Matters of form, Julia Marshall

Julia Marshall of Gecko Press wonders about the future of the book as artefact. 

Recently, Frances, in charge of Gecko Press accounts, went to get her daily coffee at The Jimmy in Wellington and was asked where she worked. On her reply, the person serving her said, “Your books have such nice paper!”

We do try to use nice paper, and all our printed books – except for board books – are stitched, not glued. We mostly add French flaps to our paperbacks, ostensibly to protect the corners but also so the book feels a bit more solid in the hand. The marketing department (Jane and I) always says yes to details such as a fridge on the cover being made shiny, or the contrast of a glossy title against a matt background. I always liked maps in a book as a child, and we add them when we think they have a place. We prefer matt laminate on our covers because it feels soft and silky. On our hardbacks, we now mostly add dust jackets, and sometimes there will be a small “surprise” underneath the jacket or a flap.

Somehow this relates to making a good book, one that will stand up to many rereads and be a pleasure to own at many levels. That, I suppose, is artefact kind of thinking.

But it is really the content of the book that matters. A good book can be let down by its trappings, but still remain a good book. A dull book will not become a good book, regardless of the fineness of the paper it is printed on. I do love the smell and feel of a beautiful book, but it is the ideas and the images and the stories inside that are most important.

A couple of years ago, my father, who turns 80 this month, wanted to know what Gecko Press was planning to do with digital books. “I think,” he said, “you would be unwise to ignore the rate of change.”

Some days we at Gecko Press absolutely want to ignore the rate of change, and on others, we embrace it wholeheartedly. We are now embarked on digital production, so that every novel will be available in e-book format, as well as most of our picture books. We might even produce some books only in digital format, if that works best.

It would be safe to say that we don’t really know what we are doing, but we feel much better now that we are doing something. We like that at least we think we know what we want to do. And we have the certainty of knowing that doing something is better than nothing.

Good digital production seems to us at the moment harder to achieve, at least for picture books. Our job is to find a digital format we can afford to produce, which will allow the book to be a pleasure to read on the screen and a pleasure to reread. With our e-books, we are aiming for simple but elegant productions – the same aims as with our printed books. (That might make our digital books artefacts too, according to the “made by hand” definition.)

But there are different kinds of digital. At the moment an app can cost a lot of money – around $20,000 minimum, easily running up to $100,000. We won’t be doing many of those.

But in the last six months or so, other more economical formats have become available, and with these we think we can preserve the spirit of the picture book. We would like our digital picture books – novels are not a problem, as they work very well on black and white e-readers – to still keep the special relationship between words and pictures, with the pace and surprise and rhythm that make a good picture book remaining constant – unless there is good reason to divert.

We still want to produce stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. We would like the experience of reading a Gecko Press digital book to be similar to that of reading a print book – with attention to detail and high-quality images and production. We will also be working on digital options from the moment we start thinking about a book, and not when it is ready to go to print.

We think all this is possible, but obviously we have a lot to learn – and probably a lot of money to spend. It is certainly a myth that digital comes cheap.

Printed picture books, I believe, have a few more years in them, but they won’t last forever, especially when someone comes up with a nice bendy paper-like device that is pleasant for the eye and fine for showing pictures on. I would like something children can snuggle up with. I’m sure it will come.

I don’t know what my own behaviour will be with regard to books as physical objects, or artefacts, in the next five years. I don’t know what my options will be or those of children reading our books.

We will try to be nimble and sensible and good at what we do. We have to be open to what is possible, and remain true to good storytelling and good production in whatever format works best. If we didn’t become digital we would probably find ourselves relegated to the position of the dinosaur. But probably we will have a few of those artefacts on our shelves to read whenever the mood takes us.


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