E-books: Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory?

We loved the article over at a nominal rival of ours, Content-Exchange, on the real road to success for electronic books. The big publishers don’t have a clue. (Big anythings never do.) The little people are already selling tens of thousands of E-books. Preferred price is less than US$10; preferred format is PDF. (We were wondering if we were just weird or something for wondering why the hell everyone was trying to reinvent the wheel. You can set up a PDF for any kind of page; include graphics; specify type. They are dirt-cheap to “author,” and every computer has a reader. This we like.)

Publishing cartels, and Microsoft, are clearly trying to take over all electronic-book publishing. Look at what happened at a seemingly innocuous awards presentation.

Still, the concept of the electronic book is fundamentally sound. The “online” component of E-books is tenuous at best: It is merely the delivery medium, not the medium of experience. So E-books lie slightly outside the purview of the NUblog.

That ain’t gonna stop us. More “content” than “online” this week.

The form of the book

Very early CD-ROMs, like I Photograph to Remember and the vastly overrated From Alice to Ocean, were electronic books. What killed that experiment was (a) the net, (b) the slow speed of CDs, and (c) crappy computer monitors.

E-books are fundamentally an issue of industrial design and typography. We’re strong on both, so here is a bit of a history lesson.


Only three technologies have ever struck us as futuristic in that 1950s magical “How the heck they do that?” sense.

  1. The Grid Convertible, an early-90s Windows/DOS laptop whose LCD screen could be folded face-up over its keyboard, turning it into a very impressive Etch-a-Sketch. (The so-called form factor of the Etch-a-Sketch is widely beloved on this side of either pond.) It was the absence of a laptop’s telltale clamshell fold that made it.
  2. Any Macintosh running more than one monitor with an expanded desktop. We now find it inconceivable to run a personal computer with a single screen and do not consider three monitors extravagant.
  3. The Apple Cinema Display, which one-ups the Grid Convertible and almost trumps dual monitors. The screen is so gigantic and bright, yet so thin, that one must step back several paces to read the subtitles on a DVD. (Just like a television. Is the Cinema Display the first appropriate display for convergence?)



Back to reality

“It’s been done already,” you say. The Rocket E-Book is about the size of a laser-printed page trapped in an Etch-a-Sketch. If anything, it is too small.

We’re not going to discuss software and format issues. There will end up being multiple formats, and every reader will be able to display all of them – even machines by protectionists like Microsoft and Gemstar. Find us a computer these days that cannot display HTML, PDF, plain-text, and Word files. DVD drives can read old CDs and CD-ROMs. The PlayStation 2 can do that, for heaven’s sake. Mutual interoperability will be the norm – eventually.

We’re also not too interested in electronic paper or E-ink or whatever it’s called. Among other things, we’ve seen Björk’s music video “Bachelorette” (by the director of the past, present, and future, Michel Gondry) in which a heroine’s memoirs write themselves – only to unwrite themselves later on. We mangle printed pages in our purses enough as it is. We don’t want to go around mangling electronic leaves, which will be just as fragile as paper (or Tyvek, at least) but ten thousand times more expensive to replace.

An E-book should not gussy itself up in the drag of printed pages. It should take the form of a display device, not the New Yorker. Ever seen one of those novelty telephones that arranges the pushbuttons in the format of a rotary-dial phone? That’s what we’re talking about here. (The word “skiamorph” has been adapted to refer to objects or words whose form is locked into an era that has been supplanted, like “blackboards” that are green, or indeed “dialing” a phone.)

Old books live as E-ghosts

Printed books will remain. Unequivocally. Full stop.

But the infrastructure of publishing is too costly to support small-market titles or books that don’t have to be written to “standard” lengths.

High-resolution scanning of out-of-print books is an excellent course of action. Typography queens will blanch: You will lose typographic complexity, particularly for old letterpressed books, where type is impressed right into the page. (Letterpress typefaces like Baskerville and Fairfield look brassy and overprecise when printed other ways, worst of all on coated stock.)

The issue came up in Nicholson Baker’s preservation of old newspapers: Microfilming cannot render the dazzling full-colour graphic design of a broadsheet page (and doesn’t even do justice to the typographic colour of a text-heavy page).

A rare book you can download in ten minutes is worth the degradation in image quality. If you require the printed version, you can still buy it. Yes, you pay twice, but the electronic version is manipulable. (Scans of antiquarian books must provide an image of the page along with an optical-character-recognition searchable variant. Even a word-processor spellcheck can capture most scanning errors; you can double-check against the image for mis-scans.)

Short books

Books don’t need to run 200 pages. Short books should really be published in electronic form. Really, they already are: They’re called Web sites. There are few existing formats for printed small books (“chapbooks” are one of them; museum catalogues are another; kooky happy fun novelty impulse-buy books piled at bookstore cash registers are another). It’s hard to make money off them. It’s probably hard to make money off short E-books, too, but at least the up-front costs are lower.

The conundrum: Expensive device, small readership

E-books by big-name print authors are nothing more than a publicity stunt. It’s like some bobbysoxer of a pop singer declaring that she really wants to act. Gotta extend into all media, right? For the thousandth time, no.

The number of people who will buy a big-name author in E-format is small. So is the number of people who will buy any title in E-format.

The audience will be small for years, if not decades.

Yet the E-readers will be expensive for years, if not decades.

E-books will be consigned to niche products. There’s nothing wrong with that: Ever heard of laserdiscs? Not DVDs, laserdiscs: The old twelve-inch videodiscs. They represented a more-or-less-healthy cinephile market for a decade. Videodiscs are to videotapes as E-books will be to print books: Something smart, well-heeled, technically-literate people choose. The best we can hope for is that E-books will become like DVDs: Something not-necessarily-smart, not-necessarily-well-heeled, not-necessarily-technically-literate people choose. Videotapes are still vastly preferred over any kind of disc. Paper books will be vastly preferred over digital ones.

So don’t blow it

Our advice to the E-book industry, not that they even read the NUblog: You’re producing art-house films. Blair Witch (and The Full Monty and The Crying Game and Sex, Lies & Videotape) notwithstanding, niches should sometimes remain niches. Think Saab, not Pontiac.

Maybe E-books oughta be like amateur porn – something anyone can put together that will attract only a few. There are worse fates.

Posted on 2000-11-21