What is a book? In praise of print, by Roz Morris

This month I've gone retro. I’ve been playing with print.

Yes, I know that on this blog we are brilliantly electric. But it’s a year since I released my novel, My Memories of a Future Life, and I thought I'd celebrate. On a whim, I created a special, limited print edition of the book to be given away as a prize.

It wasn’t premeditated. As with most of my ideas, it was a side-effect of something more purposeful. As part of the anniversary celebration I ran a twist on my blog series TheUndercover Soundtrack. Usually, authors write about using music in their creative process, but I flipped the concept and hosted two musicians who make work inspired by novels (here and here). So there I was, footling with PagePlus, creating an adapted logo. I swiped the cursor over a thumbnail of the Future Life cover and it flashed into negative, like a premonition. The blood piano and ethereal sky became copper-green and thunder. In a book that looks at reincarnation the wrong way round, it seemed so.... right.

I had a brainwave. Musicians often release albums with the cover in different colourways. Why not do that for my novel? An hour of design twiddles and it was done.

If I’d been released by a conventional publisher, this would have been impossible. No one would go to the fuss of a new design, and it certainly couldn’t be whipped through the publishing machine quickly. But thanks to Createspace, I made this happen in a matter of hours.

And here it is. As tweeters spread the news it acquired a string of names: the Noir edition, the Undercover variation, the green incarnation. The book inside is the same, although it has an inscription about the cover and its own ISBN. But it’s not for sale. It’s my indulgence for this anniversary.

I've made five copies, total. Two I gave away on my blog last week, signed and numbered. One is for me. One is a gift and one is for carting around events. And that’s it.

We know in this e-age that it doesn’t matter what we read on. Pixels or papyrus, what matters is the words.

But this adventure makes me reassess what is so satisfying about a physical book. Although reading is an experience, the hunk of pages roots it in the real. Epublishing has made a story no more solid than a soul, a visitor to our minds that then becomes a reel of numbers on a file server or a speck on a memory chip. The print edition captures the book in our dimension. It can show itself off on a shelf, or be given as a gift. It can be inscribed. It can wear a piece of art that speaks of what's inside, or a variation that speaks of alternate possibilities. In an age where we can pirate, clone and duplicate into infinity, it can be authentic and rare.
Do you still love print?

Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. She blogs at Nail Your Novel  and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris. Her books are Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, available in print and on Kindle  She also has a novel, My Memories of a Future Life available (in original colours) on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters right here.


George Fripley said…
I still love print Roz...there's nothing like getting a physical book in your hand (paticualarly if you wrote it!). It's somehow feels more permanaent than the e-book.

And I love browsing through second-hand book stores. I like the fact that I have to leave my home to do this. There's nothing worse than having everything availalbe at home and not getting out and having a sensory experience.

Call me old-fashioned if you like!

On another note, I know that some museums are a bit nervous about electronic records, including photos etc, as once they are corrupted, or technology changes, they may not be recoverable (The old glass slides from 100 years ago are still going strong - albeit a bit faded).
julia jones said…
Wallowing in the stuff. Boxes have a arrived of he print edition of Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory a book which tells the story of a writer in a period where print was THE medium - none of yer radios and yer TV or yer pedlers carrying ballads. From the later part of the c19th when more people lived in towns than in the country to the early years of the c20th when we finally attained something near 100% nominal literacy PRINT was what you bought at the end of the long hard working week. But that didn't mean you bought a book, not if you were poor and overcrowded, you probably bought a penny paper and read evey word in it. My subject, Herbert Allingham was published for fifty years but never once in the pages of a book ...
George, the technology issue is so important - how could I have forgotten! Hooray for a book you only need eyes to read.

Julia - we're up to our ears in books here too. We don't need pictures on the walls. Each room would be at least 12 inches bigger if we got rid of books.
jenny milchman said…
First of all, your book is beautiful Roz. Second, I have no doubt you will do well in either format or any format to come. You have talent and precision and insight...and as you say it's what's IN the words that matters, not what the words are ON.


I have this feeling that it's not going to be a question of "still" loving print in a handful of years, perhaps a decade. My sense--maybe it's a bias or a hope--is that the limitations of both media will become clear and we will understand that both are essential.

Reading digitally is better for travel or for those with certain vision problems or even just those who prefer it.

But more and more research is coming to the fore that says that reading digitally limits retention and cognition. That deep engagement with text on paper is correlated with more insightful assimilation of meaning. This isn't only true for kids (promoting an anti-technology movement just getting started in some schools), but for adults, too.

I love print and paper. I always will, and I hope I always get to.

I wonder if print will turn out to be the most modern of all--the thing that remains amidst radical changes in technology?

Bill Kirton said…
I just want to reiterate what the others have said. Print will never disappear completely because the experience of reading it can't be reproduced electronically. It may be blasphemous to say so in this forum but, while I love and make full use of my Kindle as a reader and am grateful for it as a writer, my preference is still for the object, the page-turning, the involvement of several senses.
Daniel said…
My wife got a Kindle for her birthday, but she doesn't care to read on it. She doesn't mind that I have pretty much taken it over. I now prefer reading on the Kindle, but I do occasionally read print books that my wife passes my way.

