Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
To be human is to schlep. The physical anatomy of our pelvis, legs, and toes – all very unusual in the primate world – evolved for walking on two feet for long distances on rugged terrain. This also frees the hands for carrying stuff. And what hands! We possess all the marvels of ape hands – long fingers, opposable thumbs, no claws – but with a remarkable and uniquely human dexterity. So, then, to be human is to walk around carrying and manipulating stuff. And, of course, we are a brainy bunch. Our brains are many times larger than they should be for a typical primate our size. We are smart schleppers.
The earliest stone tools were portable, mobile technologies. The Oldowan tools of 2.5 million years ago were the first specimens in a tall and rich arc of mobile technology that bends from the dawn of our genus to your asthma inhaler and iPad Mini. Many of the earliest artifacts of expression were schleppables. The figurines of the Upper Paleolithic were hand-held marvels of communication (although exactly what they were communicating is under debate).
In this sense, the paper books of the 16th – 21st century are a continuation of that figurine impulse: hand-held, mobile, symbolic communication devices. Books are unique in that they deliver written, alphabetic, content. But they are not unique in that they are, and have always been, schleppable. Like the scrolls that preceded them, early books were a relatively precious rarity. Until the 17th century, libraries commonly chained their books to the shelves. These chained libraries offered an early solution to a problem that has recently resurfaced – controlling the portability of content. Chained libraries, however, were compensating for scarcity. DRM seeks to create scarcity.
As printing improved, the replicability of paper books comes into its own. The abundance of books in the 1930s was astounding compared to the days of the chained libraries. Hugely abundant, these books were not, however, maximized for schlepability. Books of the era were typically hard-bound and large. The platform was not optimized to utilize a ubiquitous and essential innovation in carrying technology – the pocket.
Popularized in the West in the 18th century, pockets first appeared as hanging detachable pouches worn alongside or under other garments. They quickly migrated to being incorporated directly into garments. Early pockets were busy carrying money, food, booze, and snuff. Not books, of course. They were huge heavy rarities chained to desks.
But in the early twentieth century books are everywhere. Except pockets. A few brilliant publishing entrepreneurs saw an opportunity. Thousands of commuting (née schlepping) workers could be reading the classics on their way to the factory if only the books were pocket-sized. Penguin, and then Pocket Books, led this revolution. Printing books with smaller aspect ratios, light materials, and at accessible prices instigated a revolution in mobile communication technology. By 1960, the revenue from paperbacks exceeded hardcovers.
Critics feared the new platform would rot minds with its “flood of trash.” But, of course, the new platform encouraged innovation; the lesser expense of publishing in paperback empowered and popularized genres like detective stories, erotica, and science fiction. No small achievement, that.
In 2012, ebooks followed in the paperback cousin’s footsteps and surpassed hardcover sales. Portability and ubiquity wins every time, it seems. As we schlep around the latest descendant of the paleolithic figurine, the electronic extension of the paperback, the most flexible pocket warmer to date, we would do well to actively embrace the inevitable innovations to follow. Let the naysayers and book chainers shake their fists. The electrons in my pocket will change the world forever.