A little while ago, on Twitter, Ernesto Priego posted a link to a video, "The Future of Publishing," put out by the UK division of DK Books (Penguin). The video, with its minimalistic scrolling text read by a young female voice, was originally intended for the company's internal audience but has been released externally, and generated a lot of buzz. Ernesto, a poet and writer who's writing his PhD in London on comic books in the digital age, expressed some of the same doubts I felt after seeing the video, so I wrote to him and asked if he'd like to discuss it. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
ERNESTO: The most crass commonplace in discussions about digital media, the future of the book etc. is the incorrect assumption that what in this advert is called "packaging" can be clearly differentiated from "content". Media are not simple receptacles where content is contained and that can be poured into a different receptacle. Media -- print or digital, aural or visual or multimedia -- are not only a means of transmission, they also communicate things in themselves, impose a particular framing that defines attitudes, meanings, readings.
BETH: Can you give some examples?
ERNESTO: In the case of some publications such as art books or other coffee table books (design, architecture, photography), in children's literature and books for very young readers (pop up books, books to teach kids about the 5 senses etc) and importantly comic books and graphic novels, that are collectable and make a very conscious use of graphic/editorial/publishing design, packaging is surely something that is not neutral, expendable or easily translated into other media.
BETH: For your PhD, you're working on comic books, right?
ERNESTO: Yes. My research is specifically about comic books and the new digital publishing scenario. Originally I was looking at webcomics or online comics as digital counterparts to physical, print comic books, but then mobile comics (to be read on the iPhone, and now the iPad) came along and started changing the game again.
BETH: How do you feel a comic on the IPhone differs from one printed and read on paper? How does a paper book affect the content within it?
ERNESTO: First of all we need to consider the format: page size, for instance. Other elements come into play, like the tactile feel, smell, etc, as well as behaviour that comes hand-in-hand with reading the books, such as going to a book shop every week (new comic books usually arrive on Wednesdays to shops in North America; Thursdays in the UK), meeting other readers, going to comics conventions, book-signing sessions, etc. There's that element, but the format one is key. The size of the iPhone (things are different in the case of the laptop screen or the iPad) is just minimal in comparison to even the smallest of 'mini-comics'. (self-published comics).
BETH: Books have historically unfolded in a linear manner. Comics and other graphic-intensive documents are linear, but they also have had a flow (historically, anyway) that depends on the viewer seeing more than a single frame at a time.
ERNESTO: Yes, that's true. The way comics work is through the juxtaposition of still graphic images on a delimited space (traditionally the paper page). Comics are different from comic strips and cartoons because they usually rely on a grid layout: panels are arranged sequentially, and the reading process, at least in the West, is guided by this element: first we see the whole page automatically, it's almost like an intuitive thing (unless we are seriously short-sighted). One sees the whole page, the whole grid, then one focuses on the first panel, which is usually the one on the top left corner. We follow to the next, then the next, up-down, left-right.
I believe that it's the grid layout that makes comics what they are (or used to be). In digital comics that are read on a small screen like the iPhone's, usually what used to be beautiful, complex visual narrative structures in the form of multilayered panel grids are now constrained to just one panel. One drags the fingertip to get to the next panel, but the experience of the page layout is lost.
Of course, it's great one can zoom in the text and the images, 'navigate' the visual text, but the specific texture of the comic book page is lost because physical dimensions have been constrained. We have a different case with the computer screen and probably with the iPad, where the dimensions are more generous.
BETH: Do you feel that comics and graphic novels are an entirely different category of book?
ERNESTO: What's important is that comic books ARE books. And people who study books have very largely ignored them, as if they were non-existent or from another planet. I strongly believe they offer some of the best examples to prove how it's not true that everything is translatable into 1 and 0s. It's literally like translation. The jar can never be rebuilt the way it was.
BETH: Let's get back to the DK advert...you had some reservations about it...
ERNESTO: My negative reaction is mainly to what it assumes about packaging... that these things can be seen in two reverse ways. I'm against this kind of bipolar thinking; it's a huge oversimplification. The video, supposedly engaging the debate about the migration of books from print to digital media, is reduced to two opposed ways of reading (scrolling down/scrolling up); where one is the negative one and the other the "optimistic" one. Perhaps paradoxically, DK Publishing's video, prepared by the UK branch of Dorling Kindersley Books and produced for by Khaki Films, could very easily be considered a plagiarism of "Truth," a 2006 promotional video by the Argentinean agency SAVAGLIO\TBWA and "Lost Generation" by Jonathan Reed (2008). In a time in which digital piracy is considered one of the biggest threats to creative content industries, DK Publishing's video's lack of originality seems counter-intuitive.
