The Tyranny of Paper (and Distribution)

I walked down to the local shops today to pick up some milk and other essentials. It was a fair walk so I decided to load up the JasJar with a few podcasts and listen to them as I walked. One of the podcasts was this ITConversations recording of a discussion between James D. McDonald and the host of Sound Policy, Denise Howell.

It was a really interesting conversation which initially started out as a conversation about a hoax book called Atlanta Nights by Travis Tea (a pseudonym of James D. McDonald) which was so terrible that no publisher would accept it for publishing, except that one did (and in the process got caught in a sting orchestrated by a series of Sci-Fi writers).

Anyway – it wasn’t Atlanta Nights which interested me so much in the podcast, it was the discussion towards the end about what the future of the publishing business might look like as a result of services like Lulu and of course the various eBook formats and readers available.

If I am to understand McDonalds position correctly he argues that the book (you know, wads of paper bound together with words and pictures printed on it) is a peak format in that it is relatively cheap to produce, provides a good browsing experience when on shelves in a bookshop, and the killer feature of course is that a book doesn’t require batteries. He also argues that the publishing and distribution has evolved over time and is the best model, presumably due to natural selection.

It was an interesting line of thinking but I think ultimately, at least in countries that reach a certain level of affluence the paper-based book will become a thing of the past, but a number of things need to happen first (not if, but when kind of stuff):

  • Schools need to issue all texts in an eBook format (optional), then parents like me will insist that their children carry either a Tablet PC or an eBook reader to school. Sony developed this so the technology exists, its just about finding the right entry point.
  • Story books for young children need to be converted to eBook format, and possibly even an interactive format.
  • Once you get adoption in the kids it’ll take one generation for it to become the norm, but it may actually happen faster than that since parents tend to have to learn the technologies that their _young_ children need to use.

Provided publishers jump on board and we get some rationalisation in the eBook format space then it’ll be game over. The cynical side of me says that the only reason that it hasn’t happened yet is because publishers margins get squeezed when they go to market with eBooks because they still need to do all the editing processes but they can’t charge a premium for paper – people expect sending bytes across the network to be cheap.

The other challenge (of course) is electronic theft of books under copyright – although I would advise the publishing industry NOT to follow the record industry example there. All in all it is an interesting discussion with some really cool design challenges.



One thought on “The Tyranny of Paper (and Distribution)

  1. Barry

    You are overlooking some serious shortcomings of most modern ebook solutions: DRM, expense and durability. As a parent, I’m not about to send a ten-year-old kid to school with a 200 dollar piece of temperamental electronics…that just screams steal me, drop me, lose me. And Sony has assured the failure of its otherwise interesting ebook offering (interesting because of the e-ink tech that underlies it, not anything Sony did with it) by strangling it with digital rights management, something all modern mega-corps seem determined to do.

    Until hardware becomes much cheaper and more reliable, and corporations a whole lot less greedy, I don’t think we’ll see much of the ebook. Neither event seems destined to happen soon. Paper books have them beat by a mile in terms of economy, longevity and user friendliness.

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