Should books be reinvented in a digital format?

    by Mark Glaser
    May 19, 2006

    Books are the oldest of the old media. So for a number of years, people have been dreaming of ways to update books for the Digital Age, from special portable displays to e-ink. But there’s something simple about books that’s hard to top — the words printed on paper, the small form factor, the ease of borrowing and reselling them. Now there are many book digitization projects such as Google Book Search, the idea being to store all written knowledge into a vast searchable database. Kevin Kelly describes the push toward the “universal library” in a long piece in the New York Times.

    Blogger and new media pundit Jeff Jarvis reacts to that piece with a laundry list of problems with books: “They are expensive to produce. They depend on scarce shelf space. They depend on blockbuster economics. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They are subject to gatekeepers’ whims. They aren’t searchable. They aren’t linkable. They have no metadata. They carry no conversation. They are thrown out when there’s no space for them anymore.”

    What do you think? Do books need to be reinvented in some digital way or are they fine as they are? What kind of digital reader would you like to see? Is the universal library within reach, and will it help authors or harm them? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and I’ll include the best ones in next week’s Your Take Roundup.

    • My gut instinct on this one is to say no. In order for books to go electronic, publishers will need the safe guard of DRM; which predictates proprietary formats. I am not against intellectual property rights, however I am concerned about the the following issues:

      – The kind of archive and data retrieval issues that have plagued big business and government over the past 50 years affecting the book industry and the potential loss of authors works in the future that could have as much impact as the ransacking of Rome by the Goths and Vandals that plunged Europe into the Dark Ages
      – Fair use of books in libraries, the ability to sell on secondhand books (which was invaluable to me as a student and in my work life)
      – The fact that we’re substituting an established analogue technology for one that is at best only as good as the one it replaces. What happens when the battery dies on your ebook reader or the software becomes corrupt? Not concerns that the analog technology has.

      However none of these considerations will affect the book publishing industry which once its got over its fear of technology will dash blindly towards it hoping for a similar bonanza to what the music industry got in the 1980s with CDs.

    • For many people there is something about the smell of the book or the feel of the paper that makes the use of an e-book reader unpalatable. Another problem with e-books are the reader devices–they are too big, too unwieldy, and a pain to upload files into. From a book seller point of view (I used to own a used book store,) physical books are bulkie, fragile and heavy (especially a problem if you want to ship them anywhere.)

      In my humble opinion, an e-book reader should be about the size and weight of a trade paperback book, have a bright clear display, and have controls which allow you to navigate through the e-book in a manner similar to navigating through a physical book. Instead of having e-books in the form of down-loadable files, they should be in the form of small cartridges which you can plug-into the reader (perhaps the reader could be designed to hold several cartridges.) Having the e-books in a solid form allows the user to easily re-sell the used cartridges without the publisher having to worry about illegal duplication.


    • Unless electronic versions can be used in the bathtub, places with no electricity and can be used by people without access to a computer or special reader – NO!

      If books become the sole domain of those with technology, what will happen to those people in the world without access to the technology?

    • Educational institutions have already answered this question at least about school textbooks. In Pratt Kansas the school board approved the Apple laptop initiative which includes replacing hard copy textbooks with digital equivalents. From the local newspaper, http://www.pratttribune.com , see this notice:
      “The board approved a four-year lease with Apple Leasing for 420 laptop computers at a price of $602,080, with a down payment of $75,000 due immediately and payments of $133,415 in July of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.”

    • Books are excellent technology, and the idea that “the book” needs to be reinvented is about as logical as assuming that the hammer, saw, or wheel needs to be reinvented.

      However, that doesn’t make the paper book the best technology for every purpose, and there certainly are things currently published as books which shouldn’t be. As an academic reference librarian, I’ll say that almost every true reference book I’ve seen could be as good or better with a well designed digital surrogate. The same can be said (for library purposes) of journals, magazines, and newspapers, where searchability and storage are major issues.

      I also tend to think that, just as the audiobook can complement the print book without replacing it, there is a market out there for the e-book. Since specialized hardware hasn’t taken off in the U.S., and the PC-based versions haven’t either, my money is on an e-book reader for a widespread mobile technology, like smart phones, Blackberries, or iPods.

      As far as Jarvis’ analysis, I think he’s presupposed that book publishers (and book sellers) have to be big public companies. And for that subset, he may be right.

      However, private companies do not have to depend on blockbuster economics and can serve niche markets perfectly well, and have for 300 years. My hope for the future of the book is a return to privately supported publishing companies, which might take the time to nurture and develop artists instead of pumping out the next copy of the last big thing. So I’ll match hyperbole with hyperbole: his sweeping comments, taken literally, are worthless.

    • I dont think that books absolutely have to be reinvented digitally, but I do believe theres a huge opportunity for the first person/publisher who figures out how to break through on the digital platform. Ive posted a lot about this on my own blog (jwikert.typepad.com). See the following links: The eContent Innovators Dilemma (http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2006/04/the_econtent_in.html), Excellent eContent Example (http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2006/05/excellent_econt.html), The Next Challenge for Sonys E-Book Device (http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2006/04/distribution_th.html) and Publishing Challenges (http://jwikert.typepad.com/the_average_joe/2006/02/publishing_chal.html).

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