Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

Intermission: sorting through the banal

Everybody who knows what I do assumes that I’ve given up on print books.

You make ebooks? Haha, you don’t need any bookcases then, do you? Must be nice.

Not that I haven’t used it as an excuse once in a while. As a rejection, it’s a little bit nicer than telling somebody that I don’t want their book because it isn’t good enough to put on my shelf—oh, and the cover’s ugly to boot.

Moving to a new flat would be easier if I had actually switched entirely to ebooks. But, I haven’t.

There are a lot of reasons why I haven’t:

  • A well-designed print book still looks better than a well-designed ebook.

  • I remember more of what I read and find it easier to find vaguely recollected passages in a print book than in an ebook. Our memory is partly tactile and there’s little we can do about that other than to simply write better books in the future.

  • Ebook formats simply can’t do justice to titles like The Universal Principles of Design or ð ævisaga. Ebooks can’t even come close and won’t for a long while.

  • Printed books can also be larger than an iPad without without requiring an expensive investment in a larger device. This is important when it comes to bandes dessinée style comics, for example. (I’ve been rereading Jacques Tardi recently.)

  • Some things just aren’t available as ebooks. Most manga, for example, isn’t available in digital in Europe.

  • If you like the book, owning it in print is simply nicer.

  • You can lend or give your print books, something that’s either awkward or illegal when it comes to ebooks.

How did it happen that a set of distasteful and unethical practices became so identified with traditional publishing that attacking the practices is tantamount to attacking all publishers?

And why do people who rub their hands in glee whenever you attack bad publisher practices ignore reports of bad self-publisher practices?

Amazon has been fighting an endless battle to counter bad practices among self- and indie publishers who have at some point in the past been:

  • Using misleading book titles to get into the search results for popular titles.

  • Gaming descriptions to get into the search results for popular authors.

  • Going way over the line when it comes to legality (e.g. bestiality).

  • Buying reviews.

  • Choosing misleading covers.

  • Putting the book into the wrong categories to get around filters.

  • Using labour practices that rival the sleaziness of big publisher practices.

You don’t have to spend much time on the various self-publisher forums to see that self-publishers aren’t any more ethical than your average big and traditional publisher.

I shouldn’t have to say this—but blog readers are idiots and so I have to or I will get emails—Amazon’s constant abuse of their labour force is more dismaying than even the worst practices of big publishers.

(And, no, most of my print books weren’t bought at Amazon. A lot of them were, but most were bought from local bookstores, many bought used.)

The self- versus traditional publisher dynamic is unimportant. There are flaws and benefits to either tactic. Self-publishing tends to be more flexible, responsive, dynamic, and open to experimentation. Traditional publishing tends to have better editing, PR, distribution, and marketing but makes up for it by being slower, less flexible, and extremely conservative. Pick whichever suits your project best.

What is important are the ethics of publishing. Don’t choose a publisher who prevents you from self-publishing as well. Don’t choose a publisher who by offering insulting contracts treats you like ignorant chattel. Don’t choose a publisher who expects you to do all the marketing. Don’t be the self-publisher who uses misleading covers. Don’t be the self-publisher who treats cover designers worse than a large publisher treats a first time author. Don’t buy reviews. Don’t try and trick people into buying your books. Have some dignity and don’t release books that violate every platform’s terms of service. Make sure all the contracts you sign are honest, fair, and ethical. Make sure all of the contracts you offer are honest, fair, and ethical.

How you behave as a publisher is more important than whether you are a self- or traditional publisher. Be a human and not a cog in the machine. Don’t try to match large corporations greed for greed.

I used to be an analogue and hardcopy fanatic. This was when I was doing my BA in comparative literature about fifteen or sixteen years ago. I believed that ebooks would always be worthless. Digital comics would never come close to print comics. Film would always be superior to digital. The best way to experience a movie would always be on a large screen using a film projector. High fidelity analogue sound would always be better than digital audio. I was a firm believer in the idea that digital was always going to be a second rate compromise.

Then I changed my mind and a few months after that I enrolled in an Interactive Media MA course.

It had become clear that webcomics were opening up the comics industry in ways we hadn’t seen before.

Vittorio Storaro showed that HD could be as beautiful as film and had important benefits to offer. DVDs were poised to open access to movies and old television shows in ways that VHS never had.

I watched my mother as she became one of the first radio journalists in Iceland to record and cut her own material, conspiring with IT technicians to secretly install Cool Edit on her workstation. Digital sound threatened to give radio production a level of flexibility that analogue couldn’t match, at a level of quality that was more than good enough.

And ebooks… Well, I held out the longest on ebooks and in a way never quite changed my mind on them. In theory, with retina display phones and tablets, ebooks should be objectively better than print. But, they aren’t. They are objectively better than some print formats but not all, which is a testament to how good of a medium print books really are. The flexibility and speed of the ebook format is unrivalled, though. Looking over what ebooks can do today, the biggest takeaway is how much of a disappointment they are compared to digital video, photography, or audio. They simply don’t compare that well to their analogue ‘predecessors’.

What interested me when I first started the MA—more than ebooks—was the idea that we would develop new forms of reading and writing. Hypertext was the obvious example, but CD-ROMs and websites hinted at very interesting possibilities for the future.

Sorting through the banal.

I’ve taken a short break in posting old material to the blog, trying to make up my mind on how to tackle the remainder of the backlog. Some posts need to be merged, and others split up. Some need updating since they were written almost two years ago. Publishing of the remaining posts should resume next week.

It’s striking how banal most of the posts are. The interactive media notes aren’t even things you have to point out to an undergraduate student. The self-publishing and writing posts are observations that are obvious to anybody with a pulse. I’m not sure what it says about me that I felt the need to write these things down.

Even more striking is how my priorities have changed. I’m more concerned now by the ethics and humanity of publishing than by format issues. Technical observations seem unimportant when the big players are taking advantage of most of the other participants.

There is a balance to be struck. There is a limit to how much nastiness you can avoid given that inhuman and unethical giant corporations rule our society. You can’t live using exclusively Free Software, Stallman-style. I know because I tried for several years during my PhD. You can’t avoid dealing with unethical entities since they own most of what we are exposed to. You can’t pick and choose what your taxes pay for. “I’d like the schools and health tax package, please, I don’t want to give the military any money."

Not caring is so much easier. And, to an extent, you really do have to turn your conscience off if you want to survive and stay sane in our consumption-driven society. But, you can control the actions you take and the major decisions you make.

Don’t sign or offer unfair contracts.

Don’t abuse or take advantage of others.

Don’t lie, cheat, or steal.

Y’know, the basic stuff. The stuff that the publishing and media industries have clearly forgotten entirely.

You can also find me on Mastodon and Bluesky