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"He not busy being born is busy dying"

I found myself quoting that great Bob Dylan line the other day on a mailing list for those dealing with the changes sweeping through the publishing industry. Michael Coffey from Publisher’s Weekly wrote an eloquent and moving lament that expresses the fear of many that the book might be losing its pre-eminent position in the cultural canon. He wrote:

I think one of the perspectives little addressed in this terrific
thread is that of the impact disappearing books might have on the
writer—not the librarian, bookseller, or reader–but the creative
class for whom leaving behind, in their stead, on bookshelves or
libraries of in the collections of their families, a discrete object
that is their creation, [is] a testament to the occcasion of their
having created something out of nothing. This creation of an artifact
might, I would propose, have played an enormous part in our cultural
production over the centuries. To know that there, in a little
dimensional space somewhere are one’s singular compositions– bound
and protected (to some extent) and real–has power. If the book
disappears to a degree that allows us to say, “hey, hasn’t the book
disappeared?–how will culturual production change? Will knowing your
work is in code in some nondimensional space, dark and immaterial
unless accessed by a curious soul, be enough to replace that other
enticement?

Much as I sympathize with Michael’s concern – I love books, make my living publishing them, and live surrounded by them as my constant companions – and despite loving the way he framed the question, I had to take issue with the idea that if books became less important as artifacts and carriers of culture, writers would stop writing:

Given that cultural production is continuing unabated on blogs and YouTube, I don’t think we need to worry about it “disappearing” but you’re right that it will likely change. But who says that the book has ever been the ideal unit of self-expression, or the best tool for expression of ideas?

Michael replied:

I do think centuries of cultures have held that belief–perhaps not that it was the ideal unit, but the best we had. Now, of course, the issue of ease of access has become paramount, and the traditional book has slipped a bit further back from the “ideal.” But it reigned supreme for a long time for good reasons, and its status as an object was part of it. I guess it is our privilege to see how this may work itself out…

Michael makes a really good point, that as we move from books to ebooks, and to other forms of writing – on the web, for mobile devices, and even on evanescent media like mailing lists and twitter – the way we express ourselves will also change. But of course, this is not new. The “modern novel” is only a few hundred years old; poetry was once primarily a spoken art and written down only after the fact. You have only to read an eighteenth century book to realize how much the form has evolved even during the tenure of the printed and bound book. I responded:

Well, for many centuries, the painting played that role in visual arts. It was superseded (for many purposes) by photography. Painting still is practiced, but it’s a niche art. However, visual arts are practiced more widely than ever before, and are appreciated more widely, by more people. Something is lost, but something is gained.

Worth reflecting on: the opening chapters of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) are a lament to the loss of visual literacy – the ability to read the stories told in the sculpture on the walls of a Cathedral – as a result of the rise of reading.

We might also lament the loss of the prodigious feats of memory that were common before literacy was widespread, or the loss of physical skills (horseback riding, shooting, fencing, needlepoint, piano playing) that were once common before the rise of the technologies that made them hobbies rather than necessities.

A great line from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy: “He knew then that history is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do.” Eventually, we all get out of step with the world as the habits of our youth are replaced by the habits of the next generation’s youth.

P.S. Another great novel dealing with this effect is Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. Just as the motorcar ended the days of the horse (the frame of that story), new forms of writing and reading may be ending the days of the modern book. This is a good thing, overall, if we embrace it. We can be vaudeville players sneering at the new moving pictures, or we can go west and become part of the new Hollywood.

Transitions are tough on old industries. But remember that part of why they are tough is that something new is being born. Bob Dylan: “he not busy being born is busy dying.”

Going back to check my facts, I find that it is not an early chapter of Notre Dame de Paris, but later in the book, in a chapter entitled One Shall Destroy The Other, that Victor Hugo explores the relationship of the cathedral and the book:

This thought is full of the foreboding that one power is about to be succeeded by another. “One shall destroy the other;” in other words, the Press shall overthrow the Church.

But underlying this thought — the first and simplest, it is true — there is…the presentiment not merely of the priest, but that of the scholar, the artist; the presentiment that human thought, in changing its form, was about to change its mode of expression ; that the leading idea of each generation would not always be inscribed in the same fashion, with the same material; that the book of stone, so solid and durable, was about to give place to another, still more substantial and durable, — the book of paper. Beneath the archdeacon’s statement, his vague formula, there was another, deeper significance; the thought that one art shall dethrone another, — Printing shall ‘overthrow Architecture.

It’s a brilliant chapter, full of humanity and wisdom. Anyone who is afraid of change, and needs context to accept it, should read it.

As authors and publishers explore the new world of online reading and writing, we need to do more than just translate print books to an electronic screen. We have a future to invent! And the time is now. At the just-concluded Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in Frankfurt, Sara Lloyd of Pan Macmillan drove home the urgency with which publishers need to engage with the grand experiment:

“The new thing is never as good as the old thing, at least right now. Soon, the new thing will be better than the old will be. But if you wait until then it’s going to be too late.”

