This article describes Sony’s latest effort to produce a truly usable e-book. Based on the optimistic marketing-ese in the article, it sounds like they finally might have done it.
The reader uses new e-paper technology, where no energy is required to power the monitor itself; instead, “e-ink” is used: the reader physically changes the state of the pixels. Imagine a giant grid with covered with ping-pong balls painted black on one side and white on the other. You can flip any of the balls at any time to create a black or white “pixel,” but once you’ve created your image, no additional energy is required. At 170 DPI, the resolution of the monitor is more than double that of a typical computer monitor, and the readout is as clear as if it was printed on a sheet of paper.
In short, if we are to believe their adspeak, Sony appears to have produced the Holy Grail of e-books. Now what does this mean for the future of books?
First of all, it has shifted the burden of the initial capital expenditure for making a book. In the old style of publishing, the publisher was responsible for the major capital outlays involved in the publication process. The Big One has always been printing costs: if you want to have a reasonable per-unit publishing cost, you have to print a lot of books–typically at least 5,000. This might bring your per-unit cost down to, say $3 per copy, for a $15,000 initial investment. Once you’re spending that kind of money, you want to make sure your final product looks good, so you spend another $15,000 or so hiring designers and typographers to prepare the book for printing. Now you’re spending some serious money, so you’ll need an editor to make sure the content you’re producing isn’t tripe. Add another $15,000. Once you’ve spent that much, you’ll need to add money in the budget to market the book when it’s printed. Easily another $15,000, give or take. So an absolute bargain basement book costs at least $60,000 before we even begin thinking about paying the author!
In the new e-book model, the publisher never has to make that initial $15,000 investment for printing. Since the publisher never had to invest anything, suddenly editors, designers, and typographers don’t seem so important–there’s no investment to protect. If there’s no investment, then why bother with marketing either? If a book catches on, there’s free money for everyone; if it doesn’t, no one’s lost anything, so it doesn’t matter. In fact, the publisher itself doesn’t matter: the publisher was only there to cover the large initial investment. No investment, no publisher!
So, who now takes the place of the publisher? The reader, of course! It’s the reader who has to make the initial investment in an e-book reading machine, which is what made all this possible. But why would the reader buy the e-book machine if there’s no assurance from publishers that high-quality books will be available? Publishers are caught in a catch-22 here. They’d like nothing better than to shunt printing costs onto their customers, but once e-book readers are widespread, no one will need publishers. I suspect publishers will try to do the same thing the recording industry is doing with music: act as if the new medium doesn’t exist while simultaneously trying to profit from it.
In fact, the publishing industry is actually in a worse position than the recording industry. Once we have a truly viable electronic replacement for books, the publisher’s role will be reduced to near zero. At least with the recording industry, someone has to pay for the expense of producing the music, and studio space doesn’t come cheap these days. By contrast, anyone who can run a word processor can make a book, and if they have talent as a writer, the quality of the design, typography, even the proofreading becomes a distant second in terms of what really matters to readers.
The publishing industry will hold on valiantly for a few years, maybe even a few decades, but it will inevitably become a shadow of its former self. The key to writing a best seller will be publicity, and publishers will be no more than glorified publicists, not the arbiters of taste and culture that they claim to be today.