R.L. Stevenson, “Jekyll & Hyde”,
Design:  Kovacovsky & Hugli
Peter Lunenfeld, “User: InfoTechnoDemo”, 2005
Peter Lunenfeld, “User: InfoTechnoDemo”, 2005
Mark Danielewski, “House of Leaves”,  2000
Roberto Bolaño, “Los detectives salvajes”, 1998
Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”, 1995

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  • Sonja Lauber
  • 25.02.14

E-Books, P-Books, Editorial Design and Hybrid Novels. An Interview with The Publishing Lab by Sonja Lauber

Sonja Lauber is a Hochschule Konstanz arts graduate and has just concluded her MA in Communication Design at the same university. As part of her research for her MA project, entitled “Umbruch – Print Buchgestaltung in Zeiten der digitalen Revolution” (“The design of Printed Books in the Digital Revolution”), she interviewed The Publishing Lab editors, Alberto Hernández and María Serrano, and asked them about the present and future of printed books. Our answers wound up being quite long so we’ve uploaded a PDF version of the complete interview in our References section. What you have here is an (also somewhat long) extract.

SONJA LAUBER: Do you think the printed book will survive the digitalisation? Why?

ALBERTO HERNÁNDEZ: Nowadays we are definitely seeing more and more digital books. But what we are seeing as well is that printed books are getting better in terms of content, design, and production. Printed books have something that make them special, their physicality. How many times have we got excited about buying a new eBook? How often have we eagerly shown a digital book to someone? […] As writer Maria Fusco put forward in 2008 ‘a book not only provides structures for content, but also builds relevant social ties with its maker, as well as with its reader’. So, my answer is yes, I think the printed book will survive digitalisation, because people still like that human interaction bit, that ceremony, let’s say, of getting a new book, the feeling of holding an analogue book in your hands.

MARÍA SERRANO: I sincerely don’t know what will happen. I’m incapable of guessing which new reading technologies are just about to enter our lives. I have the feeling, though, that e-books and e-readers are still in a very preliminary state and that we are just beginning to get a sense of all they can truly become and the scope of the reading experience they will end up offering. Maybe even the very nature of the reading material we now consider standard will undergo some changes. […] What I think is all that won’t happen for the reason that now digital books exist, but because we are starting to read differently now than the way we used to read 20 years ago. The way we read now is quicker, more fragmented, interrupted, simultaneous and connected. […] So for me the question would not be “will the printed book survive the digitalization” but “will the printed book be able to respond to all these changes in our reading patterns and live up to the new demands and expectations they will pose?” Or “will the authors, designers and editors be able to meet that challenge?” […]

SL: What is it that printed books can offer that the ebook can’t?

AH: Although this might sound like a Romantic idea, for me it’s all about the feeling of having one in your hands, the tactility of it. But it’s also about the feeling of flicking through backwards and forwards, the feel and smell of the paper, the colour of the illustrations, the different printing techniques involved, the different formats and materials, making dog ears on the pages, and even the sound whilst flicking through its pages.

MS: Well, at least up to now, a reading experience in which functionality and sensual pleasure are well balanced, and a very long masterly tradition in the publishing arts which apparently has not been incorporated in the e-book publishing industry. There’s a legibility reason why everything has to be proportionate and harmonic in a book layout: type size and line length and text area and the grid. And there’s a reason why you should really watch out the word break and kerning and tracking and orphan and widow lines and all that kind of things. All of it makes reading a well-cared for print book which is well edited, designed, set and printed, and of course well written, an immensely pleasurable experience. And e-books don’t usually respect the same criteria.

SL: What is it that e-books can offer that the printed book can’t?

AH: Apart from being cheaper and so incredibly easy to get with one click of our finger whilst in our pyjamas, eBooks allow one to get involved in the story through a multimedia experience with music, lights and animations. But for someone like me, who spends most of the day in front of a computer, it can also impair your eyesight. One of the things I look forward to at the end of the day is switching off from looking at screens, so there’s nothing worse than finishing work and carrying on doing things on another device.

MS: Obviously their portability, their connectedness, their “hyperlinkability”, their multimediality and multimodality, their storage capacity, the fact that you can buy them and start reading them almost a second after you realize you want to read them, the fact that you can easily find a particular quote you barely remember among loads of information… All of which are extremely important features in our present world.

SL: What do you think the printed book has to supply to be able to keep up – or rather hold up – with the ebook trend?

AH: Apart from a good story or good content, it needs playful graphic devices to engage readers in a more dynamic narrative experience and to give the printed page a multidimensional visual surface. These gimmicks should not only enhance the experience of reading and communicating the story in a visual way, but they should also entertain readers in a different way than the classic format of the book does and help them become totally immersed in the story. By these playful graphic devices I don’t only mean photographs as novels usually have, but drawings, typographic treatments, information graphics, the use of different materials and formats, etc.

MS: First I have to say I don’t think this is a competition. I don’t think printed books and e-books are competitors, I think they are complementary. […] That said, I think the main thing printed books should do to ensure their survival in the reading-altered context of the digital era is stop being serial products. On the contrary, treating each book as distinct, with its own needs and requirements, and looking for the specific formal and material and visual “voice” that suits them—just as authors do in their writing—should be a key part of the editorial job. […] Note that although the style of two authors may be extremely different, the material form of their books, their “visual voice”, sounds usually exactly the same. Think of the two most disparate writers you can think of. And know think what do their books look like? Just the same. But are we sure the form of their books couldn’t respond in any way to their different voices? At The Publishing Lab we are convinced of precisely the contrary. The form, design and typesetting of a book is also a language. And as a language it has its conventions and standards so that we can all understand what we are talking about, but we can also use it to be creative and to enhance its expressivity. That’s what I think we should be doing with printed books right now and that’s how I think they will maintain their relevance in our culture, by knowing how to physically and aesthetically respond to the content they hold between their covers.

