E-publishing is a Revolution in Slow Motion
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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
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
“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”
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
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
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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