For Earth Day: E-Reading Without Apologies

April 22 is a day dedicated to giving something back to the planet we share. While it gets me no spousal credit wrt the scheduled park-cleanup and preschool-repainting chores, I believe that broader adoption of e-Reading can make a huge difference. The compelling environmental and social benefits of e-Reading is something I feel we often lose sight of amongst the bright shiny objects of new technology, the need to create profitable businesses, and especially the cultural gravitas and “pride of place” associated with paper books and traditional publishing.
This last I believe is something those of us working in ePublishing should address head-on, without apologies. For all their many merits, paper books are an artifact of the economic elite; arguably, no other industry segment places more environmental burden on the planet than paper-based publishing. As a result of these costs and attendant distribution inequities “haves” are sharply separated from “have-nots” in regard to access to books (whose prices have risen faster than inflation).
It may be too soon in the evolution of e-Reading to argue convincingly that e-Books will substantially replace p-Books, but we need make no apologies for this possibility. Rather, we should stimulate adoption by working to capture the cost savings and increased distribution opportunities inherent in digital content, and then ensure that most of these savings are passed on to consumers. In the near term, still feeling the hangover from the burst of the eBook hype bubble of the early 2000s, it’s going to remain tough sledding. But the lesson of the digital photography industry shows us how quickly this sentiment can flip.
In the mid-1990s there was a lot of talk about the magical qualities of film photography and photo artifacts. Photo albums are treasured, totemic family mementos, something people risk their lives to save from burning houses. The professional, SLR photo hobbyist, and the casual photo memory sharer alike have all been accustomed, for generations, to film and photo labs. That most of these users would “convert” to digital? Unthinkable! “Single-use digital cameras”: a laugh line at PMA 1998. Yet less than 8 years later, it is obvious that digital is replacing film across the board.
One major reason for this is cost: it is simply expensive to create, distribute, and process film. And a key component of this cost is environmental: Kodak was as recently as 2003 still one of the largest carcinogen producers in the United States. But as digital takes over, the environment impact of photography is diminishing. Consumers didn’t adopt digital photography to “save the planet” or “enable 3rd-world access to photography” – they adopted because of price and convenience.
Of course this also required something that’s not quite there yet in ePublishing: good enough devices. But the dramatic change in digital cameras in the last decade shows how rapidly Moore’s Law and the competitive market can evolve toys into professional tools. In 2006 the Sony Reader, Tablet PCs, and Treo-type convergence devices show that we’re getting closer to “good enough”, but well before 2016 we will have low-cost reading-optimized devices that are almost unimaginably superior, and that truly deliver “better than paper” experiences.
Back to print publishing and the environment. The current environmental impact is not just the stereotypical “tree cutting”. A single family’s annual use of paper is not only several trees’ worth of wood, but also significant amounts of energy, greenhouse gases and other pollutants, solid waste, chlorine and other toxins, and water consumption. The transportation of that paper to the home and then back out again (10% of landfill space is consumed by newsprint) consumes yet more energy and produces yet more pollutants. And in much of the world, lacking superhighways and massive warehouses, it is simply infeasible to distribute information this way.
Digital photography passed on its cost savings to consumers very directly: capturing and digital viewing of pictures has become effectively free, with on-demand printing of photos a secondary behavior. Digital publishing is far trickier. Books have a user-perceived value that authors and publishers want very much to preserve. But this user value is not set in stone at $14.99 for a trade paperback. New business models, such as subscriptions, will play key roles and in many segments of the publishing market the Web is fundamentally changing what publishing is all about.
But even withiin the current single-copy-sale business model, digital distribution should enable e-books at half the price of p-books, giving publishers and authors equivalent margins and a superior return on investment. This will only be true if we lower the costs of creating and supporting eBooks, and create a significantly larger base of user adoption. So we still have our work cut out for us.
Meanwhile, the trash clean-up beckons… Happy Earth Day!