30 August 07 | E.J. Van Lanen

Andrew Hon of Mssv tested out Sony’s e-book reader, and pointed to an article in The Bookseller about the future of digital books.

Hon didn’t fancy the Sony reader so much, (“It’s a bit of a mess…and at $350, it’s not worth it”) except that if you ditch the Sony software and load up some open source goodness you can: “download the entire contents of the BBC News website, Newsweek and the New York Times, format them with a table of contents and links, and then add them as books to your Reader”. That sounds awesome.

I was more interested in the e-book angle though, as I’m a complete gadget-freak and computer nerd, and also because it’s something that we’ll have to face up to soon as a publisher. The Bookseller article is pretty boilerplate. Find techy who says, “Get with it! It’s coming! Now!”:

Hon believes that some publishers are chronically behind in preparing for a digital market, and that a surge in demand for e-books (especially once reading devices proliferate) will see piracy decimate publishers’ margins if they are unable to offer e-books at a reasonable price with ease of access.“It’s surprising how fast things can change. Once five million e-readers are out there on the market . . . And if you look at people growing up now, they will say, ‘why would I want a book when I can have an e-book?’ They’re not going to be bothered about pirating books.” He thinks that, like some music labels, some book publishers will go bust in the new economy.

And mix with publisher who is hedging their bets, and claiming there is something special about the book-as-object (without noticing that certain people thought, and still think, the same thing about vinyl records):

Most publishers, however, don’t see themselves in this way. Michael Bhaskar, who recently joined Pan Macmillan as head of digital publishing, disagrees that a tipping point will come. “It won’t be the death of the publisher, just a slight change. It’s foolish to underestimate how brilliant a piece of technology a book is. Within five years digital content will not be more than 5% of revenue for trade publishers,” he predicts. “After that, there will be a new generation of e-readers and mobile reading. But it won’t be a big bang like iPods or a sea change like newspapers. A book has a sanctity in the way an e-book doesn’t.”

I don’t think it’s that difficult to see how this thing will play out. It’ll follow what happened to the music business model very closely, I’d guess, although I do think it’s still a few years off. The technology has to reach the point where innovation can come from the bottom-up (it’s already beginning to happen). Let’s be real, Sony and HarperCollins will not be the ones to lead this revolution.

Someone, somewhere, will figure out a way to get the content from printed page to digital content quickly and easily (Think CDs to MP3s). Scanners will get cheaper and better, and that will have unintended consequences (Think CDRs and CD burners for your computer). Someone else will figure out a way to share the stuff (Think Napster), or sharing will piggy-back on the existing sharing systems. First the nerds, then the semi-nerds (like me) will catch on and start reading these books on their computers, not minding that it’s a little less convenient than reading a physical book. Some forward-thinking entrepreneur (Think Steve Jobs) will suddenly see an opportunity and make an e-reader that doesn’t suck and that will become a must-have thing.

By then it’ll be too late and the big publishers will put together a bunch of half-ass attempts (Think the new fee-based Napster) to put the genie back in the bottle, while holding on like grim death to their not so suddenly outdated business model, and will rot from within.

All of this seems inevitable to me.

Encoding a song to 1s and 0s was a trivial technical leap, and MP3s becoming a de-facto standard wasn’t really a necessary step in liberating the content from its nominal producers. There are a raft of different codecs that could just as easily become the ‘standard’. There’s nothing exceptional about the iPod either; it just took existing technologies and put them together in a thoughtful way.

Publishers talking about needing a standard before making any moves, or waiting around for the magic-bullet Sony e-reader, is just talk that they use to justify doing, essentially, nothing.

A standard will emerge.

An e-reader that replaces the book will emerge.

So what are publishers to do, then? For now, we should give it away online. Preferably marked up as XML for portability. I think it’s a big opportunity for smaller, independent publishers—who don’t have to empty the corporate ocean with teaspoons—to play a big role in influencing the future of the book.

The number of people who will take advantage of those files will be small, at the moment. But by giving it away now, in an open format, publishers can get ahead of the curve and foster technical innovation at the grassroots on their terms, instead of being blindsided by a technology that emerges on its own, and which answers to no one. This isn’t something the majority of publishers would be willing to do, however, as no one has figured out a way to ‘monetize’ the process yet.

What I’d be more worried about, however, is being stuck, ten years from now, selling a product that nobody needs anymore, like music companies and their cute plastic CDs. Sure, you can milk cash out of books for a few more years, but once people abandon them—and they will—where will publishers be? Running around trying to sue everyone and his sister while the world passes them by?

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