Content not container

Content not container: The standalone importance of content

Papyrus scrolls

The first ever book was written on a piece of bark, or maybe a leaf. It had to be. The papermaking process was officially described for the first time by the Chinese in AD 105. But the words have been pouring forth since 3000 BC in Egypt first when content was wound around a thick “type of paper” made from the pith of Cyperus papyrus.

The blog post Ancient Egyptian Medicine tells us, “The Edwin Smith Papyrus is a textbook on surgery and details anatomical observations and the “examination, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis” of numerous ailments It was probably written around 1600 BC… Medical information in it dates from as early as 3000 BC. Imhotep in the 3rd dynasty is credited as the original author of the papyrus text, and founder of ancient Egyptian medicine. The earliest known surgery was performed in Egypt around 2750 BC.”

The pictorial cuneiform language must have been a challenge to read and master, but the preparation of the “container” to carry the language must have been an even bigger obstacle. Imagine hunting for the wetland sedge (easier if you live by the Nile, considering the plant grows freely around the river), removing the outer stem, extricating the inner fibrous pith, cutting it out into two layers of strips, laying them at right angles to each other, gluing them, drying them, and finally, being able to write on them. Manual labour at its earnest! Now imagine inscribing complex medical texts on these scrolls. Paper might not have been an option but that didn’t stop Imhotep’s medical assistants from saving Egyptian lives.

While Imhotep’s papyrus forms the basis of modern medicine and surgery, the carrier of the texts have evolved into thick tomes of parchment, first created from mulberry bark by Tsai Lun of China in 105 AD and mass-produced since Gutenberg’s Bible in 15th century AD.

Content not container: Words stay the same, the container evolves

Vellum parchments

Marcus Tullius Cicero—the Roman philosopher, lawyer, and orator—wrote a letter titled de Officiis, earnestly explaining what it meant to live an idealistic life, and which path to choose when the “honourable and the expedient conflict”. Written to his son, his words laid the foundation for moral public behaviour, even though it failed to revive the republican system or prevent the assassination of Julius Caesar—shortly after which, Cicero himself was assassinated. As Alexandra Suich elaborates in The Future of The Book, “Cicero probably dictated his letter to his slave, who wrote it down and made subsequent copies. De Officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall. It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire. ‘No one will ever write anything more wise,’ he said. The book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis.”

“A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day. Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine. It was printed in Mainz, Germany, on a printing press owned by Johann Fust, an early partner of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of European printing. It is dated 1466. Some 500 years after it was printed, this beautiful volume sits in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, its home since 1916.” (The Future of The Book)

While the printed forms have seen paperbacks as well as hard covers, now some non-printed forms are available too. “You can read it free online or download it as an e-book in English, Latin, and any number of other tongues.” (The Future of The Book)

Content not container: Allen Lane’s Penguincubator


In 15th century Venice, the highest paid jobs were scribal jobs in the Vatican. With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, as Richard Nash points out in Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots, “it eliminated the writer as copyist — in the words of an historian of the time, ‘the writer as trained scribal laborer.’” But it also began as era of bulk-produced content that could reach the masses. It was about delivery of content to ensure the spread of literacy. Allen Lane’s Penguincubator is a revolutionary example of taking the same even further.

Who cared how the container looked as long as it reached everybody? “Allen Lane (British publisher and founder of Penguin Books in 1935) wanted books to be cheap and convenient. The vending machine was what allowed him to put books cheaply onto railway platforms, into the squares, near buildings — not to draw the consumer to where the books were, but to put the books where the consumers were.” (Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots)

That was the era of paperbacks. And they were cool. When hardcovers came by, paperbacks became “cheap”. These days books come out in hardcovers before the “lighter, cheaper paperback edition” can hit the market. Why? And what does this have to do with content?

Nothing, apparently.

C.C. in his article titled Why books come out in hardback before paperback elucidates, “The paperback was pioneered in the 19th century and became popular in continental Europe. It took off in Britain and America in the 1930s, when publishers such as Penguin and New American Library began mass-producing cheap but well-designed reproductions of older texts, aimed at a new generation of readers who could not afford hardbacks. During the Second World War, interest in reading as a pastime increased just as paper shortages demanded more efficient methods of printing. The paperback was the solution.”


These days if a book is supposed to sell well, a hardcover to it is what a cinema ticket is to a film. If you want to watch the latest movie, hit the theatre. The DVD comes out several months later. Similarly, the book has to be bought in hardcover and one has to shell out the extra bucks. “And they hold a certain snob value, too: literary editors traditionally don’t review paperbacks. Once hardback sales have slowed, a paperback edition is released. Some publishers time their hardback editions to come out just before Christmas, eyeing the gift market, before publishing the paperback edition in time for the summer holidays.” (Why books come out in hardback before paperback )

Dust jackets of hardcovers hold aesthetic appeal. They are prized by modern book collectors—in fact, ninety per cent of a hard cover’s value lies in the dust jacket. These are brilliant examples of craftsmanship—choosing the superior cloth bind (collectors’ editions boast of leather or silk), decorative borders, and displaying beautiful end papers of an equally expensive quality.

