Three Cheers for Crappy Printing!

The used-car lot of ideas. They’ll still get you where you want to go.

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday in which I said that I was half considering just taking all my novels, converting them to pdf or mobi or epub formats and just giving them away. And she said that she hated to read on screen, never owned an e-reader.

Well, that was a smack in the head. Duh! Neither do I!

I got a Kindle as a gift seven or eight years ago, downloaded one or two books, and hated every bit of it. It’s just an unappealing way of reading. I love holding a paper book. I like the clutter of having paper books around me, of seeing my reading history in a bookcase.

One of the obvious things that gets in the way of creating real paper books is the cost of production. I’ve had the experience of working with an Espresso print-on-demand publisher; after the original set-up costs, the unit cost per book was about eight dollars. Those books cost way more than they needed to. And part of the cost is due to our contemporary expectations about how words sit on pages.

Here’s an image of the innards of two paperback books on my kitchen table, both just over 400 pages. The upper one was printed in 2018, the lower one in 1976. Let’s do a comparison:

  • Size 1976: 7 x 4.12 x 0.9. Size 2018: 7 x 5 x 0.9.
  • Layout 1976: Single spaced, 10pt type, paragraphs marked only with indentation. Layout 2018: 1.5 spaced, 11pt type, paragraphs marked with extra line break.
  • Words per page 1976: about 400, or about 14 words per square inch. The book totals about 150,000 total words. Words per page 2018: about 270, or about 8 words per square inch. That book totals about 110,000 total words.
  • List price 1976: $2.50. List price 2018: $19.95

Writer friends, we’ve been sold a lie! White space! Leave the readers some white space! Giant blocks of text are just so… intimidating! Well, bullshit. We LIKE words. We make words and organize words and sell words. Words are what we make people out of. Why are we trying to sell blank paper on behalf of somebody else?

Look at that brick of a book from 1976, the yellowing chintzy paper disappearing under the ideas. That book—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 19th reprinting of the Bantam paperback—wasn’t influential because of the elegance of its page layout. It was influential because of the elegance of its thought.

The book itself, the object… it’s a hooptie, a beater, a third-hand ride with its warranty long behind it. The body panels aren’t aligned, it doesn’t close right, there’s a lot of paint missing and a 75-cent sticker crooked on the hood. And it doesn’t matter. The ideas haven’t deteriorated. It’s still a reliable mode of transportation to another world.

As Kazuo Ishiguro (author of Remains of the Day, among others, and the 2017 Nobel laureate in literature) said, “I think of my pile of old paperbacks, their pages gone wobbly, like they’d once belonged to the sea.” Nobody’s ever going to say that about their Kindle…

The only file format that matters to the writer is FTP. Fill. The. Page. It’s time to reclaim the power of the crappy print job. To reclaim the unbleached paper, still true to its piney origins, covered with words. It’s time to reject the upscaling of our books, to return to line after line after line of beauty.