Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


xkcd Goes to Print

Wait, what?

Spurning recent trends in the reverse, web comic creator Randall Munroe will be publishing a print version of xkcd.

His decision-making processes little resemble “traditional” publishing. From the New York Times:

The print xkcd book is not being published through a traditional company but rather by breadpig — which was created by Alexis Ohanian, one of the founders of the social-news Web site reddit. The site has sold high-concept merchandise like refrigerator magnets or T-shirts, but never a book. (Its profits go to the charity Room to Read.).

“We never made any projection — 10,000 seems like a good run,” Mr. Ohanian said, adding that this lack of research “is laughable from the perspective of anyone who knows the book industry. It’s what makes sense.”

The book — with the working title “xkcd,” though Mr. Ohanian says it may carry a subtitle like “a book of romance, sarcasm, math and language” — will not initially be sold in bookstores, and probably never in the big chains. Instead, it will be sold through the xkcd Web site.

Here’s what fascinates me most about the articles comments, which I believe are increasingly true:

In fact, the xkcd story previews the much more likely future of books in which they are prized as artifacts, not as mechanisms for delivering written material to readers. This is print book as vinyl record — admired for its look and feel, its cover art, and relative permanence — but not so much for convenience.

Are we seeing a triumph of form over function? When it comes to print material, perhaps. Whenever the “print will never die” argument comes up, it often turns to nostalgia, with an emphasis on the tactile and the overall aesthetic of a book-powerful forces not to be underestimated. We know that other hurdles (easy-to-read text, portability, expense, battery life, fragility of e-readers) will be overcome. Publishers take note! Another lesson here, when re-packaging something familiar, you can improve upon the content when producing a product. We publish projects like this at Cambridge: take The Beagle Letters. The book is beautiful, and a joy to read, even if you can find the letters elsewhere.

Oh, and by the by, it’s all Creative Commons — photocopy it all you want.

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