The blog post The History of Dust Jacket describes, “A striking jacket design would be more likely to grab the attention of the book shop browser and could also be used to advertise other books published by the same company.” They are more durable and resistant to wear and tear and therefore preferred by librarians as opposed to the thin paper covers of paperbacks. The winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize “The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, by Richard Flannagan boasted strong, rigid covers, bright red endpapers, and weighed more than half a kilogram, at 464 pages, 22cm in length, dust jacket et al. It also costs $26.95. The paperback edition is lighter, and cheaper. (Why books come out in hardback before paperback)
Some said the slow death of paperback had begun. But paperbacks have proved resilient to hard covers. If any, they are in danger of death from ebooks. If cheap is what matters here, ebooks are even more cost-effective.

In all this endless debate, nobody mentioned content because content remained the same. The Narrow Road to the Deep North has had takers in hard cover as well as paperback. In fact, the paperback version has sold more simply because of the monetary savings it offered while the hard cover has been a luxury item. The book’s contents, however, was, is, and will always be a harrowing tale of Australian prisoners of war in Burma.
The carrier evolved further—from papyrus to parchment to paperback to hardcover.

Content not container: The pinnacle

Ebooks and the next step in industrial revolution

What is a digital book?
An electronic book (variously: e-book, eBook, e-Book, ebook, digital book or e-edition) is a book-publication in digital form, consisting of text, images, or both, readable on computers or other electronic devices.

Suich says in The Future of The Book, “Historically books were a luxury item. Having become cheap enough for the masses in the 20th century, in the 21st century digital technology and global markets have made them more accessible still. In 2013 around 1.4m International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs) were issued, according to Bowker, a research firm, up from around 8,100 in 1960.”

These figures do not take self-publishing into account—a wholly different phenomenon unto its own.

While the ebook revolution has had many fearing the death of the print industry as we know it, “The rise of digital technology—and especially Amazon, a bookshop unlike any seen before—underlined those fears. In the past decade people have been falling over themselves to predict the death of books, of publishers, of authors and of bookshops, even of reading itself. Of all those believed at risk, only the bookshops have actually suffered serious damage.” (The Future of The Book)

In fact, as Richard Nash puts it in Publishing’s Future: When Editors Eat Robots, “Bezos is not destroying the publishing industry. “He represents its pinnacle. Its apotheosis. But, of course, when you reach the pinnacle, you’ve nowhere else to go. So Bezos has also introduced the end of the industrial era of publishing. By introducing the Kindle.”

Ebook vs print

When comparing different forms of technology that have aided the written word, a thick papyrus sheet to a thin but resilient piece of mulberry bark has been a major, evolutionary leap—one that gave rise to revolutions and shaped civilizations around the world. The post-Gutenberg printed forms have mostly been about instituting democracy—educate the masses and give them a voice. The content throughout has remained unquestioned.

One can hardly choose between a papyrus scroll and vellum parchment, considering each was available as the only option of its era. Then again when printing took hold and went through various stages of refinement, the difference between the two major printed forms, namely paperback and hardcover, was mostly about aesthetic appeal. One can hardly argue for or against content when the absence or presence of a dust jacket is the only parameter making a visible difference.

The actual battle began the day the Kindle, and by extension, the ebook reader entered the arena.

Paperless vs paper: Now that is a very big, quantifiable difference and one that has called content readability and accessibility into question. But is it really as bad as they say?

The innovative difference

Baldur Bjarnason makes a living on ebooks. You should hear him talk about “Great text” which “transcends nothing”. The interesting fact about this argument is that Bjarnason emphasizes on the importance of content as a standalone and holds both print and ebooks to their inadequacies. In doing so he further validates the argument that it is content and not container that matters. Every container has its fault: a print can have bad typography, illegible text, the paper can be of poor, “pirated” quality, the design can be off putting. In the same vein, wouldn’t it be fair to say that an ebook reader is yet to explore more in fonts, typography, and readability?

Ebooks as Bjarnason points out look worse than their trade paperback or hardcover counterparts but he also argues that it is simply a natural corollary to the fact that print and digital are two extremely different media to begin with. For example, choices of typography in the ebook might be restricted but that is a conscious decision of ebook makers. In the article Font swap in iBooks, Glenn Fleishman says Apple shipped iBooks for the iPad in 2010 with five font choices: Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times New Roman, and Verdana. The latest iBook version still retains only Times New Roman of that lot with the addition of seven new fonts, six of which are serif and two san serif. Clearly, Apple is still experimenting with its reader.

