Saturday, September 29, 2012

e-Book Purgatory

The dominant theme of this irregular blog is that the so-called digital divide is more so-called than actual divide. For me the seminal example of that was the moment while do-gooders in the developed world were bemoaning the digital divide, in the developing world the realization took place that it was cheaper and easier to build out cellular networks than it was to lay copper everywhere, and soon the developing world was ahead with some actual profitable uses of cellular phones that were often more sophisticated than spoiled consumers in the developed world did. Farmers and fisherman in the developing world were using cellphones  to create economic value while the developed world was busy listening to i-Tunes.

Today we are in the world of iPhone-5 and various Android phones, taking just 40 or 50 cents of current per year to be charged. Now these phones are still in the toy stage, for the batteries do not last, and of course the network that support them require extensive investment, and are far from omnipresent, but feature phones are getting ever cheaper too, and with text plus voice amazing things are already possible.

Something else is happening too. The ecosystem that supports these technologies can be located anywhere, and already there is an interesting development of locating data centers in ways that leverage renewable energy opportunities, so the Internet experience of presence at a global concept also works in reverse.

The best university courses are becoming available online, and Amazon sells more e-books than print books since some time already. But it goes further than that, the e-book phenomenon is making books omnipresent too. Being of the immigrant variety myself, I realize that where in the past the shipping cost of a Dutch book from Holland to New York, might make it prohibitive to buy Dutch books, unless I happened to be visiting, now I'll be able to read Dutch books anywhere. But hold on to your hat. Publishers have not found out yet that there are readers for their books beyond shipping reach of print books. Often times Dutch books are available within Holland but not out side, which means publishers are missing out on a market that is twice the size of Holland itself. And undoubtedly the same is going on in other countries. Think Greece. There probably are more Greeks living outside of Greece than within it. Israel, same story. China anyone? There are some Chinese populations outside of China...

In short, the digital divide once again is a joke on the developed world, not the developing world. With newer e-readers now offering as much as 8-week battery-life, they are becoming viable for use almost anywhere, and the potential for spread of the printed word is tremendously increased, and being multi-lingual is hence becoming easier. This along with the fact that even educators are finally catching up to the fact the rest of us already knew, namely that a multi-lingual education does not handicap a child, but rather improves its learning. Most likely the the correlation that is observed here is simply based on the fact that being multi-lingual would tend to develop abstract thinking much earlier.

So, as happens so often the technology is racing ahead of people still stuck in the old paradigm, and publishers and book distributors need to catch up and address themselves to new, global realities. Interestingly, I spoke with one US-based small publisher recently, who are very conscious of this situation, and came to the conclusion that they need to focus on EPUB e-books, because the global demand they see favors that format, as the MOBI format (Amazon Kindle) is mostly still a US-only phenomenon, so Sony, Barnes & Noble (nook), Kobo and others are taking the lead there - something which is not yet understood in the US press.

Now, if publishers and book distributors can also start to join the ditigal era, then they would soon find out that the markets for their books are double or more their native markets where print books can economically be distributed. In short, let's wait and see how the developed world solves this particular digital divide, which is caused entirely by them being stuck in the old paradigm of print books.

As a word of caution, we might add the note that e-books in the end are not a replacement of print books entirely. There are a lot of enduring features of print books that will truly make them viable in the long run, except my feeling is that the cheap one-read books will disappear, and books will become more of a specialty item. Publishers will have to be re-educated to produce quality books, and that means sewn in signatures, and glued, and sometimes actually bound. Durability will be a key value, both in the physical sense, but also in the sense that a book is something you actually own, and you can will it to your kids, etc. whereas an e-book is a generally non-transferable license to a single user, it is non-durable by definition, as well as in fact. Family Bibles will not be e-books.

Another place where the digital divide makes itself felt is in e-book production. I experienced this myself with my own publisher, who converted one of my books into e-books, even while I had already prepared a new edition that was suitable for the e-book format. The problem was a table which through automated conversion became an image, and unreadable, while I had already converted the table to a text format, which would have been usable in an e-reader format. Then in a recent e-book project we worked with a production company that insisted that justified text on a Sony e-reader was handled by the device and not at the file level. Which was promptly disproven by the nineteen year old son of the publisher who produced justified text on the Sony device by simply forcing justified text through the style sheet. And the last mystery we encountered was that cover pages behave differently on EPUB vs MOBI, and our production company did not know how to do it on EPUB, which is annoying, to say the least, particularly if people are touting their expertise in supporting multiple formats. To make us all feel better, the newest book by J.K. Rowling seemed to have even worse problems with its original e-book edition. So again it will take some time for this particular digital divide to close, and publishers, editors, and production companies to truly know how to produce quality e-books. As always, you cannot make it up on volume. For publishers to have relevance in the future they will have to provide superior editorial, marketing and production skills, otherwise they will become obsolete, and fall right into the digital divide.

Copyright © 2012 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.

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