Sunday, July 01, 2007


The print on demand machine called Espresso is as close to me as Edmonton now -- that is, a long day’s drive. Of course, Edmonton is two or three times as large as any city in Montana and the machine will be on the campus of the University, so it’s most likely to be used for textbooks which these days are often compilations from chapters in a number of published books (often themselves theses developed into books) which are likely to be useful only for one professor’s course. Even conventional textbooks have a limited lifetime in a context where science is moving fast. In fields like the humanities, a book like Mimesis or Elements of Style comes back to usefulness if it ever leaves. But consider the immense changes in knowledge triggered by genomics -- the new insights arrive daily.

Anyway, I already have a print-on-demand machine: my trusty computer. I’d better give it a name. How about Rumpelstilskin? I can download early anthropology about the Blackfeet that has long been out of print. Or government reports that I had no idea existed until I used a search engine.

Most of the people who are objecting to print-on-demand are thinking in terms of the quality of the book itself or the problem of people finding out that it exists in the first place. They are thinking about the unfamiliarity of digitization and not about what digitization implies in some other ways. For instance, what does it do to international barriers when books, like music and movies, can be invisibly shipped across traditional national boundaries?

Speaking from experience, one could only buy Canadian books by going up to Canada or by already knowing a Canadian bookseller to contact via mail or the phone. Even in the latter case, the book had to be shipped with all the paraphenalia of stickers and declarations -- to say nothing of the cost. When I’ve tried to take my little homemade books across the line, I was stopped and harassed by the border agents from Canada claiming that I was damaging their markets by smuggling in illicit US products. Now when I go to Canada, it is the US people who accuse me of somehow bringing back terrorist-related materials. So I just don’t go to Canada anymore. Instead, I buy on the Internet.

At one time I couldn’t sell used Canadian books on the US side, both because no one knew what they were about anyway and because the dealers couldn’t figure out how to value them. Now I can sell them on the Internet. When I looked for Kutkos, the book written by my fourth grade teacher in Portland, Oregon, who was a Chinook Indian, I found it in an Irish bookstore, and when I wanted a copy of Sacred Paint about Ned Jacob, an artist who was here in the Sixties, I found it in Australia. They tell me the best market for Bob Scriver’s book, The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains, is in Germany and France. (Up to $800!) It’s written in English but is basically a photo book and educated people in those countries are likely to speak English anyway.

Anyway, I’m interested in environmental issues, which belong to the ecosystem which is continuous from Yellowstone up to Edmonton, and in the Blackfeet whose nation was unnaturally cut through by the 49th parallel. I want to note that the Canadian resistance to Yankee invaders is strong -- maybe justified. But I still use books and other materials from both sides of the border.

There has in the past been a “gentleman’s agreement” among Canada, England, the U.S., and probably other English-speaking countries, that they would not “poach” on each other’s territory, to use a metaphor from the elite classes of Britain who enforced the boundaries of “their” territory with armed game wardens. But now the gloves are off. My book to be published this fall by the University of Calgary Press (Bronze Inside and Out) must be distributed in the US through the University of Michigan because a published book is a physical entity that can be controlled in shipment. But what about the digitized version? (In fact, what did we say in the contract about digitized versions?) Of course, my Print on Demand books through are already digitized. They do not have to stop at the border if they are downloaded and the printed versions, if finally acquires a printing center in the US, won’t have to either. (At present they are printed in Britain. Maybe the US industry doesn't want them here.) What about advertising? Won’t that be international commerce?

And what about the U of Oklahoma Press and the U of Nebraska Press who have dominated the market when it comes to books about prairie artists? Of course, these two presses had first refusal. The U of Calgary Press may be opening a broad new market for itself, but they are small -- will they be overwhelmed?

I had not realized how much of a barrier existed between countries until I was doing grad work at the University of Chicago and discovered that the Powell’s Bookstore there had a trove of “object relations” psych books. (Winnicott and co, “teddy-bear” attachment theory) In this country there wasn’t enough interest to justify a publisher picking up these books or maybe the shrinks in this country didn’t like the competition, so they just weren’t available. In fact, one wouldn’t know they existed. (They do now. Lady Di said she was raising her children via Winnicott methods.)

No doubt uneducated non-readers (I suppose one might be educated without reading and one might read without becoming educated) think that a book is an object and only that. But there’s a bait-and-switch in this story. When Bob Scriver started out as a taxidermist, he had a wrangle with the IRS. (He continued with wrangles all his working life, since they are an excellent example of the category above.) When a customer failed to pay for a mounted head, leaving Bob stuck with it and not much market since the persons who want such things usually want them only because of the associations with an exciting hunt and a personal coup, he tried to take the $60 fee off his taxes as a loss. But the IRS said no. He was only allowed to take the cost of the materials: a bit of tanning acid, glass eyes, some clay and paper mache, and glue. A few dollars. Not even the labor. But when the heads were just sitting around the shop as inventory, waiting to be sold, they were valued at $60 or what the customer would have paid to have the head mounted. Heads I win, tails you lose.

This is the way books have developed: the physical object is worth something when sitting on the shelf. Digitized, it is as though it no longer exists. We probably have not even started to digest the implications of this. To some people it implies that the author has also stopped existing.

One possibility is that the governments, China-style, may try to impose virtual borders in the book trade between countries. These borders could have serious impacts on Internet use. They will have the excuse of security, of course. The effect will probably be to considerably heighten the value and simple charisma of the books.

The ways books are advertised will change. Already the traditional ads in the newspapers and magazines have been diminishing and reviews have fallen to blogs where any book review can be found through search engines but no review can be easily judged for fairness, insight or consistency. The biggest restrictions will be among English-speaking countries since foreign languages serve as a natural barrier. Traditionally, sharing a language has meant MORE freedom and friendship, not less. More print will go to voice, pod-cast style, so people can “read” while fixing supper or driving or running. Of course, this will affect the style of the writing and maybe encourage such things as adding sound effects. I don’t think it will become fashionable to have a talking author head on your iPhone.

Later I want to come back to the distribution and advertising side of publishing, which is what publishers used to do. I think of one of my favorite stories: a new drill sergeant is out with his men, marching cross-country. Everything is going famously until they came to a fence with no gate. The sergeant knew no command for “crawl over the fence.”

He stood on the near side, yelled, “Company, faaaaall OUT!” Then he climbed over the fence, stood there and yelled, “Company, faaaall IN!!” In other words, there is likely to be a free-form individual scramble for a while. But it will work.

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