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Our E-publishing archives

Why E-publishing is a Revolution in Slow Motion

Page 2 of 2

The Printer

If neither the author nor the agent nor the publisher can disconnect all the other links in the chain from one another and reconnect them to itself, it might seem unlikely that the printer could make it all work. But printers tell a different tale.  

When R. R. Donnelly & Sons, the largest book printer in the United States, formed a new partnership with Microsoft [Publishers Weekly], Donnelly celebrated with a manifesto in which all roads led to one virtually foreordained destination:

“Together, Donnelley and Microsoft will offer publishers a turnkey, hassle-free, end-to-end solution using Microsoft software for digital rights and transaction management, to create a massive repository in our servers to store tens of thousands of titles, convert them to e-book formats, distribute them through retailers, and collect revenue from readers while protecting the titles’ copyrights. We will be working with retailers to deliver e-books in whatever format readers ask.” 

At least at the technical level, a Donnelly-Microsoft partnership might seem closest to the gee-whiz vision envisioned by Jason Epstein, book publishing’s elder statesman and sometime prophet, in his recent Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (Norton):

“Machines capable of printing and binding small quantities of digitized texts on demand are already deployed by Ingram, the leading American book wholesaler, by Barnes & Noble and other retailers, and in publishers’ warehouses, but future, less expensive versions that are now being developed can be housed in public libraries, in schools and universities, and perhaps even in post offices and other convenient places—Kinko’s and Staples, for example: in effect, ATM machines for books. Machines that can print and bind single copies of texts will eventually be common household items, like fax machines today” [p. 29]. 

In this vision of the future, the classic independent bookstore might survive as a showroom rather like a Gateway “Country Store.” The wares on display would be only samples [Sydney Morning Herald]. Copies actually purchased would be printed on demand or delivered to an e-mail address. 

In that case, why shouldn’t authors sell their e-rights directly to a chain of retail outlets, trusting in the stores’ clearly superior relations with the ultimate consumer and allowing the chain to coordinate all ancillary functions?

The Tactile Experience

Epstein’s vision is a reminder of the staying power of the ink-on-paper book. And none of the currently available technologies are alluring enough to wean readers from the traditional page. Asked if they would rather read a book from a computer screen or from printed pages, even confirmed computer nerds vote for the printed page. Gemstar (succeeding Rocketbook and Softbook) sells electronic readers designed to mimic the book in portability, but they sell for $300-$700, a significant deterrent even if all bugs had been worked out. Try asking a clerk to show you a Gemstar REB 1100 in your local Best Buy or Circuit City: You'll be greeted with a blank stare. 

Adobe offers software that allows the reader to hold a notebook computer sideways in the lap and read print displayed on a “page” whose top is the usual right side of the screen: a clever idea but not likely to reshape reading habits. Microsoft’s Reader is a Windows-related application that breaks even less with the model of the nerd seated at the screen. 

These major players have been actively forming partnerships with booksellers, but this time around, the old technology is likely to have more staying power [Washington Post] than the typewriter did against the word processor.

So are we at a stalemate?  Not quite.  Maybe the general consumer audience is simply the wrong initial target. Last January, when Adobe released its latest e-book software [Wired] the company said it was targeting the higher education and professional market rather than the general consumer:

“We believe that the early adopters are people who have a value for time saving, and reducing the bulk of papers they lug around,” Looney said. Adobe’s publishing partnerships will focus on content usually considered reference material.

This seems a strategy attentive to the differences rather than the similarities between the old technology and the new. Rather than ask whether you would rather read a book from the screen or the page, the question to ask is whether, when you are already at your screen doing research, you would like to be able to access entire books. 

In that context, the breakthrough may come not at the level of the individual e-book sold as comparable to the traditional book for straight-through leisure reading but at the level of the working library indexed, annotated, cross-referenced, and selectively stored.

If so, then perhaps e-publishing will arrive not as a mass revolution but as a gradual evolution. And perhaps rather than being a liability to progress, the durability of the traditional publishing chain will prove a protection against extinction. The book may survive, in other words, precisely because the balance among its players is such that it is difficult for any one to take over all the functions of all the others.

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