Buying J.K. Rowling’s new book: is print now ‘just how we did it before we found a better way’?

When the news broke last week that J.K. Rowling was the true author of a title ostensibly written by one Robert Galbraith, it kicked off a scramble by her fans to locate a copy. Since even Robert’s publisher didn’t know his true identity, there were very few copies to be had. The bemused TV stories about the whole furor featured “on-the-street” interviews with Rowling fans in which they bemoaned that there were “no copies available anywhere.”

The Cuckoo's Calling - paper and digital

Paper is scarce and hard to come by. Digital is infinite.

A quick trip to the iBookstore on my iPad revealed that, on the contrary, there were lots of copies available–at $9.99 no less. An infinite number of copies, actually.

It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of the benefits of delivering books as electronic media. Being in the book design business, I am painfully aware of the effort that will go into the production of hundreds of thousands of paper copies of “The Cuckoo’s Calling.” The paper manufacturing alone is a massive task. Printing, warehousing, and shipping, shipping, shipping. Think about how many times this material is physically moved from one place to another. Trees shipped to a paper mill, paper shipped to a printer, books shipped to a warehouse and from there to a bookstore, books carried home, and then likely moved from one home to another for the duration of a lifetime. Apropos just the first step in that process, I’m reminded of this thought from architect and environmental visionary Bill McDonough:

A tree makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy’s fuel, makes complex sugars and food, changes colors with the seasons, creates microclimates and self-replicates. Man looks at that and says ‘let’s knock that down and make paper out of it.’ (paraphrased)

Bill also suggests that it is getting harder and harder to see anything as beautiful if it is complicit in destroying the planet.

Has the time come to fully embrace digital books? Should we be teaching our children to think of the e-book as the default form and those paper-based products as the way we had to do it before we figured out a better way?

For a designer who has spent the bulk of his career focused on perfecting those paper-based forms, this can be a scary thought. Nevertheless it seems both inevitable and in many, many ways, good.

JIM GIBSON earned his BA in English (yes, English) from the University of Virginia. Nevertheless, he has enjoyed a long career in the graphic arts that spans a broad set of technologies, skills, and interests. Since the early 1980s he has operated his own design studio with an impressive list of satisfied clients.