A post from Shady Characters

Shady Characters at the BBC: The mysterious ancient origins of the book

In the run-up to the US publication of The Book, I was happy to be able to write an article for BBC Culture entitled “The mysterious ancient origins of the book”. It takes a look at the forces, mysterious and otherwise, that lay behind the evolution of the papyrus scroll into the parchment book. It was a challenge to write this one — it compresses a huge amount of history into a few hundred words — but I hope that it does justice to the subject. Have a read!

Alternatively, if you’re in more of a podcast sort of mood, last week I was also interviewed on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon (listen out for the Bavarian/barbarian confusion) and Newstalk’s Moncrieff programme about books, scrolls, ebooks, and more. Thank you to Radio NZ and Newstalk for having me!

8 comments on “Shady Characters at the BBC: The mysterious ancient origins of the book

  1. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Re your BBC article quote:

    …the Bookseller reported recently that ebook sales had dipped for the first time, he sounded almost relieved: “For those who predicted the death of the physical book and digital dominating the market by the end of this decade, the print and digital sales figures […] for 2015 might force a reassessment.”

    As analysts have commented since that article appeared at the start of the year, that article only shows Big Five agency priced ebook sales have dropped, because of excessively high ebook pricing, and lack of any of the discounting which happens fairly quickly on the same volumes in hardback in book stores.

    Analysts looking at Amazon book sales (which they estimate about 60% of the market, and pretty representative of the whole, with no other global sales volumes and prices available) report ebook sales at double print sales, and even with low ebook prices, author income from ebooks is double that of print.

    Take my own habits: I used to buy paperbacks to save shelf space, typically a year after hardback release, if they became available in my national chain, and scrounged local independent and used book stores to fill backlists. After the global recession most local independent and used book stores closed around here, leaving only the national chain which offered selected authors and publishers, probably those giving good discounts to distributors which were passed along to the retail chain.

    Since I got an ereader 5 years ago, I have not bought a paper volume; I used to buy ebooks when released alongside hardbacks, at reasonable prices, sometimes discounted, until agency pricing came along and ebook discounting disappeared.

    Since then, I buy from a variety of epublishers at reasonable prices; get cheap (mainly free) trials via Bookbub recommendations; and add agency priced books to my Google Play Books wishlist, until they are discounted to reasonable prices, or I can borrow them from the city e-library.

    Only content, style, and value matter to me; I don’t really care if it comes on a scroll, codex, or download; but it’s a lot more convenient to carry everything I have read or will read on a 32GB microSDHC card backed up on my ereader, tablet, and computer.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — thanks for the comment! I meant the BBC article more as a historical piece, comparing the change in formats from scrolls to codices to that of books to ebooks, than as a comment on ebook pricing. That said, I take your point and I do agree about the convenience of ebooks over print books.

      There are a few things about ebooks, though, that leaves me cold; navigation through more complex ebooks feels finicky at at times, and I’m still happier reading a well-set print book than an ebook. I’m in the process of writing an article for the Society of Authors that attempts to unpick some of this, and I’ll have to ask the editor there if I can republish it here at some point.

  2. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Hi Keith,

    Only annoyances I have had with ebooks were CSS forcing use of their own (lo-res web) fonts; equations and images (including screenshots of text!) in technical and “text” books which appear tiny on hi-res ereader and tablet screens; some use of HTML character entity code, all but five of which are invalid in xhtml, instead of Unicode characters; and Unicode characters used but glyphs missing in the fonts used, with no fallback to alternate renderings.

    [Replaced UTF-8 with Unicode which may be familiar to more readers.]

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — that was a problem with Shady Characters too, specifically for the special characters. I understand why e-reader vendors want to control the available subset of CSS properties and fonts, but the open web is racing ahead of them in terms of fidelity and features.

  3. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Hi Keith,

    It is the epublisher trying to limit the fonts and rendering selections. Ereaders (like web browsers, which are the basis for the front end) support multiple dynamic font selections, sizes, justification, and various other display settings. These normally override ebook settings except when the publisher forces certain settings. A little light epub editing (CSS deletion) can easily fix issues in non-DRM protected ebooks. [I know there are ways around DRM “protection”, but I would prefer to promote good practice by having epublishers address issues, although mechanisms for reporting are woefully inadequate, responses are nonexistent, and I refuse to bother authors about publishers’ failings.]

