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The Future of the Written Word

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I'm still rescuing some content intended for Fuzzy Logic #10. The following is an article by Allen Kitchen on the future of publishing--specifically the advent of print-on-demand publishers, and e-books. Read on...

The Future of the Written Word

Allen Kitchen

One of the givens in the technical world is that all technologies have a lifespan not unlike that of a living thing. There's the birth in the lab, a painful adolescence as it gains acceptance, an adulthood where it becomes routine and commonplace, then a period of death as other technologies take its place. You can see examples of this everywhere. At one time cities were lit by gas-lights, but it wasn't a decade after the invention of the electric light that the last lamplighters filed for retirement.

Where I'm going with this is that for centuries now, books have been pretty much unchanged. The paper still comes from trees, and the images and words are still ink that is stamped upon the page. The specifics relating to the press may have changed to improve speed and economy, but the basics are still the same. And today like yesterday, there are only a handful of companies that control who and what gets printed and where you can buy a copy of what they say you can read.

Those days are coming to an end now, thanks to computers and networks. Today it is possible to publish your stories yourself without getting the nod from any publishing house. And while the traditional press is not yet on its deathbed, it is beginning to suffer from a nagging cough.

There are two techniques competing for the future of publishing; on-demand and electronic. I'll talk about the former first.

On the "lets make our new product as much like the old one as possible" front, there are companies like Xlibris, a "print-on-demand" outfit that allows anyone to write, illustrate, and publish their stories on paper. This has been likened to a Vanity Press (one which will print your story; for a fee.) But that isn't quite accurate. Xlibris will print a book at no cost to the writer, which is something no vanity press will do. They have other services such as copy-editing and marketing kits for which they charge fees, but they are optional rather than required. The author gets a straight percentage of the sale, but the lion's share of the revenue goes to the company to cover costs.

A writer may not get rich this way, but he won't go broke either.

It all sounds wonderful, but unfortunately for users and on-demand publishers alike the costs of such a service are rather high and unlikely to come down. Paper isn't cheap anymore, and industrial printers capable of creating several complete novels per hour are very pricey indeed. Also, slapping ink onto dead trees simply isn't environmentally friendly, although this method does avoid the mass-printing of 50000 copies of "Stories from the set of Ishtar" that would be destined for the dump. So though on-demand uses only what paper is needed, the fact remains that paper costs bucks.

Therefore, purchasing a simple paperback at Xlibris costs $16, not including shipping. (And you thought Barnes & Noble was high!) Furthermore it usually takes weeks to receive your purchase through the mail. These are big negatives to people who like to read a lot. And the service cannot scale up very easily, meaning that even if a book were to hit it big you'd still be limited by the production speed of the printers. You won't see any on-demand titles on the best-sellers list because no computer printer will outrun a mass-quantity press.

As you can probably guess, I don't think much of on-demand as being the future of publishing. Not when electronic publishing has so much more to offer.

Remember what I said earlier about technologies going through a painful adolescence? Right now electronic publishing is at the 15-year-old stage; rebellious and barely civilized enough to be allowed out in public. There are three primary Electronic Book Formats, all of which are incompatible with each other. Those of you who remember when Beta meant videotape are probably shuddering right now.

Who wants to buy a book and find that it won't work on their player? And what about people who don't even own computers? How is somebody supposed to read their book while sitting on the loo? (Don't tell me you've never done that.) How is the material going to be copy-protected while giving the purchaser something as portable and easy-to-use as a real book? How are people going to buy an electronic book in a bookstore as well as online? All these things are real problems. But thankfully they are all solvable.

What I believe you will find in the next five years is a standardized format of electronic book. All Ebooks will be encrypted before being sent (with the purchaser's key, probably set to the email address) to reduce copying and theft while allowing the reader to easily read his purchase on several machines. This format will probably be created by Microsoft as part of the Windows2001JulyEdition release, or something like that. Already, the Microsoft Reader is the system of choice for Amazon.

I also expect that within a year or two you'll be able to purchase a usable and cheap reader tablet to carry your Ebooks around with you wherever you go. Phillips has a prototype of "Digital Paper" in the labs right now. The usefulness of this to education alone boggles the mind. No more need to carry 12 books in your backpack; they are all in your 12 ounce pad. All this can be done nearterm and at a low cost, say around 140$. Once standards and the portable tablet are available, the floodgates should open wide and readers will be able to swim in a virtual sea of virtual books whether the current publishing superpowers like it or not.

And let's talk about instant gratification while we are at it. While I do purchase books online sometimes, I still get the bulk of my material at bookstores because I can grab my purchase and start reading it right then. Electronic books reach the buyer's hands much faster than print-on-demand books ever will, and do it at a far-lower price. For people like me, that translates into buying more books, something the publishing industry dearly loves. Someone without a computer can get books inserted into their pad at the bookstore just as easily as a techy can from home. And people can easily purchase a copy of the biggest best-seller, since electronic media can scale up for large demand very easily.