I have a feeling that this is a lesson not just for publishers, but for our entire culture, as many of the things we’ve taken for granted begin to shift, either because of new inventions, or because of failures of existing systems.

“He not busy being born is busy dying.”

tags:
  • http://traffic.de.com Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

    AFAIK, for about the first 2 centuries after Gutenberg, books were usually treated as a sickness:

    http://www.vbox7.com/play:8b0f5cc9?r=google

    ;D nmw

  • http://www.guerrillascholar.com/cogito Sheldon Greaves

    My primary problem with ebooks is that they are so impermanent. I like the idea that something I’ve written could survive for a few centuries whether carefully kept in an archive or by some accident of preservation.

    Call it cultural vanity or whatever else you like, I’d like later civilizations to have some idea of what we were up to, and in that regard the medium of our documents matters. We know more about the daily workings of the ancient Sumerian palaces than we do about the Court of Charlemagne simply because the former wrote on clay rather than perishable parchment.

    The greater threat to content of ebooks, however, is changing formats. The nature of technological development means that formats change. This is the biggest headache facing today’s archivists who must deal with electronic documents.

    See http://www.sas.org/tcs/weeklyIssues_2007/2007-01-05/feature1/index.html

    So while I have little problem with ebooks right now, it does matter to me that so much will almost certainly be lost a century from now.

  • Mike Lee

    Here, here.. Nothing To Be Said (by Philip Larkin)

    For nations vague as weed,
    For nomads among stones,
    Small-statured cross-faced tribes
    And cobble-close families
    In mill-towns on dark mornings
    Life is slow dying.

    So are their separate ways
    Of building, benediction,
    Measuring love and money
    Ways of slow dying.
    The day spent hunting pig
    Or holding a garden-party,

    Hours giving evidence
    Or birth, advance
    On death equally slowly.
    And saying so to some
    Means nothing; others it leaves
    Nothing to be said.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Sheldon -

    I agree that books aren’t going away any time soon, and will remain important longer than that, and I also agree that preservation is one of the great unsolved challenges of the internet age. (The Internet Archive is a world treasure, and should be treated as such.)

    But preservation, too, is a skill that takes time to learn.

    It’s easy to look at the great libraries of today, and think that books were easily preserved. But all you have to do is look how many copies of some of the first printed books managed to survive. (I think there are 3 copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence.) How many early films were preserved?

    Preservation comes only when a class of cultural artifact is old enough for people to realize that the memories of their youth are being forgotten.

    Even today, there are many books that are, essentially, ephemera. They may be preserved in a few scattered copies somewhere, but while “Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe,” findability helps a lot. Everything from alibris and Amazon to Google Book Search have made books more findable than they were before.

    But yes, in the end, preservation is one of the challenges of ebooks (along with everything else electronic.) Proprietary formats are one of the biggest enemies of preservation, by the way.

  • carl

    your link to Notre Dame de Paris is broken…

  • http://friendfeed.com/badosa Xavier Badosa

    As Clay Shirky would put it:

    “Most of the defenders of current culture don’t even try to explain why it was OK that the printing press destroyed scribal production, but not OK that the internet threatens newsprint, or why a proliferation of new creators and experimentation with new forms was good in 1508 but bad in 2008. It is simply assumed that revolutions in the past were good but those in the future are bad (and of course all of this is painted on the broadest possible social canvas, to hide the “Life was better when I was younger” flavor of the argument.)”

    I think we should avoid the word “ebook” as it suggests it would be business as usual (but electronically). Instead of exploring “the new world of ebooks”, as you put it, we should encourage the exploration of the new world of “digital text”.

    (BTW, the link to *Notre Dame de Paris* is broken.)

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Xavier -

    I should have known that Clay Shirky would already have an eloquent and elegant summation of this point.

    Thanks for the heads up about the broken link. Fixed it. The resulting page points to a Google Book Search result. Click on the first link. (Broken feature of GBS – even though I started reading that page, the link they offer is still a link to the search.)

  • http://www.highwire.org Kristen Fisher Ratan

    Something is always gained and something lost as history marches on. It is perfectly okay, and in fact a good thing, to take note of and mourn what is lost. When the printing press was invented, we lost hand-written books. When books became mass-produced, we lost the original rare, leather-bound edition.

    But what will endure is the idea of a book: a metaphorically-bounded piece of written work. We will preserve that in some form, even if its digital nature makes constant annotations and edits possible.

    And just as we get used to that idea, something else will come along and we’ll be mourning today’s idea of ebooks.

  • http://bradisms.blogspot.com Brad4d

    ..could books just be fingerprints of a teacher on a teaching that should be passed around with more haste than present publishing techniques?

