The Strange Persistence of Printed Books: Mouse Books

Brothers_K_grande_246097a1-d3d3-4008-856a-487204748363_540xThe digital era was supposed to make books and lengthy reading obsolete: Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia, originator of citizendium.org and WatchKnowLearn.org) memorably critiqued faulty assumptions in 2010, Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age (here as .pdf; see also my posts here and here). "Boring old books" played a part. Clay Shirky of NYU wrote, "the literary world is now losing its normative hold" on our culture," "–no one reads War and Peace. It's too long, and not so interesting. . . This observation is no less sacrilegious for being true." Ah, the satisfying thunk of a smashed idol. Goodbye, long, boring not so interesting books.

Except that a funny thing has happened on the way to the book burning. (Danke schoen, Herr Goebbels) Printed books have somehow held on: unit sales of print books were up 1.9% in 2016, at 687.2 million world-wide, the fourth straight year of print growth. Rumors of demise now seem premature. What gives?

The print book is far more subtly crafted than many digital soothsayers realize. Printed books have evolved continuously since Gutenberg: just take a look at scholarly monographs from 1930, 1950, 1970, 1990, and 2010. The current printed book, whether popular, trade, high-concept, or scholarly monograph, is a highly-designed and highly-evolved object.  Publishers are very alert to readers' desires and what seems to work best.  It was hubris to think that a lazily conceived and hastily devised digital book format could simply replace a printed book with an object equally useful: look at the evolution of the epub format (for example).

Designers will always refer to what has been designed previously, as well as new and present needs and uses when designing an object: consider the humble door. Poorly done e-books were a product of the "move fast and break things" culture that doomed many ideas that appealed to thinking deeper than the one-sided imaginations of bro-grammer digital denizens.

Enter Mouse Books. Some months ago David Dewane was riding the bus in Chicago. "[I] happened to be reading a physical book that was a piece of classic literature. I wondered what all the other people on the bus were reading." He wondered, why don't those people read those authors on their smart phones? "I wondered if you made the book small enough—like a passport or a smart notebook—if you could carry it around with you anywhere."

David and close friends began to experiment, and eventually designed printed books the size and thickness of a mobile phone. They chose classic works available in the public domain, either complete essays (Thoreau's On the Duty of Civil Disobedience) or chapters (Chapters 4 and 5 of The Brothers Karamazov, "The Grand Inquisitor," in Constance Garnett's translation. These are simply, legibly printed in Bookman Old Style 11-point font. Each book or booklet is staple bound ("double stitched") with a sturdy paper cover, 40-50 pages, 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches or just about 9 by 14 cm –a very high quality, small product.

David and the Mouse Team (Disney copyright forbids calling them Mouseketeers) aim for ordinary users of mobile phones. They want to provide a serious text that can be worn each day "on your body" in a pocket, purse, or bag, and gives a choice between pulling out the phone or something more intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Mouse Books give easy access to classic texts in a new format –especially essays or stories that often are not commercially viable on their own (such as Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, or Thoreau's essay, which are invariably packaged with other texts in a binding that will bring sufficient volume and profit to market.) The Mouse Books project wants to offer readers more ideas, insight, and connections for readers' lives.

As a business, Mouse Books is still experimental, and has sought "early adopters:" willing co-experimentalists and subjects. This means experimenting with the practice of reading, with classics texts of proven high quality, and complementing the texts with audio content, podcasts, and a social media presence. These supplements are also intended to be mobile –handy nearly anywhere you could wear ear buds.

As a start-up or experiment, Mouse Books has stumbled from time to time in making clear what a subscriber would get for funding the project on Kickstarter, what the level of subscriptions are, and differences in US and outside-the-US subscriptions. The subscriptions levels on the Mouse Books drip (or d.rip) site do not match the subscription option offered directly on the Mouse Books Club web site. As a small "virtual company," this kind of confusion goes with the territory –part of what "early adaptors" come to expect. That said, Mouse Books is also approaching sufficient scale that marketing clarity will be important for the project to prosper.

This is a charming start-up that deserves support, and is highly consonant with the mission of librarians: to connect with others both living and dead, to build insight, to generate ideas. The printed book and those associated with it–bookstores, libraries, editors, writers, readers, thinkers–are stronger with innovative experiments such as Mouse Books. The printed book continues to evolve, and remains a surprisingly resilient re-emergent, legacy technology.

