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!

4 Responses to For Earth Day: E-Reading Without Apologies

  1. ellenweber says:

    Good ideas here and thanks. It seems to me that the proliferation of ebooks is tied into the readers out there and these need work. People who read, also like to curl up with a good book and they complain that this is not possible with the ebook readers. It seems tgo me that when the push came for ebooks it was not matched with the quality of readers that could make ebooks fly…. What can be done to improve readers in your opinion?

  2. ellenweber says:

    I am not sure price even is a factor as much as convenience and efficiency of use. The current readers do not seem adequate to support the market for ebooks — or it is just that they are improved now and need a better chance. It’s time to look again… Thanks for raising this…

  3. Mihai says:

    I will list some of the factors I am looking at, before deciding to buy a reader:
    – I should be able to take it where I take a book. This means out in the sun, in an airplane, without being afraid that it will break in my backpack. This also means long-life bateries, small enough, good resolution.
    – Price is an issue, but not so much for the reader. If I spend something on a reader, then I want to see some saving on the books. They are cheaper to produce/distribute than the paper ones, dont’ they? So I want to see some of the saving. This might offset the price of the reader in time.
    – DRM. This is a big one. I know a book I buy now I can still read in 20 years, I can give it to a friend, no problem. Not so with ebooks the way they are now. Even without DRM, will the format be stable enough to read in 20 years?

  4. Andre says:

    Media cartels are either culturally unwilling or unable to recognize that even casual consumers sense fraud in the pricing of new eBooks. Prices on Sony’s CONNECT site, during the brief instances the site went live, showed that an eBook listing was typically only 33% below the hardcover price; or if the book was in paperback, there would be no savings against the paperback at all. It’s certainly possible that publishers are simply ignorant or greedy, but given how universally and vociferously commenters have complained about the pricing, there has to be more at work.
    However much they wish to believe otherwise, publishers are not simply in the content business. They manufacture a physical product whose social, aesthetic and sensual qualities are integral to the product’s value, only some of which is sentimental.
    I suspect that publishers really don’t want eBooks to succeed, and may very well be deliberately pricing them just above what a thriving or even sustainable market will bear. Even if publishers preserve their margins and authors their royalties with half-price books carrying virtually no overhead, what really terrifies them is the perception of value being lost. If E Ink devices succeed beyond expectations, then deep discounts would erode the public’s willingness to pay $30 for the next Harry Potter hardcover.
    Unfortunately the fate of E Ink readers is largely tied to eBook pricing. Unlike digital cameras, which are prosumer devices, digital readers — at least in the way they’re being marketed — are intended for purchased content. Content providers may kill the new platform before it has a chance to grow, and pundit will assume the lack of consumer interest lay in the devices rather than content overpricing.