/ Dreams Reoccurring: The Craft of the Book in the Age of the Web

This is an article length version of the authors’s presentation given at BiB IV, which is also available as video (below) and slides (PDF).


There seems to be a fair consensus in this community that books need browsers; the bigger question is: do browsers need books? The web is boundless; James Bridle and others have made a compelling argument that tells us that literature has moved beyond the work, and now resides in the Network. But as teachers—John in publishing and Haig in design—we worry sometimes that publishing and the tradition of the book are parting ways. There is a vast and valuable craft tradition in and around the book. Publishing is and has always been a craft–in a special category distinct from both art and industry. A craft is taught, and learned; it is collaborative: sometimes between master and apprentice; sometimes between peers; sometimes between creators and readers, too. What makes a craft tradition possible is a common language and the possibility of an ongoing discourse. In our teaching, this is foundational: the common discourse that shapes and enables practice, and is in turn shaped by it. Have we lost sight of the craft tradition of the age of the web? If so, what happens to that wealth of knowledge and wisdom? Or is that tradition migrating to new contexts—in which case, what is lost and what is gained in translation?

Books Need Browsers, But Do Browsers Need Books?

The Books in Browsers community is gathered around the recognition that books, however venerable and powerful they may be, need to be represented, one way or another, in browsers today. But the thornier question might be: do browsers really need books. Have literature and “publishing” parted ways?

At Books in Browsers 2012, a year ago, we had the sense of a kind of liftoff point, a “post-industrial” moment for publishing. In a conversation with Peter Brantley, John mused that “literature” was perhaps poised to move on from its stable home in the publishing industry–that maybe it wasn’t so important what the publishing industry would do next, but rather where literature–in the largest sense–was headed.

Then last spring, Richard Nash wrote a wonderful article on the Business of Literature[1] that helpfully pointed out—and problematized—the conflation of the two. Nash wrote about the role of literature in making culture, and how publishers have traditionally made that happen in an industrial capitalist mode–and also beyond that. The essence of publishing isn’t manufacturing books, Nash argued, it is about making culture.

Relatedly, James Bridle has in the past couple of years made a compelling case that literature doesn’t inhere in the (singular) “work” anymore.[2] Literature now lives in the (singular) Network. The unit of literary culture is no longer the book. Rather, it is a fluid, ongoing, incomplete (and seemingly atemporal) ocean of literature online, whose “conclusions are not located exclusively within the work, but are distributed across the network.”

These are momentous changes, and they pose enormous challenges to traditional publishers. We are all familiar with—if not party to—the schadenfreude about the “dinosaur: publishing industry, it’s resistance to change, and how its proverbial lunch is about to be eaten by smaller, more agile, digital startups.

Still, we love books. Perhaps more to the point, our self-identification as “book” people is still a big deal. Where John teaches, in a graduate Publishing program at Simon Fraser University, a big part of what attracts students is this self-identification: the incoming students know they love books and literature, and they want to build a life immersed in that. They are all digital natives at this point, but it’s book culture that gathers and binds them together.

We daresay the crowd at Books in Browsers is similarly constituted. The people in the room aren’t here to make sure the publishing industry survives. But they do care about books. Otherwise they’d all go to the Semantic Web Conference[3] instead.

Publishing as a Craft Tradition

A big part of what makes books and book culture loveable and compelling is the craft of the book. Publishing is of course an industrial activity–it is perhaps the very prototype for industrial activity. And in literature there is, of course, art. But craft is a third category in between. Beyond storytelling, beyond reaching an audience, beyond filtering and curating and marketing, there is also the business of making things. And especially: making things that last.

That is a grand tradition, one that stretches over hundreds of years, a tradition that contains and mobilizes immeasurable cultural wealth. It is not reducible to social effects, or economic analysis. It is a constructive activity based in a venerable tradition. It is a loveable tradition.