More about Mouse books:

Web site: https://mousebookclub.com/collections/mouse-books-catalog

drip site (blog entries): https://d.rip/mouse-books?

Video:

 

The Strange and Unexpected Re-emergence of Printed Books


Printed book imageTypewriters, mechanical watches, vinyl recordings, newspapers, printed books –obsolete technologies, right? Get with the program: countless incumbent industries and professions have been rendered pointless: disrupt or be disrupted –right? This has been the dominant cultural narrative –right?

I first heard about the obsolescence of librarians 35 years ago at the start of my career. Columbia University soon after accepted dominant cultural narratives and closed their graduate library school, college of pharmacy, and departments of geography and linguistics. Pharmaceuticals? Digital and print librarians? Linguistics and languages? Geographic information systems? –all obsolete (Whoops!). Since those who proclaim their demise have usually been selling some replacement, cynicism follows fast. Another prediction of demise, another day.

Entirely outside of libraries, a counter-narrative has grown. David Sax popularized one in Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why Real Things Matter (PublicAffairs, 2016): we interface with the world in a tactile, communal world.   At Harvard Business School, Prof. Ryan Raffaeli studies organizational behavior, using field research.  He contributes much more sophisticated thinking about re-emergent technologies. He has found that "incumbent" technologies and industries can make a comeback. This story has important implications for libraries.

Some technologies re-emerge from disruption and destruction, especially those that had a long history. Count out VHS tapes and punch cards: those were transitional. Typewriters have had a long enough history, as do fountain or nib pens (extending the dip, quill-type pens since 1827) .

Printed books, like other technologies, brought whole occupations and kinds of work with them: not just printers, but also binders, sellers, retailers, and of course librarians. As a candidate for "innovative disruption" by digital books, the demise of the printed book, so loudly proclaimed ten years ago, mandated the demise of book stores, libraries, librarians, publishers, editors.  Now anyone can write a book (see Amazon); who needs editors? Who needs libraries or bookstores?

Some disruptions are truly innovative –others just disruptions, and others just hype, but shouting as real (see previous post). The disruption narrative is not sufficiently incorrect (although it can be applied poorly), but the consequence corollary of the incumbent industries' necessary inability to adapt –and certainty of their demise– is less well-founded.  Raffaelli's research shows that technologies can re-emerge, a cognitive process in two phases: first largely cultural, temporal, and narrative process; second a competitive process in a re-defined market with distinctive values not strictly established by price. His leading example is the Swiss mechanical watch-making industries; his second is the return and rise of independent book sellers in the USA.

Both the watch-makers and the book sellers lost substantial market shares when disruptive, good-enough technologies moved upmarket and claimed their most profitable customers: watchmakers with the rise of cheaper, more accurate quartz watches in the 1970s; book sellers with the rise of major chain bookstores in the 1990s, followed by Amazon. They keenly felt their losses: numerous Swiss firms closed or discontinued manufacturing; from 1995 to 2009 around 1,400 bookstores closed. Enough hung on, however, to rebound: how did they do it?

Raffaelli identifies the terms of competition: old terms such as price, availability, and quality change with the entry of disruptive technologies to market. The survivors have re-defined the competition: how they want to compete, and what value proposition they offer to their customers. He traces a complex process of de-coupling product and organizational identity and renegotiation of foundational concepts and business roles. The process is both bottom-up (from the "factory floor" or fundamental, front-line production or service) and top-down: from industry alliances, design thinking, and organizational management.

In the Swiss mechanical watch industry, he has identified entrepreneurs and guardians. Entrepreneurs are alert to market signals, cultural currents, and emerging narratives that suggest that new communities are forming new values. Guardians by contrast preserve older technologies and enduring values and counterbalance the entrepreneurs; both are necessary for the process of cognitive re-emergence. When the industry drew near to complete collapse, collectors began to purchase mechanical watches at high prices at auctions, signaling that their small community found genuine value expressed momentarily in price. Entrepreneurs realized that the market for mechanical watches had not completely disappeared, but changed: the value lay not in keeping time for a price, but in expressing a cultural signal. Guardians, meanwhile, had preserved enough of the technology that recovery was possible; veteran employees preserved crucial tools and skills that enabled a recovery. Each needed the other; the leadership necessary for re-emergence arose not just from the top level of the organization and industry, but from the commitment and wisdom of key skilled workers. Mechanical watches were then marketed as high-end, luxury items that "said something" about their owners. As new customers entered or moved up-market, they adopted such watches as a sign of cultural status and belonging.

