Gutenberg's last gasp


To say I'm excited about the rise in popularity of eBooks is probably an understatement. Not that I'm an overly avid reader, I've just been waiting for eBooks to become mainstream for a good decade now. Back in the early 2000s, I was trying to read what eBooks were available on my Palm Pilot and testing out my Mobdex stuff which displayed 800 or so boring old Gutenberg Project text files on a mobile phone. Later I'd try pirated texts (mostly geek-specific categories like Sci-Fi or programming) to read on my paperback sized Nokia 770 web tablet. It sorta worked, but it was never particularly convenient.

Thanks to the Kindle, iPad, Nook and more, now I can grab pretty much any eBook I want with zero hassle. Finally! Being able to read a review, then with one-click buy a book and start reading? Amazing stuff! The logistics of what should have been one of the first media types to go digital - given the file size of the text involved - have finally been worked out, and now the industry is growing like crazy. The fact that Amazon has for many months now sold more eBooks than its paperback books shouldn't be so incredible, but it still seems crazy, no? Print publishing has been such a staple for so long, it almost seems impossible that it would start to lose ground so quickly, but it is.

Fun fact - one of the things I actually learned during my college summer internship was how to run a printing press. Yes, the same year that Marc Andreesen was working on the web browser, I was learning how to load 800lb rolls of paper onto giant machines, slap gallons of sticky black ink on rollers and fix the damn folder when it jammed. (No wonder that fucker didn't invest in my startup. Ahem, I digress...)

So the eBook is now suddenly a viable product, an actual industry, not a 'maybe someday' but a 'right now it's happening' growth market. But here's the thing, I hate to use the same cliche example, but just like early television shows were simply static broadcasts of what used to be radio shows, eBooks have simply transferred the words that would normally get printed onto dead trees and put it on an electronic page instead. You can tell, the publishing industry is pretty much re-purposing the same tools they use to create print books. As a result, the graphic quality of eBooks is far worse then your most basic website. The text formatting and fonts are limited, and the included images? Horrible! Mostly black and white and many times pixelated to the point of uselessness. Pretty much any fantasy novel has that requisite map at the beginning of the book, and though you might be reading the eBook version on a device capable of HD video and millions of colors, that map? It looks like total crud.

Everyone on the publishing side realizes this of course - which is why the latest ePub and Kindle file formats are a form of HTML5. This is pretty exciting if you think about it - at the minimum, it should hopefully mean we start seeing eBooks with embedded fonts, images and formatting instructions that improve the presentation tenfold. Apple's going to launch something this week or next about text books, or maybe a "Garage Band for eBooks" or something. I'm guessing this is where they're going to be focusing as well.

Hey, I'll take it, but to use the analogy above, it's really only putting lipstick and a nice hat on your radio star. To me the question is where do eBooks go from there? Once they've reached parity with traditional books in terms of layout quality and presentation, what's the next step? Is "interactivity" the next big thing? Most interactive books I've seen so far aren't particularly compelling and/or are geared to little children. Or maybe it'll be quantity after quality, with a Netflix-style subscription service for new eBooks (back in my day we had buildings for this called, err... never mind).

If you think of eBooks as potentially being standardized portable HTML5 interactive databases (as opposed to custom 'apps'), things become a little interesting. I've yet to see the Joy of Cooking in eBook form (though it might actually be an 'app', not sure). Though I wonder, in a world of increasingly connected devices, doesn't it seem silly to package up data that could benefit from continual updates and social interaction? Why download the entire Wikipedia? The online version is always going to be more accurate and up-to-date, and depending on the device you're using, probably faster as well.

Standardization is key for interactivity. To me, interactive eBooks only make sense when they enable functionality that is beyond basic books, but not so much that it might as well be a custom 'app'. For example, text books for school: Practice tests in your eBook could be taken, checked automatically and the results sent to your teacher for review. This is a great use of interactivity for eBooks which make sense, and is enabled by a standard format (HTML5). In other words, if you're shooting aliens, it's not a 'book', IMHO.

About quantity, I have to say that there are torrents out there now that in a single download, contain so many pirated eBooks, that you literally could not finish them all in your lifetime - with a total file size that fits on a $12 thumb drive with room to spare. This points to one thing only - an industry that transforms into a 'hits' business (like the music industry), where prices drop considerably from the $9.99 per book now, to $0.99 for newest publications, and subscription access to the rest. And where extra-functionality is added in order to spur demand. Publishers and authors are not going to be happy about it, but that toothpaste is well out of the tube now, so there's little they can do to put it back in.

My final thought is to wonder about what is considered a 'book' anyways? Amazon's already pushing this concept with their Kindle Singles eBooks, and we're already reading news reports about unsigned authors selling millions of copies of their eBooks. Being 'published' doesn't seem to really count any more. But does this blog count as a book? If I packed up a few hundred pages of my more than 3000 posts into a .epub file, am I suddenly an 'author'? What separates that from what we expect when we pay $9.99 for a book from Simon & Schuster? Is it just the editor? Is the giant publishing industry as we know it going to transform into big buildings filled with editors, marketers and graphic designers for hire? Has that already began and I haven't heard about it yet?

Again, it's amazing that we're just at the beginning of the end of what is essentially the oldest form of 'mass media'. It may take another 25 years or so, but the printing press is going away after roughly 600 years of dominance. But what exactly it transforms into has yet to be determined, and that's a pretty exciting thought.


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