Commentary - Towards a paperless future

Christopher Gassonanalyses the changes taking place in the world of e-books

The imminent arrival of the e-book has created an almost messianic aura of expectation in the book trade. The prophets have foretold doom and damnation for printers, publishers and booksellers. And these prophets are not living in the wilderness eating locusts. They are on the Pacific West Coast of America, and they are throwing a few hundred million dollars behind their belief that the e-book will take half the print and paper market within the next decade. "Paper is only the latest in a long line of reading 'technologies' that were made obsolete each time an improved solution emerged," says Bill Gates. And Microsoft has invested heavily in building software to make it easier to read books on computer screens.

There are e-books currently on the market: the Rocket eBook, for instance, with its curious cylindrical spine; the EBJ, which looks like a laptop, but which you can open like a book: inside is a pair of facing screens; and the SoftBook Reader, which resembles an outsize personal organiser. But these are no more than a chunky bunch of moulded plastic misfits, whose existence does little more than mock the enthusiasm of e-book missionaries.

We have come to expect first-generation technologies to look slightly comic. But e-books have to look and feel better than p-books, or they aren't worth inventing. The one, I suspect, which finally breaks through the scepticism and converts readers from print and paper will be as dinky and desirable as a Nokia and as readable as print on the page. It is some challenge, but the wise men of the technology industry remain optimistic. They have noticed auspicious developments at the MIT Media Lab, where researchers have produced a new technology called Electronic Ink, a liquid made up of tiny capsules that can be printed on a surface, such as paper or plastic. This can then be made to change from white to black when an electric current is sent across the surface (which could be supplied by a circuitboard laminated beneath the page). The developers claim that because it is made from the same basic materials, it looks just as good as standard ink on the page.

The artifact of the e-book has assumed mystic significance. But there are other issues that must be overcome before the e-book triumphs over the p-book. Most notably, people have got to want to purchase downloads off the web.

There was a saying in the early days of the internet: "Information wants to be free." After venture capitalists started throwing big money at the medium, this saying was dismissed as a hippy slogan of a bygone age of collaboration. What was not realised was that it was not a statement of how things ought to be, but an observation about how things are, in a world where text can be reproduced at marginal cost. Take share price information, for example. Five years ago, if you wanted instant share prices, you either had to pay a couple of thousand pounds for a Reuters screen, or you had to use premium phone lines. Today, Alta Vista lists 389,734 sites offering free stock quotes.

Even where information is unique, it is often difficult to control and sell. Stephen King has been writing a novel, The Plant, in e-book format. After issuing the third instalment in August, he threatened to pull the plug on the project unless the disparity was resolved between downloads and payments received. "As simply as I can put it, you must pay for what you take every time you take it, or this won't work," he said.

Pricing and security were the hot topics at two e-book conferences held in New York last month. Henry Yuen, chief executive of Gemstar-TV Guide, the company which makes both Rocket eBooks and SoftBooks, suggested that it would be possible to charge $20 for a new novel, as long as the publisher made it exclusively available in a single e-book format, such as Rocket. Presumably, anyone who has spent $300 on the latest Rocket eBook is prepared to pay that much to have something to read on it.

Steve Brill of Contentville (contentville.com) was more pessimistic. He argued that the most publishers should charge was $1.99 for a new title, otherwise there would not be the uptake to turn the readership of e-books into a mass market. The online retailers have already started giving away downloads as a means of building the market. For anyone looking to make money from e-books, the tactic has a depressingly familiar ring to it.

This has not stopped the major international publishing groups getting behind the push from p-book to e-book. Although such a move could destroy their businesses, in most of the big international publishing groups, e-books are an article of faith for senior managers. If books don't go digital, then the rationale for book publishing to be included in the portfolios of the big media groups disappears.

Random House, owned by Bertelsmann, is pushing hardest, offering authors 50 per cent royalties to encourage them to hand over their electronic rights. Little, Brown, owned by AOL- Time Warner, is also at the forefront, committing huge sums to its iPublish.com project. Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins has been the laggard, but the firm's special projects director, Christopher North, told the e-Book World Conference in New York: "You will see HarperCollins participate in every way in this market. We are going to be there and we are going to be successful."

But will fervour be enough sweep away print, paper, bookshops and publishers? Ecclesiastes 12:12 may provide the answer: "Of making many books there is no end."

Christopher Gasson, a former financial editor of the Bookseller, is a publishing company broker with Bertoli Mitchell

This article first appeared in Goodbye to the dirty mac image

2000-12-04