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Extraordinary Piece on the Future (and Past) of Digital Books

Over on Ars Technica, John Siracusa revisits the history of the ebook, and explains why he thinks there’s very much a future in digital reading:

If you remain unconvinced, here’s one final exercise, in the grand tradition of a particular family of Internet analogies. Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word “horse” for “book” and the word “car” for “e-book.” Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.

“Books will never go away.” True! Horses have not gone away either.

“Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome.” True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don’t go everywhere, nor should they.

“Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can’t match.” True! Cars just can’t match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn’t. I’m sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a “horseless carriage”–and they never did! And then they died.

Siracusa goes on to eloquently elucidate why this market is extremely attractive for a publisher:

What are the publisher’s costs for this deal? Well, there may be a one-time, fixed cost to prepare a digital incarnation of the book to hand over to the e-book seller. But the publisher probably already has such a thing, e.g., for use in the editing process prior to traditional print publishing. In fact, these days, most authors produce the original work in digital form to begin with.

Let’s see, what else? Um, that’s it. The publisher hands over a file. Then, every month, a check arrives from the e-book seller. There is no additional cost to the publisher per unit sold. There are no printing costs, no warehousing, no trucks or planes to deliver merchandise. There’s no forecast of demand, with the accompanying dire consequences of unsold inventory or unrealized income if the predictions are wrong one direction or the other. There’s no tracking of and accounting for unsold books, no retailers cutting the covers off of paperbacks and shipping them back to the publisher as proof of their destruction. (These days, an affidavit is accepted as proof of the books’ destruction, which is only slightly less wasteful and absurd.)

In short, the terms are unbelievably favorable for publishers. It essentially moves them from print publishing margins to software publishing margins: pay once for the creation of the content, sell an infinite number of times with no additional per-unit cost.

The full post is lengthy, but well worth a full read.

(And of course ebooks and digital publishing will be a big part of the program at next week’s TOC Conference in New York. If you haven’t signed up yet, register today while there’s still space left.)

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Comments: 3

  1. Here’s a link to another, somewhat different, take on the history/development of e-books. (Full disclosure: I wrote the piece.)

  2. ted-

    your piece was very interesting. (kind of long in the middle —
    i woulda liked it if you would have covered the same territory,
    but at a much faster pace — but you _do_ tie it in at the end.)

    from the perspective you take on the e-book, i think you did
    an excellent job of showing that it has quite a long history…

    this is something i’d never thought about, so i do appreciate
    the fact that you’ve given us a new slant on electronic-books.

    i have the gnawing feeling, however, that you miss something.

    the e-book is indeed an exercise in miniaturization, to be sure.
    and if that was all that it is, your piece would be very impressive.

    but that’s not all that an electronic-book is. not by a long shot.

    there are two _other_ components which are far more important.

    first, an e-book is _digital_, meaning that its reproduction is
    _virtually_cost_free_. miniaturization by itself, especially in the
    historic context in which you frame it, was probably expensive.
    moreover, the unit cost of the effort likely remained very high.
    e-books are different, since reproduction costs approach zero.
    (and even fixed cost is lower, so books are now “born digital”.)

    second, an e-book can also be _distributed_ at virtually no cost,
    on a global basis no less, which is truly a phenomenal benefit…

    in addition, the _interaction_ of these two components becomes
    a third component whose synergy makes them _more_ valuable.

    if we had free reproduction, but still had to pay for distribution,
    that would be a horse of a different color. and likewise if we had
    free distribution, but there were still big costs for reproduction.
    both of those scenarios would be improvements, but not as big.

    but with _both_ reproduction _and_ distribution virtually _free_
    — with costs literally too cheap to meter — we’ve been given
    a _tremendous_gift_ by the gods, who would clearly punish us
    very severely if we were to ignore or squander this valuable gift.

    what your essay does not contemplate then, ted, is the fact that
    e-books happen in an infrastructure of global communication…
    this computer-mediated _communication_ is what is important.

    on a technical plane, your essay is fascinating, and revealing.

    but it is the social plane — and the philosophical aspects —
    which make e-books so captivating at this point in our time,
    at this point in our ongoing development as “homo sapiens”.

    “sapiens” means “wise”, and books are one of the tools that
    we have used to sharpen the pointed stick of our “wisdom”.

    we now have the opportunity — smacked upside our head —
    to provide every person on the planet with a cyberlibrary that
    contains _every_book_ in every physical library on the planet,
    and at virtually _zero_cost_… are we smart enough to do it?


  3. Good piece. Digital reading is inevitable. However, the real issue for publishing is not: “to ebook or not to ebook.” It’s readership.

    40% of adult Americans can’t read above an 8th grade level; half of these can’t read above the 3rd grade level. One out of three kids drop out of school every year. The average American reads less than 4 books a year. Publishing’s customer base is a small percentage of the available population–and it’s getting smaller.

    Digital reading must be developed and positioned as part of the solution to the ever-decreasing reader pool, or increased profits and ease of use will get trumped by people who can’t, don’t, or won’t read, regardless of format.