Craft is a love letter from the work’s maker... – Frank Chimero

Craft is organized practice. The architect and scholar Malcolm McCullough writes:

A practice cultivates mastery and judgement. Based on lifelong learning and devotion to a core set of knowledge and values, it has intrinsic benefit for those who take part in it. In that regard, a practice is a goal in itself. This quality is demonstrated by anyone who works primarily for the right to continue to practice.[4]

Craft–as organized practice–has a common discourse, a common language shared among practitioners and aspirants. Craft is a collaborative endeavor, whether between master and apprentice or peer to peer–perhaps even between creator and reader. It is also, critically, an iterative business. We make things, in order to critique them, in order to learn, in order to improve. This happens over time; hence, a grand tradition.

Here is an example from some research John’s been doing on the “ancient history” of digital publishing technology.

The Coach House Press[5] was founded in 1965 in Toronto and grew to prominence through the city’s counterculture period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It became known as a fine printing house, and also a publisher of poetry and avant-garde literature. The founder and publisher, Stan Bevington, started out as a screen printer; he learned to hand-set type and to work a Linotype machine, and also became a serious darkroom innovator in the early days of the Press. He, like many master printers, was a tinkerer.

Stan gathered like-minded people around him: printers, darkroom wizards, typesetters, designers. And with them poets, writers, editors. The Coach House is entirely of that grand tradition of publishing and printing: they do it all. They are, in many ways, the archetypal “Printing Office” of Beatrice Warde’s famous broadside: “the crossroads of civilization, refuge of all the arts against the ravages of time...”[6]

The Coach House Press made the move to digital in 1974, when they made a major investment in phototypesetting equipment and a minicomputer, and immediately set about hacking together a hardware interface between the computer and the typesetter. Stan and his colleagues saw computers as a direct extension of the work they were doing in the darkroom and the printing floor.

Printers are tinkerers, bricoleurs, experimenters. In more modern parlance, they’re hackers. Through the 70s and 80s, Coach House Press developed its own typesetting software in house. By the early 1980s they were the leading developers of Unix-based typesetting software and were a key part of the development of Generalized Markup, which became SGML, which became HTML and XML. In 1984 they spun off a software company—SoftQuad, which went on to some fame.

They were hackers, tinkerers. But remember that the Coach House was a tiny literary press that produced poetry, plays, and avant-garde novels. They were not a large textbook publisher, or a producer of encyclopedias. Or phone books.

Their driving goal was always being able to make better books. All that development work in software and hardware was about getting to smoother, less aggravating editorial workflow... cleaner printing quality... better H&J.

Is Publishing Losing Touch with Its Craft Heritage?

We worry about the loss of that craft tradition. As publishing in general navigates the shift to digital, amid the total commoditization of the business of literature in this era of big data, prevailing trends often seem counter to the values and virtues of that older tradition. As publishers learn to chase ever more abstract markets, customer relations data, and so forth, what becomes of the craft?

Amazon’s enormous success at this is a paradigm-setting phenomenon. But if you look at it, Amazon is almost completely “anti-literature” as a result: it makes no distinction between good and bad, or what might make a difference to anyone’s life. It makes no pretense about culture or taste or durability. Rather Amazon pursues a total commodification the book business. Their strategy is to be the platform for all reading, to be the “obligatory passage point”[7] for a billion zillion transactions.

Parts of the craft tradition have already been thrown under the bus. A look at the Kindle—the clear market-leading ebook platform—shows an utter disregard for the craft of making books: the lessons of five hundred years of typography are apparently abandoned. Does anyone care? Has this hurt the clear market-leader in ebooks? Frankly, what works on the Kindle is apparently good enough for millions of people.

But our point is not to complain about Amazon—they are very smart and very interesting and very good at what they do. But we shouldn’t mistake that for what publishing is about.

The danger is in “good enough.” Does “good enough” eliminate the need for craft?