  • http://www.technologyandregulation.com Kevin Coates

    There’s an excellent piece by Philip Greenspun on how the web has changed writing at:

    http://philip.greenspun.com/writing/changed-by-web-and-weblog

    His point is that when publishing was just magazines and books, writing was constrained to be either the length of an article of the length of a book. The web allows shorter and longer versions of both of these, which liberates both the writer and the reader. I have always read voraciously, but I still read more now because of the web than I did ten years ago.

    I am also surprised at how quickly I’ve taken to reading novels on the Kindle. The problems of lock-in constrain my purchasing more than the lack of a physical copy, but I hope that consumer revolt at locked-down copies will do for DRM’d books what it did for DRM’d music.

    Part of me does lament the potential loss of books and bookshelves. My library is a physical history of my thoughts and interests, both personal and professional. You cannot replace this with a folder on your computer; still less the terrible user interface on the Kindle. But I can imagine viewing my electronic library on a large touch screen display, with some version of Delicious Library or Coverflow, browsing the collection, then sending the book I want to a variety of electronic devices, or to an affordable Espresso machine. I value owning books and being able to visualise them, and read them where and when I want; I value the bookshelves less than I expected.

    Writers will always write (I’m writing a law book for the OUP), their role is less affected by technological change. Publishers will be affected far more, and need to change their game in the way that the record labels didn’t. They aren’t distributors of ink on paper, but of expressions of ideas. I suspect that this requires more flexibility in distribution and consumer rights than, say, the Kindle currently provides.

  • Orrwil

    What an inspiring article. Gives a great historical context to the current digital evolution.

    Just one question, how can I archive this post for future reference.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Tim,

    What percentage of readers who buy stuff do you expect to be using an e-book reader as their primary means of consumption in, say, 2015?

    What do you think will be the cost effectiveness of distributed, decentralized print-on-demand hardware in, say, 2015?

    -t

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Tom Lord -

    Re ebook readers:

    Somewhere between zero and a fraction of one percent. I consider dedicated ebook readers to have about the same future as dedicated word processors did when they were all the rage in the late 70s and early 80s.

    General purpose devices will win. Even now, it’s as easy to read books on the iPhone as it is on the Kindle.

    Open formats and standard devices will also evolve faster and provide more options to customers.

    Re distributed print on demand hardware:

    It’s not inconceivable that print on demand hardware will flourish for a while, after a while. Costs will have to come down a long way, though. The manufacturing cost of one-off books is close to the retail price of many any ebook, thus leaving no room for either author, publisher, or retailer to profit.

    There will be some technology to fill this role that is still to be invented.

    Think of film. POD is the equivalent of the old Super-8 camera and film projector, or the 16 mm projectors you found in schools. They democratized the display of movies to some extent. But it was the VCR that really changed the game.

    That game changer is still in the future for “print on demand.”

    I should add that Print on Demand already does play a large role in the back end of the publishing supply chain. You may well have purchased an O’Reilly book that was printed on demand. It’s just unlikely as a successful consumer point of sale device.

  • http://stephaniegerson.weebly.com stephanie gerson

    I understand Mark’s sentiment, and the power he associates with the physical object-ness of books, but how ironically new-fashioned of us to associate reality with physicality.

    is God not real to millions of people, along with the foundation for war, the birth of nation-states, massive charity-giving, and other monumental happenings in human history?

    as new organisms emerge within the publishing ecosystem, existing organisms must adapt.

    perhaps a more tangible analogy might be Alexander Calder adding a new component to one of his mobiles, and observing older components adjust their positions.

    “However, visual arts are practiced more widely than ever before, and are appreciated more widely, by more people.”

    wasn’t it Kevin Kelley that said there are more blakcksmiths now than at any point in history? (ok, there might be less of them relative to other professions, but understandably so, and absolute quanitities still matter.)

    the book will still have a role, though certainly and gratefully (thank you change, for happening!) not the same role it has had historically. and imho we’re the ones who are scared, the book is pretty excited about it ;)

  • http://critique.org/futurepub.ht Andrew Burt

    Hi, Tim, I’ve been watching this evolve for years too, and have seen a number of articles trying to predict where things are heading. I think that while it’s impossible to tell, there are some axioms we can use to formulate plans. I don’t want to be rude and paste a 1500 word article here, so I’ll just note that “Axioms in the Future of Publishing — Planning Tools for Science Fiction Writers” is at http://critique.org/futurepub.ht and may be of interest.

  • http://www.highwire.org Kristen Fisher Ratan

    Kevin,

    I also lament the disappearance of the bookshelf, but now I can see the e-reading lists of friends and family located anywhere in the world. So, in a way, I’m able to browse their bookshelves and keep up with what is interesting them much more easily.

    I think we’re feeling the limitations of the very new – the clumsy Kindle interface, inability to “browse” or visualize a collection of ebooks as easily. All this will likely resolve itself and we’ll hardly know how we lived without it all.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Tim,

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. I figured you would have a good perspective on these things.

