The OF Blog: Excerpt from Ninth Letter's interview with Michael Martone

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Excerpt from Ninth Letter's interview with Michael Martone

This is taken from the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Ninth Letter, where Matthew Baker interviews Michael Martone.  Fascinating interview (Martone's frequent use of alter egos and faux identities makes this one of the more fascinating interviews I've ever read), but I thought readers here might like to read Martone's take on e-books and print books:

Baker:  I've heard you own an iPad.  What are your feelings on print novels vs. e-books?  Do you think print's days are numbered?

Martone:  It all depends on the publishing companies.  If the print novel is going to survive, someone is going to have to start printing books that are more than cheap paper and a flashy cover.  If you can pay $8 for an e-book edition of Infinite Jest that weighs zero ounces or $13 for a print edition of Infinite Jest that weighs three pounds, and if they're exactly the same book, who's going to pay more money for a bulkier version?  E-books are cheaper to publish, they're easier to distribute, and they're more convenient to carry around.  My generation grew up with only print, so we have a nostalgia for the printed novel that might keep it around for another couple decades.  Your generation grew up between, so I suspect your loyalties will lie somewhere between the two.  But this next generation - the one that's grown up on iPods and the internet and has never known anything different - they'll be the ones that will bury the printed novel.  They'll have no use for it.  Especially as the technology develops.  The Kindle wasn't all that aesthetically appealing; it was the Atari of e-book readers.  But when we have the Wii of e-book readers, they're going to be impossible to resist.

I do think print can survive.  But for that to happen, publishing companies will have to start thinking about the book as an object - books will have to become so intricate and extraordinary looking that consumers will have a desire to own the thing, regardless of whether they want to actually read it.  Bookmaking will have to become a form of art again, instead of just a process of mass production.

My stepmother bought this 1950s crank-powered eggbeater recently, for example.  She already has an electronic hand mixer and a state-of-the-art blender - there's nothing she can do with this eggbeater that she wasn't already able to do with a faster and more efficient tool.  But she was at an antique store in Kokomo and saw this eggbeater, and she was so struck by the design of it - the polished wood of its handle, the engravings along its metal cogs - that she bought it anyway.  And now she uses that instead of her $300 hand mixer.  It's slower, it's more physically demanding, but it's so aesthetically appealing that she's willing to put in extra work just to have her hands on the object, to become a part of that design.  The electric hand mixer she keeps in a cupboard; the crank-powered eggbeater she hangs form the wall next to her stove, keeping it on display.

That's what print novels will have to become.  Publishers will have to give consumers a reason to want the actual object of the novel:  to want to hold it, to want to be able to look at it, and have it be seen.  Ornate covers, gold letter engravings, books bound with twigs, accordion-style illustrations, that sort of thing.  That's why McSweeney's  has done so well - it's not that the actual content of McSweeney's is that extraordinary, or that much more extraordinary than the average literary quarterly, but each issue of McSweeney's has so much allure as a physical object that it's something consumers want to own.  I'm happy to read issues of The New Yorker online, but McSweeney's I want to be able to hold, to inspect, to give to my children.

Going to second Martone's thoughts on McSweeney's; can't wait for #38 to arrive next month.  What about you?  How do you feel about his comments on print books compared to e-books?


Matthew Cheney said...

Thanks for posting this, Larry. He hits it exactly on the head for me -- the mass production and distribution of books, at least for certain audiences, is likely to move to e-readers and other devices, because if the only thing that matters to you is what the words are, then you'll gravitate to whatever device is most convenient, and for a lot of folks, that's electronic. Basically, ebooks replace mass market paperbacks. But there are all sorts of situations where people are still going to want physical books, even if most of the time they read ebooks. There are small presses surviving quite well by creating books that are really desirable as books -- not just ostentatiously so, as with McSweeney's (great fun, I agree), but simplyand tastefully as, as with Small Beer Press or Open Letter or Coffee House Press or so many others. Those are books that provide an aesthetic pleasure as objects in addition to whatever the text offers, and I would rarely be tempted to buy them only as ebooks. A mass market paperback, though, or an indifferently-designed book, I'd go for whatever was cheapest and easiest.

Larry said...


I agree. Ever since I bought my iPhone two months ago, I've been reading more and more e-books on it (thinking about getting an iPad so I can port them over to a larger format) because it is very convenient for me. Yet I want those well-designed books, those that feel as part of the reading experience as the printed words themselves. Those presses you name do produce some excellent bindings for some outstanding stories.

MMPBs I loathe with a passion.

Super Happy Jen said...

I just started reading ebooks on my netbook and I really don't like it, maybe if I got an ebook reader it would be more tolerable.

I have a ritual with books. I read the back blurb, I look at the cover. Then as I'm reading I look at the cover again to compare a character's discription to the artists representation. I flip ahead to see how much I have left to read in a chapter. I can't do all these things with ebooks. A book is more than just words.

But then again maybe I just need a new ritual.

Add to Technorati Favorites