Sunday, January 27, 2013

Unplanned Obsolescence

(Proverbs 12:15) The way of a fool is right in his own eyes; But he that is wise hearkeneth unto counsel.  

recently took my five year old grandson for his first library experience; it was also my first visit to a library in many years. It had been so long since I had darkened the door of a library I had to apply for a card. I wondered if the librarian thought it strange that such an old lady would be, at this late stage, applying for a library card. When she handed me the shiny laminated permit she instructed me in her serious librarian tone that I could check out two books and when I returned those, ON TIME, I would THEN be able to check out fifty books. 

You know how, when you have a huge long history that applies to a moment that could be shared but you know it's not only too long but the person you could tell it to wouldn’t care anyway, so you just smile and leave the story untold? 

I took the card, thanked her, and my grandson and I wandered over to the shelves of picture books to find his first two library books.  

My love for books began in a library that started life as an elegant private mansion in what was once an upscale area called The Heights in Houston, Texas. My memories of that building are a bundle of sensations intertwined; the visual of an elegant winding mahogany staircase leading up to thousands of books neatly lined up, spine out, on tall shelves, the distinct aroma of aging paper, binding glue and dust, the sound of a blue jay screeching outside in the shady courtyard, where I loved to sit on the cool concrete bench, book on lap. 

My long history with books includes many libraries. Locating the nearest one has always been a top priority after any move. Once I was able to shop in bookstores I began my own book collection from the markdown tables. Being able to buy books that I didn’t have to return soon overcame my frequent library visits. 

It was predictable and inevitable that one day, like most avid readers, I would want to write books and thus I have a few remnants of my book writing era in my personal library.  But what I found to be more satisfying than authoring has been during my next stage–book publishing. 

While learning the craft of writing was certainly worth the effort, acquiring the skill of turning words into a printed book has been my greatest, most rewarding creative challenge. First, I had to spend nearly two years researching the business of publishing. This was both eye-opening and disheartening to say the least. Turns out publishing isn’t the noble business I had assumed, not even close. Unfortunately I went in with stars in my eyes so my mistake was equating the glory of communicating ideas and imagery in written language with the down-and-dirty process of getting those lofty things to market. 

Okay, so I was disappointed but I sucked it up and got over it. I studied the business, the rules and the mechanics, what’s an ISBN, the how’s and why’s of the art and significance of fonts, margin width, leading, kerning and style. And then I did what I always do, cherry-picked between what I had to do, and those things I determined that I could ignore. 

Truth is, no matter how much I learned, I couldn’t have done it at all if it had not been for the advent of the digital age of publishing. 

In 2002, when I had just launched my quest to decode the mysteries of book creation, while surfing the Net, I found intriguing discussions about POD (print on demand) or digital printing. As is always the case, the vision of digitally printed books went soaring out way in advance of the technology that would eventually make it possible. And, as is also always the case, the naysayers in all areas of traditional publishing, from authors to publishers, hooted at the concept of anything ever replacing off-set printed books, loaded onto pallets and shipped to and sold at bookstores. 

I didn’t know, at the time, that Amazon had already been looking ahead even as the traditionalists were digging in and standing their ground. But I, as usual, immediately could see the future as well. Regardless what was abundantly clear for me, I quickly learned to keep my predictions to myself in the online author forums I frequented. No one agreed with me and, in fact, flamed me to a toasty crisp if I even hinted that technology would catch up one day soon. I eventually stopped participating in the writer forums because I was too busy forming my own POD publishing company in keeping with my lifelong position that those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the one doing it.

In the eight year interim from then to now, POD publishing has quickly evolved. Now the craze is for POD publishers to migrate to ebooks. TA DA! They figured out that pixels don’t have to be printed, just loaded onto readers and broadcast like web pages. While there certainly are many upsides to ebooks, thousands of titles in a light-weight hand-held devise, adjustable type size, backlit for low light reading, but, just as I could easily predict that digital printing would take over and turn the publishing world on its ear, I can see far enough ahead to make another prediction.

A few days after my library trip another grandson was sitting next to me as I showed him a book that I helped bring to life in the mid-eighties. It was a ground-breaking combination, fictional American history/craft book called The Weepeeple. It took one year and a team of us, editors, graphic designers, layout artists, a photographer, me designing/creating the dolls and G P Putnam Publishing to bring this book into being. My only copy has been sitting in my personal library un-thought about for a long time. It’s made many moves from town to town, house to house, shelf to shelf. The dust cover is worn and torn in several places but inside it’s still as fresh and readable as the day I first proudly held it. 

My grandson could not know that when I opened the front cover all the memories of those years, my “crafting” era, the creative labor pains it took to birth that book is forever captured in those printed pages. It wasn’t the first or last book I had done for the Family Workshop but I’ll always think it was the best. It has been out of print for many years but this copy still exists; it’s tangible, holdable, and unchangeable, which is not an insignificant point. 

My personal experience with this book is mine alone but the value of the book is available to anyone who might choose to open and use it. My grandson wants me to recreate one of the characters–Hugger dog–for him.

It occurred to me that this book, in hand, represents not just a rapidly passing era, but perhaps even a last gasp. But, that’s just me, always visualizing the probable and what I see is having a personal library of ten thousand titles all stored in tiny pixels ready to flood the window of a digital reader with the push of a button, but the reader is broken, the reader can’t be charged. Or, worse yet, the reader is out of date. I’ll bet you didn’t know that the new coding for ebooks will likely not work on the “old” original readers. You’ll have to buy new ones periodically to keep up to date and so you can continue to access the ebooks you bought. 

The god of down-and-dirty commerce will be fed. 

Flame me, call me names and mock me, but, mark my words, when printed books are fully replaced with ebooks, when libraries close or are converted to computers only, when bookstores transition to coffee shops with tables of ereaders, civilization will suffer from the most short-sighted application of unplanned obsolescence ever.  

And what if it wasn’t unplanned? Then I can think ahead to even worse things. 

You’ve been warned.

For Christ,

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