    There was a slight misunderstanding – Instead of saying “how many using e-book readers” I would have been clearer if I asked “how many reading e-books”. In other words, I didn’t mean to exclude general purpose devices.

    I’m gonna guess (I’ll bet ya a quarter, if you like) that POD is going to go a lot further, a lot faster than you think. I’ll tell you the basis of my bet. I’ve been looking at things like videos of the guts of Espresso machines and what I see there is that, yeah, those are kinda cool and funky – but they are ultimately very first generation. There is a ton of headroom to make such devices more capable (I’m looking forward to stitched bindings, for example), faster, and cheaper per book. I think they have a huge market in developing countries. At any rate, the current generation is pretty brute force and clunky and it’s only going to get better and as quickly as financing permits. The R&D problems look minor. As those things take off they will start to influence the supply chain – especially better deals on ink and better form factors and prices on paper. The field is also going to benefit quite a bunch by investment and advances in robotics generally.

    Putting on my wild-eyed optimist hat, I think POD even will play a role in the resurrection of print journalism. Follow me on this, cause it’s right up the alley of some of your themes:

    Stipulate that POD gets good enough and cheap enough to replace the delivery lines to newspaper sellers. Both penetration (newspapers are not available in many places) will improve and…. customizability. Hyper-local, even personalized adds in a local paper, etc.

    There is some kind of hybrid model waiting to unfold (and I doubt 2015 is so unrealistic) where I subscribe to a periodical or order individual copies by negotiating primary and ad content on-line, then pick up the hard copy at the corner liquor store on my bike ride to work. That’s entirely within reach (not just grasp).

    -t

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Tom -

    In addition to radically lowering the price, POD machines will also need to radically increase the speed of printing. People like to imagine POD bookstores, but printing and binding a 4-500 page book still takes quite a while. If you think about the point-of-sale process, you have to imagine either radical increases in speed, big banks of machines, or long queues to get your printout. None of which suggests that POD will be a big retail opportunity any time soon. It’s certainly possible that speed will increase – but in the end, these are glorified xerox machines. And xerox machines have been around long enough for order of magnitude speed increases to come about if they were going to.

    But it would be nice to be pleasantly surprised.

    Meanwhile, Lulu and Blurb have made nice businesses bringing POD to the web. They separated out precisely that need to create a lasting artifact, rather than trying to graft POD into the retail experience. I think Bob Young of Lulu said that the average lifetime print run of the millions of books Lulu manufactures is less than two copies.

  • http://www.applematters.com Hadley Stern

    I actually think printed books are going to last a lot longer than we think, and its not because I’m a luddite. A couple of examples:

    I have a Kindle, and was reading a book on it when I happened to go by a bookstore. On the shelf was the printed version of the book I had on my Kindle. I felt a palable sense of relief in opening up the printed version! The resolution was great, I could flip pages must faster.

    Another example is one you alluded to, which is that reading on the iPhone is far superior to the Kindle. It is smaller, the screen is backlit, and it renders pages more quickly.

    But my final point on why printed books will be around for a long time comes from my kids. My kids listen to digital music–a CD for them is an unknown for music, but books for them are physical things and I don’t see that changing. I actually bought a book for my 8 year-old on the Kindle and he really wasn’t that impressed. The printed book was better.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Hadley,

    I also don’t think books are going away any time soon. Although I do think that book industry is going through some radical shifts – driven not so much by ebooks as by the consolidation of the distribution channels, which have made it harder and harder to get significant exposure for many titles. This has a cascade of economic effects.

    But ebooks are on a very rapid rise in popularity.

    I agree that the physical book experience is still better than the Kindle or iPhone experience, but the latter two are catching up.

    What we really want is format agnosticism. I’d love to be able to move back and forth easily between formats (one price buys all formats) as the occasion dictates. But I don’t think that’s where the industry is going…

    My main point in this post was not to make any kind of statement about the time horizon for ebooks vs books, but to address the idea that somehow we’d lose the authorial impulse if printed books went away. Evolution happens. It’s happened during the lifetime of the printed book, and it continues apace. Publishers need to get over nostalgia, and get a dose of excitement about the future. It’s a time of opportunity!

  • http://aburt.com Andrew Burt

    Tom Lord wrote, I think POD even will play a role in the resurrection of print journalism.

    Tom, much as I lament the decline of print journalism, I have to say, within, say, 15 years, I think digital will do to paper what the DVD did to VHS. Today’s digital reading technologies are primitive. (Remember the LaserDisc, as a primitive DVD, was not widely adopted. A few years later, a new generation technology arrives, the DVD, and within a mere three years had already overtaken VHS. Likewise the rapidity with which the CD replaced LPs, desktop LCD displays replacing CRTs for both computers and TVs, etc.)

