Premature evolution: E-book standards alone won’t solve the publishing problem

Peter Osnos, writing at The Atlantic, reiterates PC World‘s Tony Bradley in calling for a standard e-book format, writing that “it is a good place to start.” His article, however, suggests that the reproduction of reading is also the end of the road:

“As readers become increasingly familiar and comfortable with reading and listening devices and the machinery for producing books on what are essentially a new generation of copiers, books can be instantly available. If readers come to believe they can get Good Books. Any Way You Want Them. Now, and publishers can provide them without the waste, inefficiency, and consumer frustration that comes from scrambling to put out the right number of printed copies, I believe that books will hold their own–and maybe more so.”

Osnos has been working with the Caravan project, whence his Good Books slogan comes, with The Century Foundation for some time, commenting occasionally on the progress. A key idea in his posting today is that e-book reader devices (hardware and/or software) are a “new generation of copiers” and that distribution is the challenge “for books.” As I wrote last week, responding to Bradley’s article, getting words on the digital page is only a small fraction of the challenge ahead, and that any standards should not prevent the development of enhanced reading experiences that transcend the printed book, which is solely a delivery platform, not a networked environment comparable to the Web. It’s my opinion, but it bears repeating as often as we hear the argument that words on a page make a book.

Distribution is the challenge for publishers, not the form we know as the book. Books are packages, which have been applied successfully to moving thousands of words from printing facility to the public for centuries, distribution is the key to making money as a publisher. Books are changing, just as the products produced by every other industry has been transformed in whole or part by digitization. Yet, there will always be dyad of writer and reader, into which publishers can insert themselves as a middleman.

Granted, there will be no publishers without profits, but there could be books without publishers—that’s the essential dispute over which publishers conduct their arguments with themselves and the market, insisting they are essential to the getting of books and information. They aren’t, though they can provide tremendous value through the efforts to vet and prepare writing and other modes of expression for publication and, binding that “authority” to distribution, create substantially enhanced value for the reading public. They have added value largely by assuming the risk of getting information to the customer, as inefficient as that has been, but this is no longer where they need to concentrate their investment.

With distribution risk lapsing as the key business leverage publishers bring to the market, innovation in stories—of idea delivery in all forms of the ineluctable modality of experience—is the Rubicon in publishing’s way. Gutenberg’s innovation instigated much more than a change in the production of copies. Changing the book, rather than treating the e-reader as another generation of copiers, remains essential to the evolution of the business we know as publishing. As long as reproducing the book is the primary focus, the value of e-books will be determined solely by price, which is a game for losers to play while someone else defines the new value in reading using networks, privacy technology and annotation systems.

About Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.
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