Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

By | July 5, 2010

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(my syndicated Loose Wire column.)

As I write this two significant events are taking place: Google has said it will tie up with the American Booksellers Association—the U.S. trade group for independent bookstores—to sell ebooks.

And there’s a conference in Bristol celebrating 75 years of the Penguin paperback.

Both are milestones. And both carry with them great innovation in the book industry, though one sees the future and one doesn’t.

Penguin was set up by a guy called Allen Lane in 1935 because he couldn’t find something decent and cheap to read on the train. So he came up with idea of a paperback book—which had been around, but only for trashy fiction, not serious stuff.

He gave them good covers and made them dirt cheap. And sold them by the truckload. Some of them he sold in a dispensing machine in the Charing Cross Road they called the Penguincubator.

Lane died in 1970, not quite sure what he’d created. On the one hand he’d brought reading to the masses—converting, as he put it, book-borrowers into to book-buyers—but he wasn’t overly excited by the kinds of thing these people wanted to read.

So I’m probably wrong, but if he was around today, I’d like to think he would have seen the future and turned all his stock into ebooks.

Now don’t get me wrong. Part of me doesn’t like this. I worked in bookshops for three years of my life and, frankly, unless I was working for the Peak District Promotion Board I couldn’t think of a better job.

But let’s face it, books are dead. They’re a great technology, and will always be a great technology, and we’re not getting rid of them because they don’t work. We need to get rid of them because they don’t fit this new digital world.

I realized this when I went to visit a guy running a second-hand book business in rural England a few years ago. He was working out of an old electricity sub-station and I’d never come across someone so surrounded by books and yet so miserable.

The substation had two rooms. One had shelves to the roof, laden with books. The other was just a mountain of discarded paperbacks—a tip for all the books he knew he’d never sell. “My job,” he said mournfully, “is to move the books from the shelf room to the tip room.”

Some books were sometimes worth something, but if their price went up on Amazon or some secondhand book website, quickly people would find copies in their attic and the price would plummet again. His business, in a word, was dead.

The truth is that we don’t really know what to do with our books. We love to have them around us, and we probably love to wander around second-hand bookshops, but they’re out of place in this digital age, where all the wisdom of the world is a 22 millisecond search away.

What is the point of wandering around Haye-on-Wye looking for a particular tome when we could find the same thing online and download it to our Kindle in a matter of seconds?

Yes, I know, there’s the thrill of the chase. The joy of being among books, their aroma, of feeling their pages crinkle and crisp in our hands. Of its solid comfort as we hold it under our arm or slip it in coat pocket.

But we can’t afford to indulge ourselves anymore. Books are eating up trees, eating up space, and, most importantly, holding back what Allen Lane might have identified as the logical next step in his revolution: making books available to all.

Books, basically, have to be decoupled from this romantic world and plonked into the digital world of knowledge, of accessible information, of blogs, twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Now we expect our information to be cheap, if not free, and at a finger-tip’s touch. In short, books need to be released from their paper past and converted into something cheap and movable. Into things we can read on trains, on planes, in bed, waiting for friends. Into ebooks.

And this is where Google comes in. If it does it right, it will make Kindles—where you can only read books you bought on Amazon—or iPads—where you can only read books you bought on Apple as absurd as they already sound to my ears.

Google will, I hope, allow you to buy any book you want from any online bookseller you want and read it on any kind of device you want. They’ll give us the same freedom Allen Lane gave our forebears back in 1935.

I hope it ushers in a world where we still peruse physical books in stores, but then we buy a coffee in the bookshop cafe and download the book, all paid on the same bill. The books on the shelves are there just to help us choose.

And, if Allen Lane were on that Exeter station without something decent to read, he could get his books over the air. At a decent price.

It’s not as romantic as the past. But then we’re not in Pride and Prejudice anymore. We’re in a world of digits.

Maybe Mr. Lane wouldn’t have approved of what we were reading, but I’m sure he’d approve of how.

7 thoughts on “Google and Penguin: Bookending a Revolution

  1. Don Linn

    There are lots of reasons to move from print to digital but ‘not knowing what to do with all our books’ strikes me as one of the least compelling ones. There are plenty of ways to dispose of used books (including arranging for them to be pulped) if that’s one’s inclination.

  2. Juergen

    Good old paperbacks and hard-covers, bye-bye… That takes me back to the time of long-playing records. They were replaced with digital music and probably everybody is more happy now with consuming music. Still there are some records around and maybe also books will become precious collectibles. In the future maybe some of the most successful digital lyrics will be published as hard cover.

