The problem with books…

So we run a small publishing company here at Freerange, which loosely means we try to marry author and creators of work with an audience via some sort of printing process, digital or physical.  I am also a student who needs to read and study books for the phd I am undertaking.  Both these activities have got me thinking about books, and the logic of books, at least the process where “something interesting that someone has written” gets “into my brain through my eyes“.

Traditionally this process would have gone through quite a few layers of industrialised systems: negotiating contracts, setting out a book, raising funds, printing several thousand copies, distributing to book wholesalers, selling to book stores, and then we’d find a lovely book sitting their innocently waiting for us to buy.    This process favoured safe publishing as large quantities were needed to make the economic logic work, but we did know where to get the books we wanted into our hands.

Two new technologies have transformed this process and made it much more free and confusing.  The first is that we can now read things on screens without printing.  I know I know, people love books. I do too, but to assert that as the main point is to miss the fact that reading on the screen enables us to read peoples work without the massive systems needed to get a book to print in a store.  This freedom of publishing that is the internet definately has its downsides with common lack of editorial oversite and quality control, but hey, this is a good problem, it also has its upside with the consumption of less resources. (less physical resource anyway, still uses energy).  The second new technology is newer faster smaller printing devices that break down the old need to print large expensive runs of books.  The printing of Freerange Journal is made possible by the invention of TruePress printers of which there are only 2 in Australasia that enable us to print small runs of our journal reasonably affordable.

What is frustrating me is that in NZ and Aus we are in an annoying between the old models of beautiful bookstores and some future of beautiful digital efficiency, and this space between seems to be worse than either.  So today I wanted to get my hands on two books. 1. Hannah Arendts “The Human Condition” and 2. “The Resilient City”. Neither are particularly popular books, but both are in print.

It would be nice to visit a bookstore and buy them, but because of the changed economy of books there are not many stores with large collections now and I don’t want to waste half a day visiting them to walk away empty handed, and sadly in NZ the 2nd hand bookstores and good bookstores don’t seem to have their catalogues accesible.

I wouldn’t mind buying them digitally to have as high quality files that are readable and searchable on the computer either, but for some insane reason the e-versions are more expensive than printing, wharehousing and shipping them halfway across the planet.

So I can buy online, and spend 3/4 of the cost of them book on shipping them to NZ.  I can’t understand why all the books in the world need to come from the UK or the States when surely most of them are printed in China now.   Why can these companies not have big warehouses in different locations to cut on shipping?  Either that our get Print on Demand working better so books are printed locally.

Every time I try to find NZ or Aus places to buy these books all they seem to be doing is ordering them from overseas and putting a mark up on them for that.  As much as I like to support local business that is just wasting money.

The cost breakdown of the books was:

1 The Human Condition

via Amazon:  $US10 to buy $18 to ship to NZ

via Book depository: $NZ23 including postage.

Not available as an e-book.

2. The Resilient City

Via Amazon: $US23 to buy $US18 to ship.

Via Book depository: $NZ42 including postage.

E-b00k. $NZ60!

The end of this rant is:

1. The stores in smaller places need to digitise their collections so I can know what they have in their store and visit it to buy it, and enjoy the beauty of a proper bookstore.

2. The big international online suppliers need to sort their shit out so the supply chains are more sensible, when oil starts hitting 3 then 4 then 5 then 6 dollars a litre they are going to have to anyway.

3. Finally the big e-battle between Apple via i-pad, Amazon via kindle and Google via their opensource system is making the whole online thing confusing and difficult, as a reader why should I pay more for a digital version, and as a publisher why should I have to reformat a book 8 times and make lots of separate contracts with different suppliers for them to make all the money off.






Authors Constructing Authority

Books have always been directly associated with authority and power.  The history of the ‘book’, their authors, and their authority is a small thread of a larger project about professional institutions and the ways they instrumentalise authorship and authority to obtain certain goals, in the case of my research: changing architecture education.  Over the next two blogs (the follow-up will come tomorrow), I’ll discuss some reading I’ve been doing on the history of the book, and then apply this to some contemporary contexts in the hope of understanding a little bit more about institutional authority, and the practice of writing for change.

My recent reading (I wont get into footnoting with any rigour, rather I have a few books listed at the end which I’ve been looking at) started out pretty predictably, looking historically at the rise of the book and any association it might have with authority and professions.

