Friday, November 28, 2008

What is the future for books?

I was waiting in the airport terminal the other day and decided that it was the right time for a new book. I was already reading one, but needed a fresh one to get me through yet another flight.

Now, I don't think I'm cheap, but for normal reading books (novels or history books) I try and set myself a AUD$30.00 limit. Now I think that is reasonable. With the price of CDs and DVDs plummeting in the face of more and more online content, when I buy a physical object I am demanding a lot more of it because I can just get it online otherwise.

So, when I found a book that I like - an Australian book published and (hopefully) printed in Australia - only to find it cost $37.95 I was shocked to say the least. The book, The Land of Plenty, by Mark Davis and published by Melbourne University Press, is $36.95 direct from the publisher, and $36.99 from Angus and Robertson so it wasn't just the airport book shop trying to get one over me.

Sure, this book probably caters for a niche market, and the costs of such a small run probably don't allow for any discounts, but surely there must be a cheaper alternative and I know there is.

E-book readers have been around for a while now but the average price is still sitting somewhere between US$300-500, so they are not cheap. But the fact of the matter is that from a publishers point of view the e-book should be a fairly compelling avenue to pursue. The value of a publishers work is in the IP the works contain and the traditional paperback has only been a means for distribution.

The difficulty in e-book readers is that they are trying to specialise with EInk display screens that are much more easy on the eyes than traditional back-lit laptops or PDAs. Because of this specialising, easy-on-the-eyes e-book readers have been held into a fairly niche market.

But, the technology is only ever one part of the equation. If the boffins at DELL, ASUS or HP were given enough incentive I'm sure they could create a pretty good easy-on-the-eyes screen mode on a normal tablet PC or PDA. Another reason for the limited e-book market is the ever-present rights management.

Amazon have been able to manage publishers IP through a DRM format of text and uses a direct Internet link from Amazon to the Amazon Kindle therefore assisting to make sure the text doesn't fly off online in the middle of the night. Other e-book providers have also created their own DRM formats, but as we have seen through the Walmart MP3 DRM fiasco customers are becoming more and more wary of DRM supported formats because of their tendency to disappear.

The only reason books have not gone the way of the DVD or CD is the fact that no-body apart from Google and a few universities could be bothered flipping so many pages over a scanner to digitise the books and as yet the hackers haven't decided to infiltrate publishers to get digital versions of new release books.

So what does this all mean? For me it means that as with the dodo and soon the CD and DVD, the paperback is destined to become extinct because the case for costs savings in publishing is too compelling for publishers. But, as with audio and visual arts, the global management of IP in a digital world has meant that e-books are being published at a snails pace.

I am hoping that when publishers and authors come around the the post-copyright era and embrace creative commons and digitised books we will be able to download books that we want to read for a fraction of the paperback cost whilst saving one more tree in the tropics.

Check-list for a post paperback world:

* Integrated PDA/phone/e-book back-lit/Eink reading panel
* Non-DRM file format
* International IP agreement (Creative Commons?)
* Value-added services (audio/video integration, authors blogs, hyperlinked bibliography ...)

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