    I have no idea what that technology will look like that replaces paper for most of our reading, but I feel it coming. (Now, not as a predictive concept, but as a sort of mathematical upper bound on when such a technology will arrive, I would say that when we are able to replicate a bound paperback book with digital paper (e.g. some successor to e-Ink or the like — a flexible, thin, paper-like display with the capabilities of a web browser on every page, that feels and acts like tree paper) — and can produce a device with 200-300 of those bound together like a book (and thus “magazine”, “newspaper” formats etc), for not much money — then [if not before] digital reading will surpass tree-paper reading.

    Looking at the exponential price decline for e-Ink (which, I still remember, was billed as a flexible paper-like technology) and the speed with which new versions can come out, I’m thinking this feat would be doable by 2025. “By” as in, then if not sooner. Few in 1996 foresaw the DVD even coming out in 1997, let alone overtaking VHS within three years. Some kewl new device could come out any moment now and capture our hearts and eyeballs. But worst case, we replicate the paper experience if that’s what works best for people. Which we should be able to do in the next 15 years or so.

    I think tree-paper for reading has very limited life left. (And hallelujah. Digital has so much more to offer.)

  • http://traffic.de.com Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

    Personally, I find it to be a huge PITA to have to actually read something that I’ve already read just to find the exact quotation I wish to cite. I think if printed books had a search function built in somehow (and also copy+paste) then they would be a lot better. But I guess what I’m saying already exists, right? I think it’s called something like “e-book” or “text file” or something like that….

  • http://friendfeed.com/badosa Xavier Badosa

    The book was (is!) a means of distribution and a means of consumption. POD tries to keep the old way of consumption (paper) while profiting the new means of digital distribution, converting digital (dynamic, semantic, interactive…) text back to frozen text. It seems to me like a train pulled by a horse: a mixed solution between two times.

    Tim, talking of “an eloquent and elegant summation”, Sara Lloyd was actually quoting Seth Godin when she said:

    “The new thing is never as good as the old thing, at least right now. Soon, the new thing will be better than the old will be. But if you wait until then it’s going to be too late.”

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/01/music-lessons.html

  • http://tim.oreilly.com Tim O'Reilly

    Xavier -

    I really like the distinction you make between the book as a means of distribution and a means of consumption. It is also a means of monetization. Distinguishing all the roles that an artifact plays can help us to rethink how to do those roles in new ways.

    A lot of breakthroughs come that way, when someone realizes that two roles that have traditionally been conjoined can be handled separately.

  • http://basiscraft.com Thomas Lord

    Tim and Andrew

    I realize after your comments that a hidden assumption of mine (which I actually still stand behind) is that there is actually considerable pent up demand for print. So (Tim) Espresso-like tech can be a lot faster but I don’t think it matters as much as you think and (Andrew) I think you over-estimate the appeal of gadgets.

    We’ll see, I guess.

    -t

  • avk

    Tim-

    Great perspective.
    I think the book as a cultural canon happens to be a bygone and dead art I for one am thankful to see go.

    Finally we as a society have reached an enlightenment where a writer can no longer HIDE in the dark imprisonment of some distant DIMENSIONAL space, holding his opinions, writings and ruminations close to his page, social circle and heart. The interaction that the internet brings and its basic text foundation writes thousands of new books from hundreds of thousands of new perspectives every single day. While there surely is something to be said for the publishing process and its quality control, its truly doubtful that method will undergo real structural change. There are simply new tools to assimilate and a greater pool of perspective to pick from when individuals look for information or look to publish information.

  • avk

    Furthermore, since I may have your attention, I was wondering if there were any tech solutions that would by program on proprietary hard drive, track, record and store all writing, distributed across the internet, by individual, user name or IP address for individual and personal record keeping?

  • http://aburt.com Andrew Burt

    Thomas Lord writes:

    Tim and Andrew

    I realize after your comments that a hidden assumption of mine (which I actually still stand behind) is that there is actually considerable pent up demand for print. So (Tim) Espresso-like tech can be a lot faster but I don’t think it matters as much as you think and (Andrew) I think you over-estimate the appeal of gadgets.

    We’ll see, I guess.

    That we will. :) I think people have a demand for word-based entertainment/information, on a pleasant reading “device” (paper or electronic) that isn’t overly expensive. I think it’s the pleasantness of the devices that will drive (or impede) the switch to digital. I don’t think the mass public has your same love of the book as an object. (Remembering that “mass market paperbacks” were originally designed to be thrown away) Time will indeed tell!

  • http://aburt.com Andrew Burt

    Heh, well, I botched up the HTML tags quoting Thomas’s post. (Talking on the phone, not paying close attention. Bad reader.) My comment started with “That we will” in case that wasn’t clear from context.

    Hey, Tim, it’s great that this comment box allows HTML (so many don’t, so this is refreshing)… but any chance of plugging in an HTML textarea editor like tinymce?

  • http://www.michaelbernstein.com Michael R. Bernstein

    I really like the distinction you make between the book as a means of distribution and a means of consumption. It is also a means of monetization.

