ink) I was getting more of a musty damp smell than the urge to lick the page.

I decided to look it up. The quote is indeed from a book called Perfume: The Guide but – according someone who works in the book business – it’s not particularly accurate, and they made their own image (complete with a NSFW word meaning male bull excretion stamped over it, so be warned if you click at work) to refute it.

“Old books don’t smell good. They’re also not made from lignin. They are made from cellulose. The lignin is the sugary glue that holds the cellulose together in the form of wood. When the paper is made, they cook the lignin out of the wood to get cellulose. The lignin is a waste product that’s usually burned in a boiler. It doesn’t make it into your book and doesn’t smell like vanilla. It smells like molasses. This whole thing was pulled from someone’s ass to make you feel good about old books.

Signed, someone in a paper factory.”

But now I had two opinions on the smell of books, neither of which seem particularly unbiased. I did a bit more digging and found a slightly longer and more scientific (and less sweary) explanation in an interview conducted by the Naked Scientist with the Head of Laboratory for Cultural Heritage at the University Library of Slovenia:

“An odour of a book is a complex mixture of odorous volatiles, emitted from different materials from which books are made.  Due to the different materials used to make books throughout history, there is no one characteristic odour of old books.  A professional perfumer has evaluated seventy odorous volatiles emitted from books and described their smells as dusty, musty, mouldy, paper-like or dry.

The pleasant aromatic smell is due to aromatic compounds emitted mainly from papers made from ground wood which are characterised by their yellowish-brown colour.  They emit vanilla-like, sweetly fragrant vanillin, aromatic anisol and benzaldehyde, with fruity almond-like odor.  On the other hand, terpene compounds, deriving from rosin, which is used to make paper more impermeable to inks, contribute to the camphorous, oily and woody smell of books.  A mushroom odour is caused by some other, intensely fragrant aliphatic alcohols.

A typical odour of ‘old book’ is thus determined mixture of fragrant volatiles and is not dominated by any single compound.  Not all books smell the same.”

So, is there a smell of books? Yes, but not just one and not always as pleasant a one as the phrase “smell of books” tries to conjure. Sometimes it’s a touch of vanilla, other times it’s a touch of damp wood. Does this mean I’ll be junking my collection of beloved older books for a smell-free electronic version? Definitely not. I just need to pull them out more often to air – it’s a great excuse to read them anyway. What’s the oldest book on your shelves, and what does it smell of for you?

Death of a Bookseller


I can’t tell you how many times we’ve buried the book in my lifetime. The fact is that we haven’t buried the book, and however all this works out, we’re still not going to be burying the book. People are still going to be reading books, and whether they’re going to be reading them on a Kindle or as a regular physical hardcover book or a paperback or on their phones or listening to audiobooks, what’s the difference? A writer is still sending his or her work to you, and you’re absorbing it, and that’s reading. – Super editor Robert Gottlieb in an interview on Slate.com

If you’ve been reading the book news lately, you will have heard the media, the Australian Booksellers Association and cultural figures large and small ream out the Minister for Small Business, Senator Nick Sherry, for predicting the death of the bookshop. Just to jog your memory, here is what Senator Sherry said:

I think in five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist.

We don’t need to put our thinking caps on for too long to realise that the Minister for Small business probably made a bit of a tit of himself when he made this proclamation – as a piece of political rhetoric it was clearly a misstep. But just how wrong is the senator, and how upset should we really be?

The pundits would have us believe that we should be furious. As Don Grover, chief executive of Dymocks, said on the ABC: ‘I think it’s bizarre that he’s made that assessment … People love curling up on a lounge with a book, the physical nature of the product. The smell of a book still rates as one of the most significant reasons why people buy books.’

This from Mr Grover’s exhaustive study on the book-buying public entitled, ‘Why We’d Rather Smell Books Than Read Them’.

I mean, seriously, people. If the most significant reason for buying books is the smell, then the book trade is in even bigger strife than Nick Sherry believes. Luckily for those of us who love books, it’s not the main reason people buy them – and even if it were it wouldn’t save bookstores. You see, it is entirely possible to buy nice smelling books from the internet. And that is the threat to bricks and mortar bookshops – the convenience and range offered by online shopping.

