They Keep Using That Word

The word “real” gets tossed around a lot when people compare physical objects and digital ones. That’s fine for casual conversation, but when publishers use that kind of sloppy language it reveals serious flaws in how they think about their products and businesses.

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Colloquially, “real” implies something genuine, legitimate, honest; a desirable and trustworthy thing. When publishers describe their print products as “real,” they’re granting physical objects a heavy dose of primacy and authenticity. It reveals a mindset that often leads them to treat print artifacts as canon and implicitly diminish the value of other options. Yet despite objections to the contrary, digital objects, services, and interactions are no less “real” than physical ones.

Take a look at the following samples from actual product discussions and marketing (emphasis mine):

“…and then we ship you a real magazine…”

“…it flips just like real pages…”

“…it lets you print real photos from your Instagram feed…”

No, sorry. A printed book and an ebook are both real books. A digital photograph and one made out of silver nitrate are both real photographs. Both forms convey the essential content of the thing. Physicality isn’t the sole prerequisite of existence. (I’ll spare you the Descartes.)

What we do with technology and the internet during the course of our daily lives is most definitely a very real part of our absolutely, unquestionably real lives. This thing you and I are doing right here? Exchanging ideas via the written word in a digital format? That’s real. It’s happening. Is this real life? Why yes, David, it most certainly is.

It’s easy to see why digital winds up with the short end of this stick so often. It’s a relatively new medium; one we’re still tinkering with, trying to find out what works and what doesn’t. Because of that, we find ourselves taking cues from the older, more venerated medium.

But we need to dedicate ourselves to grappling with digital on its own terms. We need to push ourselves into that phase of its history where we focus on maturing the features and values that are unique to it. Getting to that point starts with how we talk about these things. Clearing out the sloppy language so we can see it for what it really is.

Now, here’s the thing when it comes to publishing and the friction between ebooks and print: it’s a red herring. Neither should be primary. They are both manifestations of content. They are things content gets poured into, formatted for, and presented in. It’s the content itself—not the ink on the paper, the pixels on the screen, or the shape of the object—that publishers should be building on as their foundation.

And publishers really, really need to get to the point where they can do that. If they’re still thinking of one format as “real,” as the primary one, they’re doing a disservice to all the other equally important parts of their businesses. They’re not thinking about putting adequate technical, design, and business resources against them. They’re not thinking about pricing them correctly or integrating them into their overall business. They’re falling short.

Digital products deserve just as much love, care, and attention as print ones, and underlying that is the need to prepare content for use across all formats, current and future. A few decades ago digital wasn’t even a thing. Wonder what the next few decades will bring? What comes after mobile? Danged if I know. We can be prepared, but getting there will be that much harder if we keep using language that exalts one format at the expense of all the others.

For publishers, it’s time to start getting real.

12 Reader Comments

  1. Superb article and so true. Myself and a visually impaired friend were talking to a publisher (or representative of…) in London about how I’d transformed a few sections of a travel book of theirs into an interactive talking book with background sound files recorded at the locations the book covers and how such a product, as a downloadable app for instance, could open up a whole new market for them. Such a product would be such a bonus for not only the visually impaired but for those who’d prefer not to travel around with heaps of heavy paperback and for whom natural sounds can add to the lure of a site and open up a whole new world. All we got was ‘oh, but we focus on real books’. Ach well, their loss could be a gain for small scale dynamic independent publishers who have the insight and the skills to tap into new markets… and work on a slightly less conventional business model.

  2. Excellent Article.

    Another interesting implication of the use of “real” is when it accompanies the concept of “time.” I once read an interesting short essay by Jessica Hefland called “The myth of real time” – in which she talked about how the digital concept of “real time” became equated with “fast.” Doing something in “real time” in digital environments is of course desired (for one reason or another).

    There is an irony to it…in actual “real” life, most things worth doing take time…cooking takes time…lab work takes time…yet with the digital we dismiss such notions, so much now that we barely use the term “real time” anymore. It’s a given and expected.

  3. @Peter Jeffels: That is staggering, and a perfect (unfortunate) example of a publisher totally missing out because they’re stuck in the language and mindset the column critiques. I hope you were able to present that idea to a more progressive group. It needs to be done!

  4. I use the word actual. As in actual book. A book is an object. Digital devices are objects. An ebook is different from an actual book. There are distinctions between the forms and the business models. Hence the tumult in the publishing industry.

  5. One thing that makes ebooks not real is the ability for somebody else to arbitrarily remove your ability to read it. Or prevent you from loaning it out or reselling it.

  6. Part of the issue with physical media companies is that they offer an “integrated” experience, ala Apple. Someone has to write 2000 words so that it will fit in the page design of the paper. Everything, from the ink on photos to the widths of columns and the words on the page are all highly optimised for this process.

    Their problem is, the process is failing. However, they don’t want to give up the optimisation. If they did, they’d just be bloggers, and journalists are better than that.

    If I can paint a parallel, it’s the same as the old telecommunications engineers. They keep talking about quality of service, optimising channels, etc. because that’s what they’re used to. That’s the “real” in their “real job”. All these flaming kids with their internet phones don’t understand the care and attention that needs to go into a phone network. The problem is, you’re asking these people to throw away 20 odd years of their understanding of the world in order to embrace the new one.

    How do you tell all these media guys that everything they’ve learnt is now worthless?

    If I may paraphrase Grandpa Simpson: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me, and it’ll happen to you, too”

  7. Thanks. As a web designer/coder by day and knitter/crafter/seamstress by night, I’m sometimes disappointed that my chosen career relies so much on digital (read “virtual”) media. When I can see and feel the sweater I spent hours on in my hands, and then think that the other products I make are experienced only through internet connections, battery power or electricity on demand, dependent on a user’s browser, monitor, CPU speed… It ends up feeling so very fake, un-‘real’, and imaginary. If catastrophe (an EMP?) struck and we lost all power or data connections, I’d lose even the record of my life’s work to date. I wish there were more encouragement that the digital world is as real as the physical one, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to match that tactile impression of value that physical objects have.

  8. @Sarah: It’s common to see cultural critics link an object’s physicality to a perception that it’s somehow “lasting”. But there are ways to preserve digital content so it endures. This is still a relatively new field, so those options aren’t fully mature, nor are we universally comfortable with them yet.

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