Although the Kindle is indeed more convenient for travel, we've never had much trouble finding reading material while on vacation. We just take one or two books to read on the plane and then visit the book exchange at the resort or find a used book store. The coolest arrangement was in Hawaii, where the state lets you get a temporary 2-week library card for a $10 fee.

As a reader, I'm happy with the digital revolution. But as an author, I find it less inspiring. I uploaded my book to KDP in January, but it wasn't until I had a print proof in my hands in February that I felt I had truly published a novel. Holding a print edition made it real.

Sadly, print sales do not justify the cost of production for most fiction authors. My paperback edition represents less than 1% of my sales. It would take years for most fiction authors to make back what they spend in the design and layout necessary to produce a print edition. But it would be a shame to miss out on that special feeling you get by holding your very own book in your hands.
@Jenny - thank you! I think I saw a remark on Twitter the other day when someone was saying that print books were like vinyl records - cherished for their own qualities. One of them is undoubtedly pleasure in the object, a warmth and analogue permanence. But yes, there's nothing like Kindle for travel. It's luxury to have so much reading at the ready.

@Bill - 'blasphemy...' I wondered if I'd get away with a bit of print love here, but I don't seem to have been turfed out yet...

@Daniel - hello! My husband bought me my Kindle and I think he makes use of it more often than I do. Your story about the book exchange reminds me of years ago when I visited friends in Singapore. The ex-pat community had a book swap shop, where everyone passed around the books they'd finished with. (Not much good for author royalties, though...)
You're right about print editions. They cost real money to create and as you say, few indie authors recoup the cost. I was talking to a bunch of successful indie writers last night, though, and they all agreed that it was only once they got a print copy that they felt their book had properly 'come out'.
As you know Roz (!), I did my best to win a Noir physical copy of MMOAFL...but am now living in the ignominy of failure in regard to those efforts...
What attracted me was the special-occasion-ness, Limited Edition aspect...I can see that as a great sideline here and there along the e-road ahead.
But otherwise, seeing the benefits I've had in the last nine months when I suddenly shifted focus from print to ebook, my mantra must remain "I Write Ebooks!"
Kathleen Jones said…
Sounds a lovely idea Roz. I love books and I love Kindle - the world has to contain both!
I agree with everyone on the subject of only feeling published when you hold a physical book in your hands. But the economics aren't wonderful for an indie author. I got my money back and made a small amount of profit on my last printed book, but not the real profit that's in the e-book.
Lee said…
I absolutely love print! Though I read a great deal on my ereader, the books I want to keep in my permanent collection still get purchased in print. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned like others here, but nothing can convince me that my collection of ebooks may not just vanish one of these days - and in fact, once did so on my iPad, for some as yet unexplained reason. Fortunately, I go with the principle that one backup is no backup and am rather fanatic about saving important files to multiple external drives.

I also use Lulu to print copies of my own novels, not because many are sold (very few, to be frank), but because they're useful for editing - and again, for archival purposes.
madwippitt said…
They are both wonderful.
Although books that I intend to keep for ever I buy as paper versions.
And some of my best loved but nowfragile, well thumbed paper copies I have backed up on Kindle.
Yes, weird.
Dan Holloway said…
special editions are a fabulous thing to love about print. This looks wonderful, Roz. We brought out ultra-limited editions of all our eight cuts books (one of which was an edition of one, handmade and bound by an artisan stationer) and that sense of collectability and quality is part of what makes both print and DIY so great - just like music as you say.

The other music-related print DIY thing I love is zines
@John - your enthusiasm was much appreciated. Sorry the draw didn't go your way... It was a lot of fun to hold the event.
@Kathleen - you're right about the economics. The making of print books is time consuming, which costs even if you can do it yourself.
@Lee - I'm a backup fanatic too. And a fan of Lulu - I don't use them for my print copies, but they're brilliant for proofing drafts and giving them to beta readers.
@madwippitt - I still think of my 'keepers' collection as the paper one. Each one has its own shape and creases, even its own bookmark from the time I read it - usually a train ticket or a scribbled note. And then I have the fun of finding my bookmark again years later, a little record of the little routines of my life at the time.
@Dan - I thought limited editions would be your kind of thing! Why didn't I call mine 'ultra-limited' - that's a great name!
George Fripley said…
On the subject on technology...and completely without prejudice, I posted this on my Grumpy Commuter blog yesterday - just came to me as I walked down the street on Friday

iPhone 5

I saw them by the Apple store,
they queued for hours, and then some more,
those poor deluded mindless drones,
with vacant souls, outdated phones,
desperate for a brand new toy,
a moment of such fleeting joy.

All these people made me stew,
I wanted to just kick a few,
inject some sense into their veins
to stimulate their slave-like brains,
tell them that they should not fear
the phones will be on sale all year,

until the next one comes along,
and then they’ll be another throng,
another queue of shallow slaves,
they come each year in nauseous waves
that never reach the peaceful shore,
condemned to ‘want’ for ever more

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