The important point to remember about ebooks is that they don’t really need a dedicated ebook reader. Kindle sales might be in decline but that’s the advantage of owning an ebook. Its contents are fluid. Any number of devices from tablets to computers to ipads to mobile phones can allow you to read the book that you bought online, sitting, at your desk in a different continent altogether. You don’t have to pack all those books into your bag and lug them across oceans. You can simply store them on your e-shelf or on own your computer with thousands of other files. The underlying point here is that irrespective of the device, you get the same content.

Fiction readers

According to the article Romantic Fiction’s Passion for eBooks, by Alison Flood, “Romance might have a fusty, old-fashioned image – crinolines and waltzes, tycoons and secretaries – but it seems her match with digital publishing was made in heaven. Mainstream imprint Ebury, part of one of the UK’s largest publishing conglomerates Random House, certainly thinks so, and is plunging headfirst into digital romance with a new list, Rouge Romance.”

If really the smell of a printed page, and the beauty of the typography were to enhance the romance reader’s options, romantic ebooks would not have sold as well. But with genre readers of romance, mystery, thrillers, and so on, two things matter—the content and cheaper alternatives—as they tend to be such voracious readers.

Self-publishing and the importance of content

Then there is the entire self-publishing phenomenon and its global success—made possible only by the digital revolution. As Suich writes in The Future of The Book, “Wool started off as a short story online about a subterranean city called the Silo. Reader enthusiasm and feedback encouraged its author, Hugh Howey, to extend it into a novel. More enthusiasm followed. Simon & Schuster, a big publisher, did an unusual deal to license rights to the print book, while Mr Howey continued to sell the e-book off his own bat. It became a bestseller.” If this had to be about the content, one of the two forms would have outsold the other but both forms sold very well and Ridley Scott seems to be in on the fact, now—Wool is on its way to becoming a big budgeted feature film!

“Like Wool, E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey” started off online, and some of its e-book success has been attributed to the fact that reading erotica is more discreetly done on a tablet. But since being acquired by Random House it has done remarkably well in its printed form, too. All told, it and its two sequels have chalked up sales of over 100m worldwide.” (The Future of The Book)

Content not container: Enhancing content


So far I have made an argument for the standalone importance of content, irrespective of the carrier. But the appealing fact about technology is that it is constantly evolving. The evolution that I am talking about here takes into account the importance of content again, irrespective of the form, thus enhancing it.

Welcome to audiobooks

“Of the various ways in which technology is expanding what a book can be, one of the most successful so far has been to add to books something that children have enjoyed forever, and that most people required until the 20th century: another person to do the reading. The cost of recording audiobooks has fallen from around $25,000 in the late 1990s to around $2,000-3,000 today, says Donald Katz of Audible, an audiobook firm owned by Amazon.” (The Future of The Book)

Audiobooks have changed the way content is viewed. Instead of turning pages—print or digital—one gets to plug the book in, sit back, and let their auditory canals process the magic. One could tune in during the long hours of commute and feel the satisfaction as they, literally speaking, hear the words pouring forth. In fact, taking it a step further, a study was conducted to determine “the impact of the use of audiobooks with struggling readers in a school library audiobook club.”

“The primary goal of this study was to answer the research questions 1) Do the use of audiobooks and participation in an audiobook club impact the reading ability of struggling readers? 2) Do the use of audiobooks and participation in an audiobook club impact struggling readers’ attitudes toward reading? both research questions led the researchers to proclaim the use of audiobooks with struggling readers a success. The success of this research project is significant given the broad use of audiobooks in literacy and library programs across the United States. Teachers and school librarians may also use these findings as a rationale for adding audiobooks to the list of reading strategies used successfully with struggling readers.” (Use of Audiobooks in a School Library and Positive Effects of Struggling Readers’ Participation in a Library-Sponsored Audiobook Club)

Finally, let us talk about Spritz.

“Spritz is an application which beams words to a reader one at a time. Like a treadmill, readers can set their own speed and read more quickly, because their eyes can stay in one place instead of scanning a page. Its most immediate application is to allow longish texts to be read on smallish screens, such as those of watches.” (The Future of The Book)

Imagine consuming whole books this way. While those who care about content, read on “beam by beam”, fusspots gripe about the carrier—as usual!

Content not container: Conclusion

The experiments will continue. The efforts in improving technology have been and will always be tireless. Carriers of the written word will continue to evolve. Innovations would abound and reading devices would become more diverse. But that said, the one aspect which would remain constant would be content. In fact, the one aspect for which all these efforts would be made would be content—and not because a certain type of device would be superior to the other types but simply so that a reader could have a choice.

The constant evolution has never been about the form or type of device, it has always been about choice—and one that a reader rightly deserves. It is my prerogative if I wish to pick up the paperback or the hardcover or the ebook or even the audiobook of Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue. The fact remains that it will always be a well-crafted suspense and a fitting conclusion to a trilogy as told by a master storyteller.