Independent booksellers successfully re-framed their market as primarily community, secondarily as inventory. First the chain stores (Borders, Barnes & Noble) out-competed them on price, then Amazon on price and inventory availability. Independent booksellers have focused instead on 3 Cs: Community and local connections, Curation of inventory that enhanced a personal relationship with customers, and Convening events for those with similar interests: readings, lectures, author signings, and other group events. The booksellers' trade association (American Booksellers Association or ABA) facilitates booksellers' connections with local communities with skills, best practices, effective use of media, and outreach to other local business and organizations (–even libraries, once considered the booksellers' competitors). The re-emergent market was defined both by entrepreneurial booksellers, front-line service guardians, a growing social movement committed to localism, and industry-scale cooperation. Between 2009 and 2017 the ABA reported +35% more independent booksellers: from 1,651 to 2,321 nation-wide. A sign of the integration of booksellers with community spaces: for 2017 sales up 2.6% over 2016.

Like independent bookstores, the "library brand" remains strongly bound to printed books –after all, the name derives from "liber" (Latin), confirmed with "biblos" (Greek). The printed book, once thought to be a obsolete technology, shows strong signs of re-emergence as a stable cultural experience not apt to be interrupted by digital distractions or the dopamine kicks of addictive social media.  This brand identity will persist even though libraries offer many kinds of resources in many formats –including millions of digital books.

What does such technology and market re-emergence have to do with libraries? These cases suggest the emerging re-definition of libraries (as both old and new) is analogous to much of Raffaelli's work, and that the narrative frame of "disruptive innovation in higher education" can be –should be– challenged by a this more useful counter-narrative, "new and re-emergent technologies in higher education."

While libraries' role as mere "book providers" has been challenged by disruptive technological service entrants such as the Internet, Amazon, and social media, libraries' role as a channel for trusted, stable information is stronger than ever. The Pew Research Center survey data from Fall 2016 found that 53% of Millennials (those 18 to 35 at that time) say they used a library –a generational cohort (not just college students–the study focused on public libraries). This compared with 45% of Gen Xers, 43% of Baby Boomers, and 36% of Silent Generation. In 2016 Pew also reported that libraries help "a lot" in deciding what information they can trust, from 24% in 2015 to 37% in 2016. Women held that opinion more strongly, 41%. Recent anecdotes suggest that such opinions have not changed direction.


Boston-public-library-free-to-allLibraries are regarded as very strong assets to a community: the high values placed on pleasant space, safety, and community events also emerged in the Pew studies. Coupled with bottom-up initiatives from front-line librarians and individual organizations, the American Library Association has devoted substantial attention and resources to initiatives such as the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and the Libraries Transform campaign.  Libraries' free-to-all traditions (supported by tuition, tax dollars, and other sources) do not track community impact as easily as do independent bookstore sales figures. Their value proposition for their communities becomes clear in usage figures (at SHU growth in usage has outpaced growth in enrollment) and the faculties' documented turn towards librarians in helping undergraduate students develop research, critical analysis, and information literacy skills.

As a re-emergent technology, printed books sustain a host of skills, occupations, organizations, and cultural signals that do not boil down to a single, simplistic, marketable narrative. Conceived in the late 20th century as "information resources," books gave way to digital representation; conceived as "documented knowledge," the act of reading books in a library context provides a tangible experience of informed learning, cultural absorption, and community participation. Libraries provide many services. Without the "brand" of reading books, and the sustaining services of librarians, the library would turn into derelict, zombie storage spaces. Knowledge is a communal good as well as a private act; it is never simply an individual achievement: free to all. We are all culturally embedded in the minds of our predecessors and communities for weal and woe –and without libraries, bookstores, timekeepers, and printed books, we will not be able to progress from woe to weal.