    Reading lot of text on a screen is pretty unpleasant in my opinion, and iPads and Kindles have the charm of ancient stone tablets. The day when reading digital text in bed is as pleasant as reading a book in bed then the new era has come true.

  3. Jacob Schroeder

    Hello Jeremy,

    Great article. I was wondering though, what your thoughts are regarding the so called ‘digital divide’? It’s great to have books available to everybody, but not everyone can afford the cost of tablets and computers. It seems a little discouraging to have to buy one product–one expensive product–just to then be able to buy and read ebooks.


    Jacob Schroeder
    Academy Chicago Publishers

  4. Paul Joannides

    I think what you are missing is that people who are younger expect more from a book when it’s on an electronic device than the current eBook/iBook fare. They want the book itself to be more interactive, more like an app. They want color, as well.

    So I think that while you might be right for people who grew up reading actual books–having the actual book on an electronic device is a natural progression–for the younger generations who grew up playing video games and who expect information to be interactive, the “book” of the future is going to require way more than easy portability to a wide cross section of ebook readers.

    Paul Joannides, Psy. D.
    author: Guide To Getting It On

  5. Message Gnome

    At the risk of sacrificing narrative flow on the altar of accuracy, a couple of clarifications:

    Google is not going to make the transition to the people’s bookstore until they start protecting intellectual property in a more consistent fashion. Blogger, which is owned by Google is a trove of right-infringing PDFs.

    While Harper Lee may not have granted anyone the right to electronically distribute her work, that hasn’t stopped any number of people from distributing it anyway, and linking to it from their personal Blogger sites.

    Thanks to an interesting ethical contortion on Google’s part, you cannot report these obvious infringements unless you are the party being infringed on.

    “Don’t be evil”, indeed.

    As for the iPad, you can currently purchase books from:

    Apple (iBooks)
    Amazon (Kindle, Stanza)
    Barnes & Noble (B&N eReader)
    Borders (Borders eBooks)

    All of these applications are free, and several of them (most notably Stanza and Kobo) also support purchases from any number of independent publishers and aggregators – Kobo will in fact let view content on just about any device with a screen.

    If comics are your thing, you can view them in full color using applications from both Marvel and DC Comics, as well as independent content using Comic Zeal, iComic, or Bookman.

    For magazines, there are numerous publisher-specific apps, as well as Zinio. As someone who found Zinio to be an exercise in frustration 10 years ago, I was completely blown away by the free issue of National Geographic they bundled with the app.

    Most importantly, the majority of the apps I’ve mentioned are free, and all monetary transactions take place outside of the iTunes ecosystem.

    To say that Apple doesn’t want you to read anything that you didn’t purchase from Apple is profoundly incorrect.


    Interesting piece Jeremy. But repeatedly you state there’s some kind of imperative at work in the digitization of books. But much of the current fast evolution is a result of technology looking for content, not the other way round. Yes, I’ll happily use a digital platform when I need to *find* something quickly (I rarely flick through a book to look something up if I have a digital version available on the screen in front of me) but I’m not yet happy reading on one for any length of time. And despite all the hype, it’s still not clear how many people are doing so. Downloading ebooks by the million is one thing, actually reading them another. There’s always going to be space for multiple platforms, and print on paper is bound to survive because of its unique virtue: once created, it doesn’t rely on a power source.

    Richard Trillo

  7. Matthew Montagu-Pollock

    Surely sad. I’m visiting the UK on a trip from Manila, settling in to read books in the collection I left in my UK flat 23 years ago. Annotated, often, in the margins, by my early-adult self. How a 28-year old reads Auden is not how a 59-year old reads him.

    I can share these books with my wife and family, pass them on, give them away. Leave them open in piles.

    No one will ever tell me I haven’t got the right password, or that the software is corrupt. I’ll never struggle for hours with some uncooperative Live Person helpline to unlock my copy of The Early Christian Fathers.

    Seems to me the charge of unrealism can be lobbed as much at the future-romantics as those allegedly fixated on a golden past.

    Its true, of course that we’ve moved on. I wander around Bristol – all the bookshops are closing, and I’m reading Wagstaff on the web when a decade ago I would have read him in the Journal (till I cancelled it for its rabid anti-Arabism, and he left). Manufacturing has moved to China, the unemployment queues are lengthening, and I’m a Luddite.

    Well, Byron defended the Luddites. At one time, says Wikipedia, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than fighting Napoleon 1. Retrospectively, more power to you, guys! Keep the spirit alive!


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