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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