Things kicked off between 3000BC and 3500 in Egypt and Sumeria, when the first ‘shift’ occurs from an oral to a written system of communication.  This signals a shift to a specific type of mark-making (recording of certain information), which these researchers (Bazerman et al -see below) link primarily to economic trade, ownership, and eventually politics rather than a narrative or literary need.  So for example, if you were going to swap some goats with Osiris, you could record the trade, and claim new ownership.  This was useful as things were getting more complicated in ‘urban’ (more populous) areas with sophisticated agricultural development and trade.  Recorded ‘writing’ becomes an encoded way to make a power play, and uphold it.

So quite predictably, I also delve into some etymological research in an attempt to understand the seemingly obvious connection between the words author and authority.
It seems that the Latin-to-French auctor is the fork in the road of the two, happening around the 12C.  The older Latin root auctoritas connects to the idea of an ‘authority figure’, with terms like ‘invention’, ‘advice’ and ‘influence’ being significant.  It wouldn’t be until the 14C that the meaning ‘power to enforce obedience’ would be used, such as auctorite (prestige, dignity, gravity, right), and autorite (the ‘c’ dropped to imitate the French usage) referring to a book or quotation that would settle an argument – which fits in with the uptake of literacy and reading by acadmia/scholarship in the 12C, and the ‘professions’ in the 13C.

On the author side of auctor, the Latin root auctorem, and with it, auctus and augere refer to ‘one who causes to grow (eventually ‘augment’) or increase, an ‘enlarger’ or ‘founder’.  By the 14C it is used in the common sense as ‘one who sets forth a written document’ (coming after the two mentioned expansions of literacy in liberated (secular) scholarship and commercial professions).

Until the advent of the printing press in the 15C, the written word is sacred.  Protected by monasteries during the Dark Ages (a mighty innings from the 5C to the 11th) the practice of writing and publishing is carefully and skillfully upheld for centuries.  The practice becomes increasingly specialised, with spaces (scriptoria) and specialists dedicated to calligraphy, others to script, others to binding, and so on.  If there was ‘authorship’ (as we know it now), it would be described as collective, with little status accorded to any individual.

To reproduce – to replicate a text – was an exacting and esteemed task, reserved for the most significant words.  Clearly inherited from the status of oratory performance, the word itself held almost mystical power. The recording of the written word therefore is understandably volatile and daring, laying down such weight was an immensely powerful tool.

In 1448, the Gutenberg press rips it apart, to their disgust and imaginable disapproval.  Like Victor Hugo, they cried that this shall kill that.  Within 50 years the printing press has spread across Europe.  The Crown and Tudors got amongst it in the UK where they suppressed “seditious and heretical literature” by essentially controlling the publishing market for a couple of hundred years until the 1700s: an early (or the first?) attempt to monopolise the printed media for political gain.

From here print essentially internationalises.  News, events, (Bibles and newspapers for the colonies -New Zealand for example was printing by 1814, with an expanded programme of newspapers by the 1840s) spread the world much faster and in greater volume, and literary culture becomes increasingly central in the development of societies and nation-states around the world.

“Printing engaged writers in a manner that was different from previous scribal activity. It also undermined previous social beliefs in authorship as part of an established, collective authority – no longer were they merely cogs in an ecclesiastical wheel.”

This “preoccupation with the individualised authorial agency” signals a crucial shift in the practice of authors in the construction of authority.

“Printing shifted communication structures by being able to duplicate exact copies of texts very quickly, so allowing knowledge to be transferred more efficiently and more reliably across time and space. In the second place, this “fixing” of print would become a key factor in establishing authority and trust in the figures (authors) who produced these works.” -Finkelstein.

Tomorrow’s bit will drag this through the last hundred years of authorship and authority.

Some reading:

“History of the Book, Authorship, Book Design, and Publishing” by David Finkelstein, in:
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text.
Edited by Charles Bazerman.  Taylor & Francis, 2008.

The Book History Reader, 2nd Edition

Edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery.

New York: Routledge, 2006 (2002)

Architecture and Authorship
Edited by Tim Anstey, Katja Grillner, Rolf Hughes. Black Dog Publishing, 2007

And for a bit of theory, you can’t go passed Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” (1967), and Michel Foucault’s reply “What is an Author?” (1968 I think), who both contribute significantly to the theoretical and socio-cultural analysis of the idea.