Fulfilling the status role of books

Espen Andersen (Photo: Nard Schreurs)In my office at BI Norwegian Business School I have many books, accumulated over the years. In my living room I have even more, having spent time building bookshelves and defending the wall space against family members who think it could be put to better use. And in my basement I have stacks of cartons with even more books, which I do not have the heart to throw out – hey, I might get around to reading the complete works of Hermann Hesse, in German, some day – but not the space to display.

The book collection is nice – I like books, I can remember almost viscerally where most of them are, and often all that is necessary to remember what is in them is just to take them out of the shelf. And they do tell everyone around me that I am a bona fide intellectual, should anyone wonder.

But I (almost) don’t read books on paper any more – I buy them and read them on my Kindle or PC or iPad. Electronic books are searchable, weightless, cheap, accessible and cost nothing to store. But nobody can see how many books I have on my PC or Kindle. Having many books signals status, to the point where there are companies that will fill you bookshelves for you, in any color and style you want, for a fee. The usefulness of books as status signals will diminish over time, however, just as what has happened with CD racks, which you don’t display anymore, unless you have thousands of vinyl records and cross the threshold from music lover to music fanatic. So, what to do?

The Norwegian publishing and bookselling industry, an astonishingly backward group of companies when it comes to anything digital, yesterday introduced a new concept for e-books that, even for them, is rather harebrained. They want to sell e-book tablets where you can buy books not as downloads (well, you can do that, too) but as files loaded on small plastic memory cards, to be inserted into the reader [article in Norwegian]. This preserves their business model (though they can probably stop using trucks and start using bicycles for distribution). According to their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net (but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.)

imageI initially thought I would make a joke about having to replace my bookshelves with neat little minishelves for the plastic cards, when it dawned on me that perhaps we have the solution here – i.e., a model where we could get the accessibility of digital books with the status display of the paper version. Why couldn’t the publishing industry sell you a digital book (for downloading, if you please) bundled with a cardboard book model, with binding and all, to put in your bookshelf? This would look great, allow you to effortlessly project your intellectualism and elevated taste, while avoiding the weight, dust, and (since these books would only need to be a in inch or two deep) space nuisances of traditional books. You could even avoid physical distribution by letting the customer self-print and cut and fold the “shelf-book” in the right format.

You could even electronically link the two, so that you cold pick your cardboard book from the shelf, wave it in the direction of the e-book tablet (using transponder, 2D barcoding or other identifying techniques) and the book would show up in your reader. If you really wanted to show off, you could add a little color coded bar indicated how far you were in each book, much like a download bar for your computer, to be displayed on each book. Moreover, such as book could be lent from one reader to another.

I recently bought Don DeLillo’s Underworld for my Kindle. Imagine if it came with with nice little book spine, leather as an expensive option, with a barcode and a “read” bar as illustrated here…status, spatial memory, interior decoration, and a way to gradually replace the paper library with an electronic one without disruption.

Remember, you saw it here first!

(In case you wondered: Yes, I am being facetious.)

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22 thoughts on “Fulfilling the status role of books

  1. Kiteman

    Not such a mad idea, if those little plastic cards are SD cards, and the reader had an SD slot.

    It would make it a lot easier to share books with your friends without having to connect both your readers to a PC.

  2. Espen (not the poster)

    These days I’m guilty of mostly pirating books actually, and if I finish them I put them up on proud display as dead trees. But I read them electronically originally, so I should probably buy them electronically as well. But I am vain, and I want my shelves filled with the books I’ve read. But I can’t see myself displaying these plastic cards exactly.

    But I’ll get the last laugh when the apocalyptic future comes around and I still have my books in physical format. (Never mind I own enough solar panels to charge every portable piece of electronics I own)

  3. Allin Kahrl

    They’d be like the little campaign/award ribbons that military officers wear ganged up on their uniforms! Take it a step further: the reader automatically inquires if you want to order the display spine only AFTER you reach the end of the book. Then you display the spine on your wall as a trophy.

  4. Steven Sagle

    I think it would be interesting to do a study, if such a study is possible, to discover how many comments, expressed as a percentage, are made by readers who have not read the article on which they are commenting.

  5. karlosity

    Hmmm, That idea is great for an individual – just kidding :)

    But actual physical books in one space? that sounds like a public library to me – so how can we to save _that_ institution which is a cornerstone of civil society?

    I think Bookshops will go niche to survive as more and more people get their books electronically. With the reduced local physical locations (and selection) browsing shelves to buy books becomes difficult (but still the Killer App User Interface, better than searching online).

    Publishers then may need to support Public Libraries to get their product visible to their core end-consumers. Public Libraries would curate the long tail of published books making them available physically for browsing and electronically for a free limited loan period or ebook purchase at a subsidised price.

    With print on demand machines the Library could sell physical copies at retail or ask purchasers to donate another physical copy for a slightly higher total cost (just cost recovery for the latter).

    So – a good range of physical books still available as a public resource (no digital disenfranchisement) – electronic book lending enabled which would drive ebook and paper book sales – rare texts available for reprint/addition to the Library…

    What do you think?

  6. Mirko Junge

    Colored (as to subject) stickers–of cause with a holographic label of authenticity–for placement on the back of ebook readers would be an obvious extention of the plan. Including a personlized QR-code on the sticker would add a very modernistic ‘personal’ touch for verification. Furthermore there could be big stickers for those reading less and small ones for those high volume readers linke they have for millitary medals.
    What an opportunity for the counterfeiting industry!

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  8. thorn

    “According to their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net (but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.”

    oh dear. they are indeed dumb as a sackful of hammers. if we the (e, and other) book-people don’t mock them roundly, i fear we may risk being tainted by ruboff from this industry that wears its ignorance on its shirtsleeve.

    seriously. it is absolutely true that people identify and are identified, not only with the objects they use, but by extension, with the industries that produce those objects. i certainly wouldn’t align MYself with recalcitrant stupidity. this reminds me of the early days of aeg, when electrical appliances were made to look like their non-electrical analogs. but aeg had an excuse for this limited vision, because IT WAS THE 19TH CENTURY.

  9. Elizabeth G.

    I suppose a list of your favorite books on your facebook page will have to suffice as a status symbol…naturally all linked to Amazon or itunes.

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  13. Johan HO

    It seems like the read and listen function recently added to facebook can help people to show off what they are listening to and reading. Can it substitute some of the need to show off ?

  14. GG

    Interesting. I’d like to see a version where an e-book reader was able to display the front covers of (say) the nine nearest book-chips, and allow the cover to be finger-tapped to select it. No need to pull the display off the wall, just wave the reader near the book you want and confirm.

    (Of course, this would be for models which could only hold one book at a time in memory… not really much point to it if it already has nineteen thousand titles stored and ready.)

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