Craft in Digital Media

We know there is craft in digital media, but it doesn’t seem to be coming from the publishing industry. Publishers seem to be looking for a quick and easy platform or standard that will allow them to do what they already know (based on print models) with a minimum of expense. The goals are templated design, a common platform, a turnkey system to make pushing out books easier with less hassle. Among other things, we see the imitation of the experience of the printed word on the screen; we see skeumorphism everywhere.

That’s forgetting what you do with every book, which is the crafting of a reader’s experience with each one. We do that in print; why wouldn’t we do that with ebooks?

In Interaction Design (IxD), we don’t look for a way to design a website and then do all websites that way; we shouldn’t do books that way either. They have individual demands . . . that’s what makes them valuable and lasting.

Alan Kay wrote recently about the dangers of convenience:

There is the desire of a consumer society to have no learning curves. This tends to result in very dumbed-down products that are easy to get started on, but are generally worthless and/or debilitating.

We can contrast this with technologies that do have learning curves, but pay off well and allow users to become experts (for example, musical instruments, writing, bicycles).[8]

The technologies Kay highlights here are the ones with craft-like traditions behind them. We need to be wary of publishers trading in their craft technologies for ones that are entirely about efficiency and convenience.

Affordances and Skeuomorphs

An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting. The term has further evolved for use in the context of human–computer interaction (HCI) to indicate the easy discoverability of possible actions.

A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues from structures that were necessary in the original. Metaphors in design are the subtle use of the familiar, but when metaphors are used heavy-handedly they become skeuomorphic.

The craft of digital media is in creating experiences. Publishing has been thinking about user experience for 500 years. We’ve experienced some disruption as we’ve shifted materials lately. But is the response to reduce that tradition to clip art and paste it in without regard to the newer material conditions of publishing?

The Handcraft of the Web

As an architecture student Haig learned how to pour concrete: not just how to pour concrete but to understand the characteristics of concrete, that it has a grain that one learns to work with. In teaching interaction design at Emily Carr Haig makes sure he conveys the methodology as well as the materiality of digital media, to understand its grain.[9]

After two decades of web design, we are beginning to see serious experimentation with forms of the electronic book. CSS sophistication is at last getting better because there is a demand for better control of typography and layout. Just a few years ago, we had very little control over the reading experience onscreen—the platforms and tools were just too crude. This is finally being addressed with web standards, which thankfully underpin ebook standards. That helps. But there is still a need for an attitude and approach to the work. Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style admonishes:

1.2.1 Read the text before you design it.

1.2.2 Discover the outer logic of the typography in the inner logic of the text.[10]

It becomes apparent that book design isn’t so much about crafting an artifact as about crafting an experience. Publishers know that, though they don’t necessarily call it that or follow the same design methods that user experience designers use. There are today a number of people speaking about using so-called “agile” methods to publish books but the attention to design still seems missing.

You can tell a story with so many different media that together augment the experience. Not just distract the reader. Successful versions are a crafting of how the facets fit together: prose + other things. If we’re not just trying to replicate the print experience, then what are we doing?

Here are a couple of examples from the perspective of design:

CBC Radio3 (circa 2003)

CBC Radio3, before it was a podcast series and radio channel, was a weekly 100 page digital magazine. You can find an archive at http://archive.cbcradio3.com/issues/2003_05_23/. It was experimental, featuring many meditations on what the grain is of digital media. A big part of that experimentation was finding and providing the right balance and control of content types—text, image, sound, video—and allowing users to choose which content type was to become foreground vs background. At Books in Browsers this year, Alan Tan talked about this: “layers of information on different planes,” deciding what makes sense as foreground vs. background.

Radio3 was pre-“social web,” and while it did invite audience participation, it came before the paradigm we know today. The web today is blurring the boundary between author and reader—not just about social media integration—but how you can invite participation in the work itself.