3 Replies to “Content not container”

  1. Susmita’s essay “Content Not Container” begins with an interesting look at the deep history of publishing, and zooms forward to the present day and reading apps like Spritz. It is an extensive look at the different reading forms over hundreds – maybe thousands? – of years and how they have changed, yet the content has stayed the same. I think that while it’s an interesting argument, there are a few ways in which the paper might have been improved.

    The paper is perhaps trying to be too extensive, in that it is taking on too much without going into enough nuanced detail about each form. I would have liked to have read a more fleshed out discussion on hardcovers and paper backs in relation to ebooks and how the forms relate to the content. I thought that the discussion on audiobooks and Spritz at the end, while interesting, felt tacked on. Overall, it seems the paper should have been a lot longer, with much more discussion, or could have been trimmed to remove the parts that didn’t add to the argument.

    I also somewhat disagree that content hasn’t changed and that the content doesn’t inform the shape of the “container,” and vice versa. Pulp paperbacks were created for portability, and because the content (largely mystery titles, romances, crime fiction, etc) were considered too “lowbrow” to be published as hardcover books. Ebooks have also interestingly followed this pattern, as the highest selling ebooks are still similar types of titles as the pulp paperbacks. There is also something to be said for the intention behind publishing a book as a hardcover versus a paperback, or other forms that the author here mentioned: a book published as a hardcover indicates that it is something that is meant to last. Paperbacks fall apart, and thus the content often reflects its ephemeral qualities. The paper discussed types of reading “containers,” but I think it could have benefited from more discussion of types of content and how that content has or hasn’t changed, how it relates to the form in which it is placed, etc. The discussions on elements of style of the content – the typography, the paper used, etc. – felt like an extension of the discussion of the container rather than a discussion of the actual content: elements of style are almost parts of the paratext of a book, informing the reader what the tone and feeling of the book is, much like the way a cover or a dust jacket functions. When we talk about content, do we mean the story, the text, the images, all of the above? This could have been defined more clearly.

    I think with a statement like “the one aspect which would remain constant would be content” there needs to be a lot to back it up. While a provocative thought, it doesn’t hold much weight unless there is a lot of detailed reasons and examples why this is true. We have seen that content on the web is shorter – and styled and written differently – than for print; the content is different. It would have been interesting to have more of a discussion of this kind of content evolution and how it has affected how we read.

    That being said, I agree with the author that quality of content is still king, as they say, which I think is her main point here. The container is still there, more or less, to hold the content, but a more nuanced argument would have strengthened this point.

  2. This is a great essay Susmita. I enjoyed the level of detail you’ve put into it as it’s important to go back right at the beginning when it comes to talking about paper. I did have some knowledge about papyruses, but your essay has put in context the info I was missing.

    Another finding that I found interesting was that the scribal jobs in Vatican were the most paid. I was wondering why, might it be because the majority of people were illiterate, and didn’t know how to read and write? Or was it because the scribal jobs were very demanding, and required the scribal writers to sit in the same position for hours without end?

    ‘Every container has its fault: a print can have bad typography, illegible text, the paper can be of poor, “pirated” quality, the design can be off putting.’ This is a very true statement. Publishers have been focusing on being concerned about the future of the traditional container, that is the print book. They have been complaining that ebooks require a lot of additional work, they are required to train current staff new skills, and even to hire new staff. The prediction that ebook sales will surpass print sales was not well received by publishers and some readers, and this prediction raised the fear that the traditional book will be replaced by ebooks and it will soon become a museum piece.

    The 2014 FutureBook Hackaton that took place in London (an event that has everything to do with books and computer programming and technology) concluded with the fact that the book is slowly but surely changing, however, the book will still remain a book. The conclusion from the 2014 FutureBook Hackaton is on the same note with your conclusion Susmita, that carriers of the written word will continue to evolve and it will see a lot on innovation. The content however, is the important piece in the book, because is the book does not have good content will definitely not sell. I think your point about the choice that the reader should be entitled to have is very important, it remains at the reader’s attitude if they enjoy to do the reading of their favourite book on their eReader, or their beautifully bound hardcover. Publishers should embrace technology and learn how to use it to their advantage. They should use technology in order to create new innovative products and impress their readers with them.

  3. This essay has a clear thesis around the relationship between the content and the container. The first 2/3rd of the essay offer a nice historical account that drive home the point that containers have always been changing, and, even though I felt each section was disjointed and sometimes gave too much detail, were successful at illustrating this point. The latter third of the essay continues to go through different aspects (e.g., a genre, a format) but their connection to the thesis is less clear, or immediately evident. I think the same content an idea (both of which are good), reorganized and with some more scaffolding, could have been very effective.

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