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — that’s interesting! A bit of reading suggests that ebook creators can embed fonts if they like, but that most e-readers override those embedded fonts with the user’s preferred typeface. I need to reacquaint myself with the state of the ebook art.

      DRM is a separate, and vexed, issue. I understand why publishers want it, but then I come across cracked versions of Shady Characters and The Book online (already!) and I wonder how much good it does in keeping ebooks under lock and key. It feels like the problem may be one of education (“please pay the writer for their work”) rather than of security (“this book is copy-protected”) — might it be easier to change the behaviour of your average, mostly-law-abiding reader than to outwit a determined cracker? I do wonder.

  4. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Hi Keith,

    E-readers try not to be arrogant and don’t use CSS flags like !important which are difficult to override.

    Some e-publishers use !important to force their choice to the detriment of the reader’s choice. I have come across this more in proportion in technical books, which are most difficult to render well across a wide variety of e-readers, and could most benefit from allowing the reader to change the settings for greatest compatibility and readability.

    Cracking the weak encryption used for ebook Digital Restrictions Malware is a simple “script kiddy” exercise and no more difficult than figuring out how to fix broken publisher CSS.

    I search multiple sites to buy ebooks with the least restrictions on my offline reading, at the most reasonable price, and prefer e.g. Baen, Smashwords, O’Reilly, and other technical publishers providing digitally watermarked ebooks, over alternatives.

    Why a business that sees about 50% of its physical output trashed unsold, and 99% of all authors’ output trashed unread, sees the need to ensure that nobody should be able to read a digital copy of a work without paying for that licence, when their problem is getting people to read anything they produce, or anyone writes, is totally beyond me, and the authors who write about this.

    I have read about authors who no longer buy author copies from publishers, but instead wait until they can pick them up at bargain sales, used book stores, or from publisher returns, and sell them on their own Ebay stores, often autographed or inscribed on request, at a discount or premium depending on their own marketing.

    Being numerate, I read with great interest the stats published by e-publishers (and self-publishers), and about them by author and industry sites from Author Earnings to IHS, to see where things stand and are heading. I see traditional publishers, and all their non-bestselling authors, losing on all distribution channels; more independent self-publishers writing bestsellers and earning a million dollars a year, and more mid-list authors earning enough to quit their jobs to write full time. I see bestselling authors deciding which books to release by self-publishing across all distributors to maximize digital sales with PoD to satisfy paper distribution channel demand, and which they expect to sell sufficiently large quantities of paper books to negotiate favourable deals with traditional publishers, while ensuring that e-books are widely available from all distributors at reasonable prices.

    So I see publication of The Book as timely, while these physical paper mass production methods are fading into more and more centralized and offshored obscurity, soon becoming like 12″ vinyl LPs are now: craft items produced mainly for purchase online and at specialty stores by obsessive collectors and speculators; hopefully, there will eventually be a similar resurgence in quality paper books.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — your vinyl analogy is the right one, I think. I’d be quite happy if that was to be the case, as long as ebook sales can make up the difference.

      Separately, when you ask, “Why a busi­ness […] sees the need to en­sure that nobody should be able to read a di­gital copy of a work without pay­ing for that li­cence […] is totally bey­ond me”, I think you’ve answered your own question. Publishers and their authors depend on readers paying for books, and, for an industry unused to piracy on a large scale, the idea of releasing an infinitely reproducible product with no copy protection at all must be a difficult one to swallow. I would have found it very difficult to support myself while writing my books without a traditional publisher behind me, and so I’m eager to see them (and therefore me) paid for my work; others, who have the time and money to spare, can do without.

      Also, I understand that DRM-free music is gradually becoming the norm, suggesting that allowing listeners to sample the music before buying it is working. Presumably it isn’t out of the question that ebooks will migrate in that direction too.

      Thanks for the comment!

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