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?


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Nightwatches of Bonaventura
The Nightwatches of Bonaventura by Bonaventura
Reviewed by J. T. Mahany

Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .

Read More >

Pavane for a Dead Princess
Pavane for a Dead Princess by Park Min-Gyu
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .

Read More >

Tram 83
Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Reviewed by Caitlin Thomas

Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .

Read More >

Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic by Octave Mirbeau
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .

Read More >

Sphinx
Sphinx by Anne Garréta
Reviewed by Monica Carter

Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .

Read More >

Morse, My Deaf Friend
Morse, My Deaf Friend by Miloš Djurdjević
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .

Read More >

The Crimson Thread of Abandon
The Crimson Thread of Abandon by Terayama Shūji
Reviewed by Robert Anthony Siegel

The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .

Read More >

Life Embitters
Life Embitters by Josep Pla
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .

Read More >

The Physics of Sorrow
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
Reviewed by Izidora Angel

“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .

Read More >

Vano and Niko
Vano and Niko by Erlom Akhvlediani
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >