When I published Sky Blue Press’s first book, Anaïs Nin: A Book of Mirrors, 14 years ago, there was then only one truly viable format: paper. The nearly 500 page manuscript was sent to a massive press, which began spitting out gigantic sheets on each of which several pages of text appeared. The pages were cut, assembled, and forged into a thick, heavy book, which was placed into a cloth cover with gold stamping, shrink-wrapped, and placed into weighty boxes. Unpacking that first box, ripping through the plastic, I was able for the first time to hold this treasure in my hands. It was elegant, heavy, and the cover felt rich and luxurious. Opening it released the fragrance of fresh paper and ink. The sensation of opening a real book in one’s hands evokes reactions from many senses simultaneously, and readies one for the act of reading in a way similar to that of standing in the grand foyer of the Opéra with a crowd of stylish people before seeing a ballet. Everything is in context. The experience is heightened by an interconnection similar to that of a mosaic, no matter how insignificant each individual piece may be.
When I took the book to the famed Gotham Book Mart in New York, desperately hoping to have it placed on its sacred shelves, I encountered a harried, overly busy, impatient product evaluator, who was known for his brutal honesty and stinginess. “What is it you want?” he asked, while bending his head over a phone receiver. I, unable to speak coherently, handed him a copy of the book. He stiffly took it, but as I watched he began to melt as he hefted it and ran his hand over the cover. He hung up the phone and crooned over the feeling of cloth in his hands. He then took it into a back room where he wanted to read a few pages undisturbed. He came out and told me he had read an article entitled “Looking for Anaïs,” which was written by a medical doctor in California about placing an ad in the personals and his experiences with each of the “Anaïses” he encountered. It was a crude article, to put it mildly, and yet the buyer loved the irony of this piece appearing in such a handsome volume—he was sold. He bought several copies on the spot—and this was a man who, according to Anaïs’s agent Gunther Stuhlmann, never paid for anything, ever.
The point here is that a book is like a person—one’s interior must be taken in context with the exterior in order to perceive one’s overall character. We can argue that it is the content that really matters, and Anaïs would be first to do so, but she never failed to make her self-published books beautifully crafted works of art. So, in this increasingly digital age, publishers and readers alike must ponder the introduction of naked text cast upon a screen, a screen indifferent to the title, author, age, and origin of the work.
On the other hand, electronic reading devices can contain thousands of titles. When relocating recently, I realized that nearly half of my possessions, according to weight (and therefore moving expenses), were due to hundreds, if not thousands of books—and these are just the ones I have purchased over the years for my own education and reading pleasure. If all these titles were on my Kindle, half (literally) of my logistical headaches would be cured.
Another issue is the physical limitations of books. One beautiful but breezy afternoon I was sitting in a chaise longue reading an old volume of Proust. The binding broke under the weight of its more than 1,000 pages, and the wind began to scatter several of them here and there, leaving me to run and gather them up, resort them, and stuff them back into the ruined casing. None of these problems exist with a Kindle, iphone, or other portable device. But as I sat there with the withered Proust, its pages stained with grass and violently wrinkled, the bits of dried, aged glue falling out of the binding, the cover sagging, I felt a sort of compassion for the death of a book, which I certainly would never feel if my Kindle’s batteries died.
So it is with mixed feelings that I have continued my labor of love—getting Anaïs Nin in front of readers—by digitizing her words, reducing them to binary zeros and ones, and placing them on the electronic platform. It is the same ambivalence I feel when I shoot off concise e-mails to friends rather than writing four page letters. I haven’t forgotten the thrill of receiving in the mail a fat envelope from someone special, the excitement when tearing it open and unfolding the handwritten pages within, pages upon which the impressions left by the pen measured the intensity of the writer. One trades sensation for instantaneousness, emotion for convenience, soulfulness for readiness. When I announce another Nin title on Kindle, or Smashwords, or some other platform, I realize that I am involuntarily depriving the reader of the chance to feel what the buyer at Gotham felt, that feeling which melts one, readies one for the reading experience.
However, electronic books make it possible for anyone, anywhere, to obtain any title they wish—and there is no having to go to the bookstore only to find the book is sold out, out of print, or too expensive; no having to find a way to travel with books taking up valuable luggage space; no having to search through boxes upon boxes to find your lost treasure. One must grow, change, adapt, to meet the expectations of the customer, and publishers above all find themselves in the midst of a revolution, with new technologies swirling about, morphing almost daily. As far as publishers go, it’s cheaper and easier to produce e-books, but then again the profit margin is much lower, and then there’s the issue of piracy—I have lost track of how many sites offer Anaïs Nin’s erotica illegally. For readers, it’s extremely convenient and economical to purchase an e-book—it takes seconds and costs little, not to mention that it’s like walking into a book store with several hundreds of thousands of titles from which to choose.
What really matters to the publisher is connecting readers with authors, and in order to fulfill this purpose, especially now, we must do whatever it takes. Like those first conversationalists who realized that the newly invented telephone disembodies the speaker and listener, we forge ahead—but we must not forget what it means to hold a book in our hands.
Anaïs Nin’s Under a Glass Bell is now being offered in mulitple formats on Smashwords. Other Nin titles on Kindle are: Collages, The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur, and The Four-Chambered Heart, with more to follow.