There’s no E in book: 5 non-digital book-based innovations

Printed books will never really go away. They’ll be superseded by e-books, sure. They’ll become a minority interest. They’ll be treated as relics of a bygone age, one where you had to actually leave the house to, y’know, get stuff.

But just as vinyl records have survived in the sweaty-but-carefully-dust-gloved hands of music geeks, and cinephiles are ignoring the convenience of watch instantly video streaming in favour of the hi-def glories of a decent Blu-Ray restoration, there will always be an audience, however small and specialist, for a nice binding and a dog-ear, ready and waiting for publishers to peddle their wares.

Alternatively, publishers could decide they’re not content to punt such simple pulp-and-ink pleasures, and instead chuck gimmick after gimmick at the reading public until something sticks. Either way. Here’s five of the latter.


1. Flipbacks

Initially, of course, there’s disappointment at realising it’s Flipbacks and not flip books. Then, there’s further dismay that they have nothing to do with animated stick figures finally getting revenge on the thumbs that’ve made them dance jauntily from side to side across a page for years.

But with those hurdles cleared, these pocket-sized novels are certainly an attractive proposition for commuters, coming in around the size of the average phone, with text printed top to bottom rather than left to right, on pages as thin as rolling papers. So not only can you read Cloud Atlas, you can tear the pages out, light up and create your own.


2. Book as art/collector’s artefact

Working with the form of the book has long proved fruitful for visual artists, from William Blake illustrating, printing and binding his own writings through to the modern-day likes of Yorkshire-born, Glasgow-based Helen Shaddock, who incorporates artist’s books into her work alongside sculpture, installations and performance, has twice co-organised the Glasgow International Artists’ Bookfair and is in the process of organising her third.

‘I appreciate the intimate and personal nature of artist books, and enjoy their tactile quality,’ says Shaddock. ‘Sometimes I use the book as a means of documenting a work, such as “My quest to find a Shaddock”, which relates to the public artwork I did at the Barras market. Recently I have been making sculptural books, exploring the potential of hand-cutting and folding paper.’

artists books 4
Some of Helen Shaddock's work.

Incorporating such innovations and playing up the one-of-a-kind nature of these pieces is certainly a way for creative publishers to divert attention from e-books and offer the kind of experience that necessitates the physicality of real-world materials. Think of it as The Very Hungry Caterpillar for grown-ups.


3. Added value content

Because the joy of reading clearly is no longer its own reward (imagine! Reading a book just for the hell of it! Hah!), some authors, big and small, have started expanding their domains beyond the realm of the printed page and even the humble audiobook.

When Canongate published Nick Cave’s The Death Of Bunny Munro, for example, the audiobook came not just with the standard ‘read by the author’ hook, but with the promise of original music by the cult hero and his regular collaborator Warren Ellis, sound design by filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard – who have also been collaborating with Cave on a series of documentaries about his albums – and 3D spatialised sound by Arup Acoustics.

On the other end of the spectrum, and perhaps taking a leaf from the likes of Matador Records’ Buy Early Get Now scheme (encouraging pre-orders of albums from independent record shops), Californian kids’ graphic novelist Dan Santat came up with a pre-order package that not only included all manner of extras, from art prints to deleted scenes and other making-of material perhaps more commonly associated with film, but also benefited his local independent book shop.


4. Author as rock star

In 2007, venerable Scottish record label Chemikal Underground put out Ballads Of The Book, a collaborative album that saw some of Scotland’s finest indie acts set lyrics written by some of Scotland’s finest writers to their own music.

One unexpected result of the process was the taste for live performance developed by Alan Bissett, whose “The Rebel On His Own Tonight” was translated to record by ex-Arab Strap man Malcolm Middleton. Buoyed by positive reaction to the record, Bissett went on the road with Zoey Van Goey and Y’All Is Fantasy Island, performing excerpts from his fiction and specially created spoken word pieces in between sets.

The innovation here isn’t so much the act of performing as the context in which it took place: rather than read at a literary festival, Bissett took his pop-culture saturated work in front of the kind of crowd most likely to appreciate it, one already used to supporting stuff they like via the merch table and one who, much as they kept the turntable alive, would likely find a certain retro glamour in picking up a paperback to then sit and read ostentatiously outside a hip cafe, perhaps while nonchalantly smoking a page or two of Cloud Atlas.


5. Digital to analogue

Of course, if all else fails, turn the tables. Rather than passively watch the digitisation of every piece of printed material available, several publishers have taken it upon themselves to bring portions of the web kicking and screaming into the real world: cute photo blogs like Hipster Puppies and Sleeveface, cool web comics like Dinosaur Comics and Achewood, and even, in one confounding instance, the edit history of Wikipedia’s entry on the Iraq War.

Physical copies certainly seem to be the only way to turn a profit from such endeavours – who would buy an eBook version of a site when the site itself is freely accessible from any phone or computer? – and removing them from the unending bombardment of information that is web 2.0 (and beyond) gives readers a chance to appreciate them apart from the intrusion of IMs, pop-ups, and pop-ups pretending to be IMs.

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