The book trade is in flux, and that means physical bookselling is under threat. There will certainly be casualties. Some of them will likely be booksellers. Some of the fallout is likely to happen within the next five years. Get over it.

Conflating the ‘book’ as cultural artefact and the ‘bookstore’ as cultural institution is not helpful. Nobody thinks bookstores aren’t a big part of how people have traditionally discovered, obtained and fallen in love with books. But the changes confronting physical booksellers are an economic and cultural reality. Just as the bulk of independent booksellers were swamped by giant book chain stores over the last two or three decades, so the chains will be eclipsed by online booksellers. However, online bookstores do not, for the most part, provide the same kind of curation and community that bricks and mortar stores do. If booksellers want to remain relevant, then these are issues that need to be confronted head on – not ignored because we have dared question the viability of an existing institution. Not mentioning that bookshops are closing does not mean we didn’t notice the going-out-of-business sales all over the country.

The times, they are a-changin’, but that doesn’t mean we should panic. We are more literate and books are more accessible than ever before. They’re about to get even more so. How we help people find the books they want to read is one of the main challenges facing the industry. So let’s stop the hysteria in response to any suggestion that things are going to change. They are, but booksellers clinging to traditional models will not help them to reinvent themselves.

Why Nobody Blames Authors (And Why You Should)

Whether it’s geo-restrictions, digital rights management (DRM), ebook pricing or ebook quality, it’s rare to hear a reader blame an author for the state of an ebook (unless it’s self-published, of course). And I can see why. Authors are the public face of what readers love about books. They are the creative geniuses behind all the amazing books you’ve ever read. And it’s not just that. Writing books is really hard, and most authors only do it for the love of it.

It’s for these reasons and many more that the last thing we want to do is hang all the things we hate about ebooks on our favourite authors. Especially not when there are publishers, agents and ebook vendors who perform that role very well indeed thank you very much. None of this, however, changes the fact that a big chunk of the blame for why the publishing industry is as slow-moving, old-fashioned and afraid of change as it is lies at the feet of authors. I’ve written before about the Luddite nature of most book editors. But that’s nothing in comparison to authors. Nobody talks about the smell of books more than traditionally published authors. Nobody is more wedded to the comfortable, cyclical traditional publishing model than authors. Most authors love book launches, writers’ festivals, tours, publicity and going into physical bookstores to sign copies of their books for their fans, despite what JA Konrath might say. A huge chunk of authors either support DRM or don’t know what it is, despite the fact that most authors have more direct contact with their readers than their publishers. Many authors don’t care about ebooks, or are afraid of them, and certainly don’t read ebooks themselves.

And then there are the digital holdouts. Publishers don’t like to talk about them, because at the end of the day, most publishers would prefer to protect their authors and keep selling their books than drag their names through the mud in order to deflect the blame. But there are more than a few authors out there who don’t want to sell their books as ebooks at all, and refuse to make them available out of fear, snobbery or greed. Some of them are very big. JK Rowling is perhaps the most high-profile of these, but there are others. Some of them are even Big and Fancy Australian authors.

The fact of the matter is, the reason many of the annoying things about the publishing industry exist are to protect or promote an author’s copyrighted material. Many of these things are not bad at all for authors. Geo-restrictions, as frustrating and exhausting as they are for global ebook readers, are the result of authors protecting their copyright. Authors have the right to sell their copyright in different countries to different companies. Those companies are sometimes in direct competition with one another. This means authors get better deals, are treated better and are publicised and distributed more widely than they would otherwise be if they were sold globally by one single company.

So next time you start working yourself up into a rage about the greed of publishers, agents, retailers and all the other ‘middle men’, ask yourself what the author you love has to gain from the situation they are in. If self-publishing ebooks were as easy and inevitable as it is often made out to be, why aren’t there more authors who are self-publishing ebooks without DRM at super-low prices? The answer is simple: because they’re getting as much out of it as their publishers.

And if you’re a traditionally published author reading this and thinking, ‘That’s not me! I love my readers! I want my ebooks sold at $0.99 without DRM internationally!’ Then please, comment below. And more importantly, speak to your publisher. Educate yourself about ebooks and digital publishing, and you can take advantage of the changes sweeping the reading world. Because ultimately it’s your book, and you get to decide how it reaches your readers.