It’s Sunday, it’s beautiful out, we’ve got deadlines.
An interesting thought came up last week in the wake of the Viz Media lay-offs – that naturally led to thoughts on pirated/online content – which I had been confused about, and that is the idea that technology (hardware and software) is one and the same.
Heidi McDonald brought this to mind when she described Japan as “a society that has consistently pioneered the gadget-filled lifestyle” but approaches digitizing content with such trepidation.
I tend to confuse gadgets with technology. But there’s a mistake here in confusing the two. Last year I read an article (can’t remember where and don’t have the link) that reported on Japan’s tendencies to focus on hardware at the expense of software. Differentiating the two was a bit of a leap for my mind since, in America, there is a direct correlation between hardware and software, the hardware, essentially, being an outgrowth of the software.
At least, that’s the way Apple tends to do it, and it’s been a symbiotic, if not successful, relationship. The iPod to funnel content from the iTunes store, the iTunes store now open to apps that are to be funneled to the iPhone and iPod Touch.
I’m not sure that’s the way that it is in Japan. When the iPod came out back in the 2000′s, there were a ton of mp3 players on the market – many of them much better than what Apple had to offer. But none of them had the software, the platform that Apple had, of iTunes. So the iPod was junk, it looked funny/ugly, and lasted about 18 months before it died and you had to go out and buy another one. So why do so many people buy iPods if they die so easily? If you’ve got a library of music in iTunes, and it doesn’t have to be 10k songs, it can be a measly 80-100, do you really want to go through the hassle of building that library again?
If you’re looking for a Japanese iTunes, it’s pretty much iTunes Japan. I’m sure there’s a Japanese equivalent, but iTunes is really taking the world over. I’m not sure that Japan is less interested in software, but more a point that Japan is heavily invested in hardware, the handheld stuff. Gameboys? PSP’s? DS-lite’s?
Roland Kelts was kind enough to point out to me that craft, and handmade, is an enduring tradition. So is process. Japan is a process oriented country. There is a process to everything: it takes three years to properly learn how to cut and make sushi; three hours to properly dress in a kimono. That attention to craft and attention to detail, meticulous and studied, carries over to gadgetry and physical, handheld devices like books.
Ever seen the Japanese edition of Mari Okazaki’s career-woman/romance, Suppli? I wish I had a copy to show you. Larger trim-size, beautiful book cover design including a mylar jacket. It looks like a book that a woman would buy, not a teen-ager, and speaks volumes about how much value the publisher places on the content. They put a certain amount of attention into the presentation and packaging, so that consumers will pay attention to it themselves.
So here’s the conundrum. Japan is a country of people who read. They read and they read and they read books. Lots of them. John Fuller, manager of Kinokuniya in New York City, once told me that if I wanted to read books from every corner of the world, I should learn Japanese, because so much of it is translated and available in Japan.
The problem for Japan – and for all publishing – is that e-books and reading devices like the Kindle completely flatten the content, essentially devaluing it. Right now, the debate continues for how much content is worth. Can you put a dollar amount against a story? How much does the story cost the writer? The publisher? The distributor? At what price can it be sold?
It’s hard to value when it’s boiled down to black typeface on a grey background.
When my friend, Ed Lin, had his third book, Snakes Can’t Run, published by St. Martin’s Press, I was so excited for the story, but saddened by the physical book itself. Ed’s second book, This is a Bust, was published by Sunyoung’s outfit, Kaya Production, and designed by spoon+fork. I’ve done work for Kaya in the past and am currently doing work for spoon+fork, so this may just be bragging, but This is a Bust won the American Graphics Award for Excellence in Book Design. St. Martin’s isn’t going to win shit for book design for Snakes.
I loved reading This is a Bust – Sunyoung pays real close attention to typesetting and creates this reading experience by way of wide margins and narrow boxes of text. A lot like manga, it focuses and directs the eye. St. Martin’s Press…not so much. I look at this thing, Snakes Can’t Run, and it’s like the print version is an afterthought. I may as well be reading this on some e-reader because no thought has been put into the physical book itself.
Bryan Ong told me that he loves books – and this is why spoon+fork does book design – because it’s the last thing that people actually read, that people care enough to read. So why not care about the packaging of the book and delivering a reading experience?
Japanese anxiety towards digital is an anxiety because digital questions and forces traditions and culture to change. My pushback is that it change can also mean alter. Alter, as in, alternate, not dominant. Maybe digital will be dominant, but it doesn’t have to be.
For the future of publishing, I’m going to look to Japan for cues. Digitizing the bellyband, the book jacket, trimsize (somehow). And a continuation of the buyer incentive. The beautiful book, the mylar covers, the paper stock, the french-flaps. We like to pretend that we don’t live here, but we do. We still live in a physical world. We love the convenience of things, but we also still love the thing itself.
We still love the thing itself.