BETH: Well, the advert seems intended as a kind of slam-dunk, putting away (and putting down) any nuanced argument. And I hope readers will look at these original videos you mention - I'm rather shocked!
In my work as a professional graphic designer over the past three decades, I've had to become expert at "translating" print publication for the web - but I notice the problems people have with this, even now. The two methods of taking in information are not equal because, for one thing, our brains cannot process them the same way.
What you point out about the reading process is also my experience with graphics-heavy documents, and it's probably maximized with comics. One thing that is totally lost when we view one frame at a time is the way comic artists, storyboard artists, and graphic designers have always played with scale in their drawings, both as an artistic device and as a way of creating emphasis and a shifting viewpoint, not unlike a camera's zoom. For those who are familiar with storyboards for film, this is the standard way of representing the flow of a story, and the best artists are tremendously skilled at this manipulation of view. It's another component of "content" that is lost on the small screen when we're forced to view one frame or a small segment of the whole at a time. Of course, larger viewers will help with that.
I also saw that you mentioned Issuu as a viewer for comics. That's the application I use here at Phoenicia to simulate the act of turning pages and allow zooming, as well as a sense of the pages as a sequence in the book. I chose it because I couldn't stand the single-page previews of most "look inside" applications.
ERNESTO: I liked Issuu in the case of European comics because it allows the larger format. What I said before about the page layout on the iPhone is not entirely true since it is often possible to see the whole page, but it's so small you have to zoom in anyway. I think there are different degrees in which physical format, design, typography, layout, paper type, size, type of binding, etc affect the way one reads something depending on what kind of publication we are talking about. I often think of the Financial Times, published on that characteristic pinkish paper: what if they started printing it on standard newspaper paper? Maybe it's just me but I think that an important part of --at the very least-- the corporate identity of the FT would be lost. It's interesting that very often, if not always, books are designed differently depending of which market they are for: US and UK for example, or the Spanish, French or Italian editions of the same books. Cover design but also physical format in terms of size, binding, soft or hard cover, etc can affect dramatically the reaction to a book. It's not only about marketing, it's about what it makes readers feel.
BETH: Thinking of visual material as a "scroll" is helpful sometimes too. In our early days of producing .pdf versions of printed reports, we changed the formats from double-page spreads to single horizontal ones, similar to the IPad screen. One of the objections people had was that they wanted to print out the reports and couldn't deal with landscape pages! A client actually insisted that we do a vertical format version so people wouldn't have to turn the pages once they were printed! Resistance comes in many forms - literally! And it's especially so when the market is older readers.
ERNESTO: Yes, I'm sure of that. As my colleague Katharine Schopflin commented on Twitter, it's not only poetry that makes use of typographic and layout design in creative/meaningful ways. Even the most traditional prose-only novel will transmit different things in different editions with different formats. The best example is perhaps the much-hated "comic sans" font: can you imagine a PhD dissertation being taken seriously if typed on it? Lettering, like colouring, paper quality, printing method, etc., matters, and it matters very much.
BETH: So -- to get back to that advert -- what can we say about it in conclusion? It was, for sure, very clever and made its point, but I think there is truth in it read both ways around - attention spans are shorter, for instance, and publishing as we have always known it is definitely radically changing, if not dead.
ERNESTO: Yes, I totally agree. I think the advert can be read in many ways. What do you personally think of the voice they used? What does it make you feel or think? I have seen it once again, and I think I dislike it more now. It assumes there are only two sides to the coin, as if the print/digital debate were about seeing things in reverse only, about being 'positive' instead of 'negative'. I think it might even be patronising of young readers...
BETH: I agree about that. As for the voice - that's the whole point, isn't it, that it's female to be unthreatening, but definitely "young?" It reminds me of how I feel about a lot of Apple's marketing: it's so well done that it's manipulative. That kind of branding creates identification with the brand, makes you feel like an outlier and a rebel, but actually encourages conformity of behavior. I admire the cleverness - how can you not? - but it's important to think more deeply about the issues, as you've helped us do here, Ernesto! Refusing to think of digital and print in a bipolar way is the first step.
ERNESTO: I agree with you, it's marketing so it has to be taken with a grain of salt. It's not theory; it's not highly intellectual; it's what it is, an advert for ebooks or books on digital media. It's clever at the first watching, but if you think about it longer it's obvious it does not engage with the real questions.
BETH: Thanks so much, Ernesto! It's been great talking with you.
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