    It is also a means of storage (personal as well as archival).

  • bowerbird

    it’s charming — and not a little bit frightening as well — when
    publishers go on about how they are the protectors of writers,
    since the fact of the matter is that nobody — no one at all –
    has ripped off writers more than publishers have. so it’s ironic.

    speaking of which, sara didn’t say what she’s quoted as saying,
    at least not until well over 18 months after seth godin said it:
    > http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2008/01/music-lessons.html

    then again, of course, thomas kuhn actually said it _first_…

    (or did he?)

    ***

    sheldon said:
    > My primary problem with ebooks is that they are so
    > impermanent. I like the idea that something I’ve written
    > could survive for a few centuries whether carefully
    > kept in an archive or by some accident of preservation.

    1. put it on the internet. that will probably be your best bet.
    2. pay to have it printed, in lots of copies; give ‘em away.
    3. pay to carve it in stone. lots of copies, disbursed widely.

    > Call it cultural vanity or whatever else you like,
    > I’d like later civilizations to have some idea of
    > what we were up to, and in that regard
    > the medium of our documents matters.

    if they don’t know about how we are using the internet,
    they won’t have a single solitary clue about our culture.

    > We know more about the daily workings of
    > the ancient Sumerian palaces than we do about
    > the Court of Charlemagne simply because
    > the former wrote on clay rather than perishable parchment.

    yeah, but carving it in stone is even better than clay.

    > The greater threat to content of ebooks, however,
    > is changing formats.

    well, assuming the future is smarter than us (not a sure bet,
    but if they are dumber, then all our best plans will backfire),
    then they will be able to figure out our formats.

    but yes, a plain-ascii/unicode light-markup format is best.

    unfortunately, today’s publishers want to obfuscate books…

    ***

    tim said:
    > The manufacturing cost of one-off books is
    > close to the retail price of many any ebook

    oh poppycock. the consumable cost for the espresso machine
    is just a penny a page. and — at its heart — that machine is
    little more than a laser-printer, with a bunch of other features
    that might or might _not_ really be required at all. for instance,
    if one is willing to give up trimmed edges and print full-page
    – or, if one prefers instead, to print on a5 rather than a4 –
    much of the bulk and expense of the machine is eliminated…
    next, stapling rather than glue could reduce the hassle greatly,
    and i’ve found a wraparound cover hides staples quite nicely…

    > The manufacturing cost of one-off books is
    > close to the retail price of many any ebook
    > thus leaving no room for either
    > author, publisher, or retailer to profit.

    the author will get paid for the _electronic_ copy of the file,
    directly from the reader, probably as a result of gift-exchange.
    (the author provides the file freely; the fan responds with cash;
    if you tipped the last waitress who served you, don’t dispute it.)

    the reader will bear the cost of printing the book, if s/he wants.

    as for “publisher” and “retailer”, they are merely middlemen
    who’ll be disintermediated as now-unnecessary appendages.

    ***

    tim said:
    > People like to imagine POD bookstores, but printing and
    > binding a 4-500 page book still takes quite a while.

    oh please. more nonsense.

    let’s pretend that bookstores _will_ continue to exist, and that
    print-on-demand will be an essential part of what they do…
    (and actually, the only way they will survive is if they do p.o.d.)

    people have this idea that a p.o.d. bookstore will print a book
    only if someone has stepped up to the cashier and ordered it.

    wrong.

    it will have a whole store full of already-printed-out books,
    so people can browse them, and when someone actually buys
    one of these books, the machine will be told to print another.

    no customer waiting involved.

    and if there’s a backlog, the store can print books all night…

    oh, and the age for 400-500-page books is long gone, tim…
    with today’s attention spans, it’ll be more like 100-200-pages.
    before you know it, p.o.d. machines will do those in a minute.

    besides, if a p.o.d. machine is no bigger than a cash register,
    and costs a couple hundred bucks, there will be one in every
    liquor store and 7-11 and gas-station, so someone can just
    phone in to order a book and walk to the corner to pick it up.

    (and thomas lord is right — hyperlocal uses will be common.)

    > If you think about the point-of-sale process,
    > you have to imagine either radical increases in speed,
    > big banks of machines, or long queues to get your printout.

    wrong. just plain wrong. think things through a little further.

    -bowerbird

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Bowerbird -

    You make some interesting points about possible ways that POD could work in a retail setting. But I had to laugh at this:

    >tim said:
    >> The manufacturing cost of one-off books is
    >> close to the retail price of many any ebook

    >oh poppycock. the consumable cost for the espresso >machine is just a penny a page.

    Precisely. That is, about $5 for the 500 page book I was discussing. Binding adds another buck. And the price of many ebooks seems to be settling down between $4.99 (Stanza) and $9.99 (Kindle). So I’m not sure where the poppycock is in my statement, but I suspect that shows where the bombast is in yours.