All that, and no homeless squirrels.

This is not to say that the future of publishing is all rosy; there are some thorny issues still to be decided. For example, once a writer puts a book out for electronic or on-demand publishing, who owns the publishing rights? Does the publishing warehouse have exclusive rights to print the book for all eternity? Currently traditional publishers purchase the rights to print stories in a market for a fixed period of time. Online though, such a model is meaningless. Also it will be some time before people give up the familiar feel of a paper book in their hands - something that will slow the acceptance of Epublishing and give a small advantage to print-on-demand.

So slowly now, we can expect to see more unknowns on the writing scene. Great stories that 10 years ago would not have had a prayer of being seen by the public can now be published both in paper and in virtual form. Remembering Sturgeon's law (which states that 90% of everything is excrement,) don't expect everything coming down the road to be prose worthy of the gods. It won't be. But good stuff will be out there, both from unknowns and from already established names. Lots of it.

And who knows? Now that the playing field is level and you've got a fair shot at it, you yourself may become the next Anne McCaffery!


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Nice article! I too suspect that the new generation of totally flexible LCD-like screens will herald a new revolution in e-book readers within the next ten years. Not only will you be able to carry lots of books on the device, but you will be able to carry it rolled up in your pocket...

However, I like to think that some things will always lend themselves to traditional hard-bound printing too. There is something aesthetic about a real book that sometimes goes beyond the content within.

Luckily, this is a situation where the two technologies can continue to co-exist for quite some time.

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What I would like most is to figure out WHY a book feels better / is easier to read then a screen and then figure out how to make a ebook just as good. If we can accomplish that, then we have something truely revolutionary.

So far PDA's seem to offer the best shot at this, save for the screen size.. I wan't those neat lucite looking pads from Startrek Darn it!

-Mach- SuperHyperYiffyPsychoSpeedySpottyKitty

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The obstacles in e-book displays are color and resolution, basically. Researchers at Xerox PARC have been studying this for years, and they've determined that to get the "book look," the display needs to hit two goals: the background must be paper white (a soft, muted look compared to nearly all monitors and LCDs), and--here's the real kicker--the screen must be at least 200 dots per inch. You can do it in pure black and (paper) white, but that resolution is two or three times that of common LCDs.

The other kicker--strictly from an interface standpoint--is how you make an e-book as physically light and as easily manipulated as a paper book. It may sound trivial, but coming up with a quick and intuitive way to "turn pages" one at a time in either direction, flip around randomly, set bookmarks, and flip to that cool scene somewhere a quarter of the way through the book to show it to your friend, and to make all those tasks as easy as they are with a paperback, isn't that trivial after all, when you think about it.

And all this needs to be done at an attractive price point. Personally, I don't think real books are going to have to worry much until you can get such a reader at any bookstore for under $50, and until e-books themselves are no more than half the cost of a paperback. (Really. Those assumptions mean it takes 15 book for the e-book to get a monetary advantage. If the e-book reader is "only" $150, that becomes 44 books. For a casual reader who only buys a half-dozen paperbacks a year)

Of course, this hasn't gotten to the licensing agreements, which I think are going to represent a really serious battleground. Publishers seem to want to expand copyright into "usageright": because digital works are so easy to copy compared to works on physical media, they're trying to sharply restrict the ability of purchasers to use the copy of the work they've purchased. There are going to be a lot of fireworks flying about this for years--and until they settle down, I don't think normal books are going to face much serious competition. Meanwhile, e-books will continue to primarily be reference materials that can benefit from computer searching and indexing.

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On the LCD technology: Phillips has an amazing display currently in its labs. It should be ready for wide use in just over 2 years if the tech slowdown doesn't delay things. It is basically an oilbath with tiny plastic balls suspended in it; one side white, one side black. The circuitry and drivers are on silicon that is mounted directly to the plastic surfaces themselves (an MCM technology modified to work with plastic instead of ceramic.) When a potential exists, the black side swivels toward the higher voltage -- and stays there! Once the display is set you don't have to scan it anymore, a tremendous power savings for portable gear.

As for economics: 44 books for 150$? That's 3.40$ a book! I want to know where you shop! :) The last paperback I purchased was a cool 7.50$ and I wouldn't have forked it over had it been written by anyone other than Poul Anderson. Plus you overlook the value of having every book you own at your fingertips rather than filling a wall unit at your home. Such portability is preciously why people are willing to pay 2.5X the cost of a desktop computer and purchase a laptop. The same reasoning will guarantee success once the pricepoint reachs 150$, especially if a few books are thrown in as an incentive.

Interface and control continues to be a vexing matter however. Novel attempts using ambient light sensors so the person moves his hand from right to left over the unit have been attempted to mimic the turning of pages that everyone finds so familiar. My guess is that such a tech would make the unit irresistable as a cat toy. But yeah, look and feel will be different. But we got used to computers; we will get used to bookpads too.

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