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Published: Thursday, 1/6/2011

Making books do things e-books can't and vice versa

LOS ANGELES -- At a garage studio in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Eagle Rock, Lisa Pearson is publishing books with the skill of a craftsman, framing the printed word as a work of art.

One volume, Torture of Women, features a red cloth cover with an embossed title resembling scar tissue. Inside, images of the female body are overlaid with matter-of-fact accounts of women who have suffered torture. "Fascist pig" is ink-stamped across the centerfold.

Pearson's Siglio Press has distributed more than 1,000 copies of the book at the price of $48 each, at a time when the publishing industry seems headed for ever-cheaper digital editions. But Pearson believes her craft will thrive as a counter to the trend, as people rediscover the joy of what she calls "slow reading."

"There's a benefit to slowness," said Joe Donnelly, co-editor of Slake, a new Los Angeles-based literary magazine whose first issue ran 232 glossy pages and is focused on long-form writing. "We want to produce something that will linger, to publish in a way that's made to last."

Mainstream publishers say printed books are far from extinct. Nonetheless, their role in publishing is changing. Amazon.com said last month that e-book sales outpaced hardcover sales for the first time ever. And e-book sales rose 193 percent in 2010, according to Peter Kafka's MediaMemo, although they still account for only 9 percent of the market.

Jonathan Karp, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says the challenge for his industry is to find ways to serve customers for printed and digital editions.

Less than a month after taking over Simon & Schuster in June, he published Truman Fires MacArthur, an e-book excerpted from David McCullough's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Truman, to contextualize President Obama's firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It is a good example of how publishers can use technology to respond quickly to popular culture. But even more, it suggests the significance of curated content, which has been many publishers' bread and butter.

"To do something like that well, we needed someone of McCullough's stature," Karp said. "And to do it again, we'd need the right author on the right subject. It all starts with the writer. We don't publish books, we publish writers. And writing can take any number of forms."

A case in point is the work of author Stephen Elliott, who this fall produced an iPad app for his memoir The Adderall Diaries, published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press in 2009. The app includes the text of the book, as well as a discussion section where readers can communicate with one another and with Elliott.

"You may not want that in a lot of books," said Ethan Nosowsky, editor-at-large at Graywolf, "but it's great for this one. It enhances the experience."

For Pearson, her books offer a three-dimensional experience. Their physicality is part of their function; they are meant to be held as well as read.

"Are we writing books or producing content that can be reproduced in any form?" asked Ander Monson, a poet and essayist whose Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (2010) experiments with the interplay between digital and printed books.

A collection of autobiographical essays, Vanishing Point has some pieces laid out in columns while others appear without margins, text bleeding off the edges of the page.

Throughout the book, Monson embedded italicized daggers into the writing to indicate the presence of enhanced content (video, audio, text) on the Internet.

"I wanted to use the Web in ways the content suggested," Monson said. "I don't think writers should take print for granted. We need to think about it as a formal question, how best to use the book."

Monson cites Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Tree of Codes, just released by England's Visual Editions, in which the author deconstructs Bruno Schulz's 1934 story collection The Street of Crocodiles by literally cutting out texts (with precise rectangular holes where Schulz's language has been removed) to create a brand-new work.

Such a book can work only in print; as with the titles on the Siglio list and Vanishing Point, a reader needs to see it, needs to hold it, in order for it to work.

This, in turn, is a reminder of the solidity of the book, and the way it can take many forms.

The latest issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, the San Francisco literary journal edited by writer Dave Eggers, comes as a box designed to look like a man's head, in which the content (by Michael Chabon, Ishmael Reed, Colm Toibin, and others) appears in eight individual booklets. "What would your head look like inside?" managing editor Brian McMullen asks in an introductory note.

Boston's Madras Press publishes short fiction in standalone editions (Aimee Bender's The Third Elevator weighs in at 45 pages) and donates the proceeds to charity. Chicago's Featherproof Books recently released Lindsay Hunter's Daddy's as a small rectangular paperback with a Daddy's Bait & Novelties logo slapped on the cover. The book opens sideways, like a digest-size tackle box.

"We tend to regard the book as a bound codex," said Monson, "but it's a lot more flexible than we think."

Karp and Kim Robinson, regional publisher for the University of California Press, see print-on-demand -- a technology by which books are printed from electronic files at the point of purchase -- as a huge development, guaranteeing not only that more books remain in print but also that more books are available to more people in more places: the goal of any literate society.

In addition, Robinson notes, "print-on-demand allows us to do shorter runs and keep books in print without warehousing them, especially books for which the demand is very small."

That's a key point for a university press, which publishes general-interest books and scholarly work. It's also a reminder of the role technology continues to play when it comes to print.

It's only a matter of degrees, after all, from print-on-demand to the artfully designed books produced by Siglio or McSweeney's. Both are as dependent on digital technology as the most cutting-edge e-book. Without computers, none of it would exist.

"The first Siglio book," Pearson said, "was done on my laptop, in my bedroom. I couldn't have made it happen otherwise. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of indies in the same position. Technology empowers little shops like mine."



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