    And given that that’s still where the price is after 30+ years of xerox machines, it’s not like this is an early stage technology where costs are going to fall a lot further when we hit the knee of the volume curve. As you say, an espresso is a glorified xerox machine.

    Add in retailer margin, and that limits your options to trade paperback formats and trade paperback prices (i.e. $15 and up.)

    Not saying it won’t happen, just that ideas of a book printer in every 7-11 are far less likely than the idea that people will be reading books on their smartphone or e-ink reader.

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > I had to laugh at this:

    ok, i like to make people laugh. :+)

    > That is, about $5 for the 500 page book I was discussing.

    right. $5 for hard-copy. a physical object. ink on paper.
    sheets bound together into what we commonly call a book.

    now, what you actually said was this:
    > The manufacturing cost of one-off books is
    > close to the retail price of many any ebook

    given the clumsy “many any” construction, i just assumed
    that your fingers were sabotaging your argumentation, so
    i wasn’t too surprised that you were confusedly comparing
    a digital product with a physical one.

    what we _should_ do is compare retail cost of a p.o.d. book
    with retail cost of a printed-book in the physical marketplace.
    and, in that realm, a-penny-a-page is an unheard-of pricing.

    > Binding adds another buck.

    not according to what i’ve read.

    > And the price of many ebooks seems to be settling down
    > between $4.99 (Stanza) and $9.99 (Kindle).

    you wish.

    future authors will give away books, as e-books. for free.
    with nothing more than a hope that satisfied readers will
    return the favor with a small reciprocal gift of some cash,
    in much the same way that your waitress hopes for a tip…

    readers will “consume” the file as an e-book.

    a fairly small percentage of readers will decide, for any
    number of reasons, to print out a copy of the book, and
    will bear the cost of doing so, utilizing print-on-demand…

    so “the retail price of an e-book” will be a null set, because
    books — as digital files — will vanish from “the marketplace.”

    (how many corporations do we think will stay in the space
    when they can no longer make any money off publishing?)

    this process has already started to materialize before our eyes.
    to see the places where the color of the polaroid is most vivid,
    i would suggest you read the recent blog posts of j.a. konrath:
    > http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2009/10/kindle-numbers-traditional-publishing.html
    (as this implies, the authors who will create the new system
    are not just the ones who couldn’t get into the current one,
    but authors from the midlist who’ll break out on their own,
    with their stamp of quality — and their fanbase — in place.)

    > So I’m not sure where the poppycock is in my statement,
    > but I suspect that shows where the bombast is in yours.

    you can call it whatever you like, tim; the writing is on the wall.

    > And given that that’s still where the price is
    > after 30+ years of xerox machines, it’s not like
    > this is an early stage technology where costs are going to
    > fall a lot further when we hit the knee of the volume curve.

    the penny-a-page price includes the trim-job and fancy cover.

    once you eliminate those factors from the equation, the price
    gets even cheaper. so, for a 150-page book, it’ll be one buck.
    add another buck to cover the fixed cost of the machinery and
    give the operator a profit, and we’re looking at a 2-dollar book.

    there’s gonna be a lot of demand for these $2-books, enough
    that it will pay for a convenience store to install one in a corner.

    you can even dispute that if you like, because i’m sure that we
    can agree that kinko’s has the equipment, and is close enough.
    there’s no reason print-on-demand cannot be made pervasive.

    > Not saying it won’t happen, just that ideas of a book printer
    > in every 7-11 are far less likely than the idea that people
    > will be reading books on their smartphone or e-ink reader.

    you seem to be saying that these are contrasting positions…

    i’m saying they dovetail. we will be awash in a sea of e-books
    – offered freely, because that’s the only “competitive price” –
    and people will then use print-on-demand to get hard-copy of
    a small select percentage of them, adding up to a large number,
    which will drive greedy businessmen to make p.o.d. pervasive…

    oh, and please understand i’m not trying to “persuade” you
    that this will happen. because it _will_ happen, whether you
    believe it or whether you don’t. you and i are mere spectators.

    -bowerbird

  • http://janabrenning.com Jana Brenning

    Having been involved in art and publishing all my life, I wonder about content versus the carrier of that content. I have drawers full of (airbrush) art created for various publications, and now do the same work digitally, but a printout from a digital file never has the same power to “mindbend” as I like to call it: a piece of art that a human has touched. Same content, but a diminished emotion (sort of like using “levels” in photoshop).

    A writer-friend of mine has the library to die for, collected over his career (he is 87) and touched and annotated many times by him. Also, I have been privileged to read his manuscripts. In both situations I feel a connection with my “humanity” that I don’t in electronic media. Yes, I love the access to content but are we losing something much more valuable here?

  • dl / im2b

    Tim you are preaching my discussions…

    My team came to the conclusion 2 yrs ago we need to recreate a transmedia screenplay format. Just as plays need to evolve to screenplays and teleplays… interactive transmedia makes us evolve even further. A new story structure.