SL: Did the increasing appearance of ebooks and the general digitalisation influence printed book design? How?

AH: Yes, I think it did, and for the better. As traditional publishers became aware of the rise in ebooks, they had to offer something else apart from good content. This could come in the form of better design and production. But it all comes down to the type of book, whilst there are books which haven’t changed much, such as coffee table books or essays, others like art and design books and novels seem to be getting better and better.

MS: I can think of some books written the early 2000s which tried to incorporate some of the features of the digital media into their printed pages, generally with little luck. There were fake email extracts and fake chats and fake screenshots and all that. No subtlety at all. And I think that’s a dead end, it simply doesn’t work that way. I think the most interesting printed book reactions to an influence of the digital media are those books that are not trying to emulate the formal qualities of digital media but their uses, the way we approach them and the many ways we use them. One of those books is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. […] And I think that’s the kind of consideration that is really interesting, not putting some piece of fake digital element in your book just because you think it looks “cool”, but assuming that our way of coping with written media is changing, and trying to respond to that. And I’m seeing more and more fiction and non-fiction authors doing that. Peter Lunenfeld is another interesting example in the non-fiction field. His books try to respond to all that in many different ways.

SL: Which opportunities and trends do you see for book design in the future? In what way will stories be told?

AH: Technology advances really fast. It’s only logical to think we’ll come up with new and hopefully better means to tell stories just as we went from painting on cave walls to creating really complex digital books, passing through hyeroglyphs, friezes, comic strips, films and printed books, to name a few. We’ll start seeing more and more ways to tell stories which use technology such as augmented reality, google glass, or virtual reality, but I’m sure we’ll also see better analogue books. I can’t be 100% sure about how stories will be told in the future, what I can say it’s the way I’d like them to be told, and that is on paper, and as always has happened, by word of mouth, one of the earliest forms of storytelling.

MS: […] Our culture has changed from a basically literate culture to a basically visual one. Visual language is on par with written language with regards to our relationship with information and I think there’s a whole field to be explored for books to become a really hybrid media of both languages. And I’m not talking about mere illustrated editions, I’m not talking about books in which you just intersperse some pretty images with no content value in order to make the thing look prettier. I’m talking about books that are fluent both in textual and visual language, books which use visual grammar to create tropes you cannot achieve with words. And this doesn’t have to be terribly sophisticated either, take for example the ending in “The Savage Detectives”, by Roberto Bolaño. It’s a really simple drawing, the simplest you can think of. But it’s really powerful. It creates a feeling you couldn’t conjure with words.

SL: What role will hybrid novels play in the future?

AH: Hopefully a big one, but as much as I’d like to see the idea of hybrid novels taking off and taking over the novels market, I don’t think that will happen in the long run. […] The reason why this won’t become the norm, as Rick Poynor explained in 2003, is ‘first, because most writers have no desire to give up any aspect of their autonomy and no interest in extending the designer’s role. Second, because most designers don’t possess the degree of writing talent or commitment that ambitious writing requires […] Third, because without works produced in sufficient number to establish their place in the bookshops and reviews pages, there can be no viable market for books of this kind’.

MS: I don’t know what role they will play, but I can tell you what role I think they could play. I think the multimodal quality of hybrid novels could be a very useful tool in the creation of narratives which demand an active involvement of the reader, which demand that the reader be alert, watchful, canny, perceptive, thoughtful and critical. You may think readers are always like that, but that’s not true. Some readers are lazy and inattentive and not willing to make any effort. They just want the thing to be shallow, distracting but predictable, and not to take up much of their time and/or mental effort. […] Since true hybrid novels […] require that you operate simultaneously on various semiotic modes (various channels of meaning-making: visual, written, aural…) in order to make sense of their narrative, what they are demanding of you is basically hard mental work: making connections and filling the gaps and interpreting messages that are not denotative as written language usually is, but connotative. Why do I think this is important? Because by dealing with it you hone your skills for decoding complex messages. […] Good hybrid novels force you to pay attention precisely to those details where non-obvious meaning hide: ellipsis, implications, apposition, connections… And these skills and this disposition are key for being able to read all social narratives in our information-saturated world. So I guess good hybrid novels could play a very important role in the cognitive and hermeneutical education of readers in the future. : ) […]

SL: How do you imagine the book of the future?

AH: I imagine the printed version of the book of the future with rich visual and engaging textual content, impeccable design and produced to high-quality standards. The digital version will probably have, in most instances, loads of unnecessary gimmicks, but it’ll be a good, cheap and quick way to access content as it is now.

MS: Pretty much as Neal Stephenson imagined it in his novel “The Diamond Age”. When I read that book sometime back in the late nineties I thought his description of a book which had the appearance of our usual codex but was all techy inside and programmed to react to the life and the reading process of the reader and which was connected to a kind of actor’s studio in which an actress (a “ractor” in the novel) interacted with the girl who was reading the book… I thought it was totally cool. […]

SL: Name a book you should never have or would never read digital.

AH: I would never read a digital version of Don Quixote, not only because of its length, but because it’s a book that was thought out to be printed, and this is only one of millions.

MS: “Tree of Codes” by Jonathan Safran Foer (Visual Editions, 2010). “House of Leaves” by Mark Danielewski (Pantheon Books, 2000)

SL: Name a book you think is better to read on an e-reader.

AH: Any book that has been written specifically for the digital market.

MS: Any book which may be specifically written and designed for that medium: e.g. “Reading in Four Dimensions” by Andrew Losowsky (2011)


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