How Vanity Fair does eBooks right

by Matthew Cavnar on

Yesterday I was thinking about books in video games, today I'm reading about books in books, how we make books, how some people write them. The book in question: Vanity Fair’s How A Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding, by Keith Gessen.

If the title looks unwieldly, for an eBook it’s aces. With digital, only a limited number of words show up on a reader’s screen, in a storefront or in a search result. Putting Vanity Fair first plays to the most eye-catching brand association, while the descriptive title is intriguing and straight forward. As for the aesthetic of the image itself, the cover shows up excellently in the Kindle Singles store. It looks sharp and eye-catching and authoritative; which can be difficult to pull off with digital's little pixels.

The single’s about how Gessen’s friend, Chad Harbach, wrote this year’s literary hit the Art of Fielding, the book’s arduous path to publication and how it was sold to the public. It reads like one of those John McPhee essays on river barges or the nation of Switzerland—focused on detail, skill and method, with an eye for the characters who have an expertise in each step of the narrative. As for the book within a book, the Art of Fielding contains segments from a fictional philosphical guide of the same name. So Gessen's writing a magazine piece that's become a book about how a book with a book inside of it is turned into an actual, physical, real book; and what that process might be like in the future.

Anyone interested in digital publishing should read the essay and the novel—for my tl;dr blog take I want to point out what a particularly sharp example of digital publishing this is. Gessen’s essay on books is now a book I’m reading and enjoying just as I do Michael Lewis’s Boomerang.  It's rich, smart, and absolutely worth what I would pay to watch an episode of the Office on iTunes.

Vanity Fair is setting an example for magazine publishing about how to turn great stories into items you can sell. Magazines seem to be so focused on the app environment, but that's not the only solution. Other magazines have published Kindle Singles, but this particularly self-reflexive exercise, complete with clever branding, is a best-in-class example. It points the way to the future. One could say it lets the path of publishing become its own path — to manglingly appropriate Harbach.  Apps are pretty and gorgeous and Newsstand is an excellent innovation. But don’t forget what Graydon Carter writes in his introduction, “What doesn’t appear to be up for grabs are the old-fashioned virtues of craft and quality. They still count for something. Actually, they count for everything.”

eBooks may lack the gee-whiz of apps—but they put the craft and quality and fineness of words first. As an eBook, Gessen’s essay is now something I can pay for. It's a product. It does what Gessen makes clear books have to do: generate revenue. If John Locke is making a living selling well done thrillers at 99 cents, there’s no reason others can’t take a stab at paying the rent with bookish essays on the crannies and complications of culture.

A note to Gessen though—Carter’s listed as the author in my Kindle Reader. This is truly exceptional clever branding.

Buy the single here.

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