    We say the storyline has become the storycube and as such needs to be built that way from inception. I have been preaching since the day Jonathan Rosenberg’s team at Google asked me how I saw an online independent interactive television station working… the first thing I put in the email back to them (this was the year before they launched the video search) was that story structure in every medium and genre needed to evolve.

    J9ournalism being one… to report a story in a cube you need three perspectives. Aristotle Plato discussed truth is found through the dialectic with the inception of interface and hypertext and so many voices…standards have to come in every story by presenting the dialectic in the simplest form.

    sorry for the long comment I have been working on all this for 10 years since leaving NBC and Spelling.

  • http://dimbulb.typepad.com Jonathan Salem Baskin

    I said something similar, though less expansively and elegantly, in my InformationWeek column earlier this week: http://bit.ly/1XuymR

    I think we risk misunderstanding the challenges facing publishers (whether print, music, or video) when we talk generically about ‘content.’ a 60,000-word novel is fundamentally different than a 3 minute song, for instance, and the way those products are experienced varies greatly. The less we look at technology, per se, and more at the broader meaning, relevance, and utility of specific content formats, I think the closer we get to seeing what’s really going on.

  • Donna Thomas

    I took a look at the Hunchback of Notre Dame chapter that Tim references and got a new perspective on these issues. Hugo asserts that architecture has fallen from its position as “the social, the collective, and dominant art.” He describes how architecture has gone from being the primary physically recorded means of encoding human thought, to books having that role. He also notes that architecture has fallen from its rulership of all the arts (sculpture and fine art, etc., previously existing only to enhance the architecture) to its being merely one among many.

    He did not have a chance to see the current results of this diffusion, however. Today, we have a DIY architectural culture, at least at its most humble levels. We have businesses (mega home supply warehouses, tv shows, books, magazines, etc.) dedicated to enabling this fractalization of creative control. We also still have businesses that remain at a place of high control, high quality, and high dollars — the world-class architecture firms and builders. We don’t call on them to remodel our bathrooms, but when there’s a new museum or skyscraper to be built, that’s a different matter. (We also have a DIY arts culture, with its concomitant supporting industry.)

    I would assert that we are now seeing a similar situation with publishing. The limits of personal power to create recorded information are being pushed ever outward, and there is a whole Web 2.0 industry to support each of us in our blogging, tweeting, and such. However, there remains a need for really high quality, reliable units of information, of a level that no one individual can create on their own. In other words, informational temples still need to be built, and built by skilled groups working in concert. That’s where professional publishers remain viable and vital. The form in which the temple-quality information is output (hard copy vs. e-book) hardly matters, to my mind. Based on a single architectural design, you can build an actual cathedral or a (less granular, but similar) pile of building blocks in your living room. However, some of these forms of output are better suited to some forms of input. For resource-unintensive input, such as a blog, paper and Library of Congress-level archiving would seem a bit much. But, for resource-intensive input, you probably want its output to exist in as many forms as possible, including the resource-intensive ones such as paper and LoC archiving.

    Finally, to respond to Hugo, I would say that one doesn’t quite destroy the other. Massive architectural undertakings still exist today, of course, even lovely ones (he bemoans the move toward geometrical “bareness” in architecture). However, such creations do not stand as lonely as they once did; they are surrounded by smaller, humbler efforts that do not take away from the grandeur of the best. And, such creations no longer carry the same sorts of embedded information. That is, we are no longer typically creating temples whose very architecture encodes religious teachings or computes the movement of our planet. Our current large-scale architectural creations have embedded in them different sorts of computational intelligence, instead, typically for the purpose of managing the environment within. It’s all about what a culture values. Bit for bit, though, we are probably embedding at least as much information in our current skyscrapers than in our temples of old, maybe even in our outhouses. In a fractal universe, the large does not cease to exist merely because of the presence of the small.

    Two good Hugo quotes, just from this chapter:
    “All civilization begins with a theocracy and ends in democracy.” (Where “ends” may have more than one value. ;-)
    and
    “A book is so quickly made, costs so little, and can go so far!”

  • Donna Thomas

    Sorry to barge into a thread so awkwardly. Now that it’s not the middle of the night, I can be more cogent.

    Works of individual authorship are on the rise, and that’s a good thing. The publishing industry and individual authors can and should explore the possibilities of medium-dependent pricing. But… these issues do not apply as cleanly to all publishing niches.

    In the parts of traditional publishing where content creation is done by a coordinated group with an above-average level of expertise (as for a textbook), pricing cannot be dependent solely on medium. Content creation in these cases is a skilled, labor-intensive effort that cannot readily be replicated. This is the sort of niche where traditional publishing is likely to live long and prosper. And, this is where output format is not the bottom line for pricing.

    It’s Gehry’s Bilbao vs. my dad building a shed from stuff he got at Home Depot. There will always be a place for both, but my dad can’t sell his shed for the big bucks.