Salon Magazine has republished an Imprint review of a book about two men who revolutionized the paperback publishing age back in the 1960s. The Electric Information Age Book is about publisher Jerome Agel and designer Quentin Fiore’s bold experiment in making paperback books that were more than just flimsy versions of hardcovers.
Agel aimed to produce paperback books that best represented and conveyed the media realities of the era. The radical use of text, typography and illustrations challenged the traditional expectations of how the pages of a book could be presented to readers. The opportunity that Agel recognized was in how media culture, as mediated through the popularity of film and television, could be explored, employed and exploited to make an event of a newly published book, turning it into a media spectacle.
After communication theorist Marshall McLuhan said kind things about their first book, Agel and Fiore approached McLuhan with a proposal for The Medium is the Massage, a book pairing quotes from McLuhan’s prior works with suitable images. Combined with Agel’s promotional abilities, the book was a big hit, and others followed.
The article gets a little deep philosophically for me at times, but one thing that stands out is a rumination on what some of McLuhan’s observations should mean for the e-book of today:
In a 1967 letter, McLuhan wrote, “Every new technology creates a new environment that alters the perceptual life of the entire population.” This is true. But why hasn’t this maxim found purchase in publishing today? The potential for e-books is staggering though that potential remains disappointingly unrealized. The presentation of content and the form of books, whether printed or digital, remain, for the most part, the same as ever. Social networking has reconfigured elements of promoting books to an extent, but no book trailer or Twitter trend has ever generated as much interest in a book as when this past October FSG paid for a Times Square billboard to promote Jeffery Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot.”
It also makes the case that one important difference between the way Agel and Fiore worked and the way publishers today work is that all their attention was on the reader, whereas today’s publishers have their minds solely on selling books—and if readers “happen to actually read the book, that’s a bonus.”
I haven’t read either The Electric Information Age or The Medium is the Massage, so I can’t really say what relevance the experimental design of the paperback book might have to today’s books. It seems to me there’s a lot of difference in purpose between an experimental book that pairs quotations with visual imagery and a prose novel meant to convey a story. Of course, there’s plenty of room for both kinds of book in today’s world.