A Newer Example: A Social Book

The “Social Book” is a prototype interactive book built around Alexandra Samuel’s 50 Years of Life Online. It was created as an iPad app with a web CMS behind it, and it invites and integrates commentary from readers.[11]

The Social Book app invites user comments, which can be public or private, and are coded red or blue, respectively. After tapping on a comment, the comment expands and is shown in a list of all the comments on a particular section of the text. From there, the thread of replies can be viewed or a new comment can be added. This can be collapsed and tucked away with a simple pinch gesture, leaving the original text showing.

The Social Book is an exploration of the issues arising when adding social functionality into a digital book. Can we integrate a social component into a book without getting in the way of the original content? How do we make a book ultimately dynamic? These are questions of user experience and design that make sense to approach from a crafting point of view; they resist a one-size template solution.

In the Social Book, Haig and colleagues at Emily Carr University started with a set of goals for the user experience and then crafted a solution out of available open-source tools like Wordpress, Phonegap, and good old HTML and jQuery, bringing all of it together into one. There is a craft tradition of digital media tool use and integration that comes to bear for a particular experience design.

Teaching Craft

We both teach: John in Publishing, Haig in Design. But where we used to be seen as the techies that explained the web to publishers, now we find ourselves explaining publishing to coders. Haig’s role is increasingly to teach techie designers to love books, and then bring what they love about books into digital media.

Our students need a common language, a discourse, in which to learn organized practice. So we get them hacking and making things, and arguing about it. In our teaching, the point is not to learn THE way to do something; the point is to learn to experiment; to tinker; to make things and test constraints and affordances; to iterate. Only in this way does anyone learn the limitations and affordances of a material, of a medium, of a genre.

In some ways we are nostalgic for the early days (1990s) of the web. Then, there was so much playful experimentation going on, and we all moved forward with leaps and bounds—it was ok that lots of it failed, that’s how we learned. So in our teaching we try to create that atmosphere. We both work to create cultures of experimentation. That involves trying new things while working on how to understand books and publishing from a historic perspective.

Reoccuring Dreams

We seem to be in a time of crisis for the craft of the book. But the traditions aren’t forgotten, nor are the virtues and values that have anchored books and book culture for centuries. But we seem to be having trouble with their application to the new world of digital. Remembering to value craft is critical to that transition. Help us restore the importance of a craft in publishing—to build a bridge from the craft tradition of the book to the age of the web.


    1. Richard Nash. 2013. “What is the Business of Literature?” Virginia Quarterly Review. http://www.vqronline.org/articles/2013/spring/nash-business-literature/return to text

    2. James Bridle. 2012. “Starbooks and the Death of the Work.” BookTwo.org http://booktwo.org/notebook/starbooks-death-of-the-work/return to text

    3. The 12th International Semantic Web Conference. 21–25 October 2013, Sydney, Australia. http://iswc2013.semanticweb.org/return to text

    4. Malcolm McCullough. 2004. Digital Ground. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 152.return to text

    5. Coach House Press, today named Coach House Books, is alive and well. Master printer Stan Bevington continues in his role as “head coach.” See http://www.chbooks.comreturn to text

    6. Beatrice Warde’s 1932 broadside: http://libweb2.princeton.edu/rbsc2/ga/unseenhands/printers/warde.htmlreturn to text

    7. The term is from actor-network theory; see e.g., Bruno Latour, Science in Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).return to text

    8. Alan Kay. 2012. “The Future of Reading Depends on the Future of Learning Difficult-to-Learn Things” in The Digital Turn: Design in the Era of Interactive Technologies. Ed. Junge, Berzina, Scheiffele, Westerveld, & Zwick. Zurich: Park Books.return to text

    9. Malcolm McCullough’s earlier work, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand (MIT Press, 1998) eloquently foregrounds the role of a material’s grain in our perception and master of a medium.return to text

    10. Robert Bringhurst. 1992. The Elements of Typographic Style. Vancouver: Hartley & Marks.return to text

    11. Haig Armen & Lucinda Atwood. 2013. “Creating Social Books.” http://www.haigarmen.com/creating-social-books/return to text