The Book is dead: long live the eBook!

Here are the two articles on ebooks. Click here to read them.


The Book is dead: long live the eBook!  Vol.1

The book is dead. The revolution has already happened. No more shelves. Goodbye to paper. It’s as if we were dancing on the decks of the Titanic just before the impact. Many of us will not survive. The bomb aimed at books has already been dropped. Those smelly, coloured chunks of paper which have been with us for thousands of years will soon be gone. They will go down the plughole just like cassettes and VHS videos.

Ricky Cavallero, of the Mondadori publishing house, who seems to have a very clear view of the iceberg, talks in terms of phases: the realisation phase, the understanding-what-no-longer-works phase, even though we’re not sure how we will make any money; and the calming-down phase: “But in any case books won’t disappear, nothing’s going to change.” So tell the truth: are you thinking the same way? “Certainly not”, says Cavallero. “They won’t vanish in the near future. Costs of production and distribution will, though. The world as we know it is finished!”

But when exactly is it going to end? Some say in three years’ time; others, like Nicholas Negroponte, say five years; in any case, the crunch is on the horizon. But there is no need to worry: for many, the change will be painless. Have we really suffered from the passing of VHS? Were we so upset when we changed to DVDs? Did we even notice? New technology is always better than that which it replaces, which is why it always wins and we’re all happy.

To be in danger, you have actually to be on the Titanic and some people in Rimini, during the three days of the EBook Lab event (March 3 to 5) realised that that was exactly where they were. Every so often, from the auditorium, the cries of anguish drifted up.

One man, a librarian, admitted, after the presentation by Giovanni Solimine (a professor of library economics): “I am depressed, very depressed. What’s going to happen to the 16000 lending libraries in Italy? They’re more than just post offices!” He will certainly have felt uncomfortable when Antonella De Robbio, an expert on libraries, asked us: “So what are you lending out, and what do you expect to get back? A file? An e-book reader? You lend something that you expect to be returned. What do you do with a computer file? Do you lend it or distribute it? And while it’s out on loan, I suppose I can’t lend it to anyone else?”

Another member of the audience got up after Max Whitby amazed the company with special effects and said, “You have made me feel every second of my seventy years!”

And then there is the story of the bookbinder from Piedmont who took on two computer programmers. He sent them to the conference, as though they were two assassins, to find out if anything could be done, whether the situation could be saved. This was a bookbinder with thirty employees. The two programmers were devastatingly clear about the fate awaiting the firm, as well as that which awaited paper (and in their view even the narrative was dead). But who knew what might be dreamed up that could limit the damage? Of course, it wasn’t going to be easy. Especially for those who’d worked in the industry for some time. It was as if a tile factory suddenly had to start making pastries. It was better to start from scratch rather than spend time wondering how to turn tiles into tarts.

In short, the arrival of the e-book has put a whole raft of trades at risk: editors, booksellers, librarians, printers, binders and so forth. Their place has been taken by a new professional creature, but his shape is blurred, ill-defined: he’s a hybrid consisting of an editor who selects and corrects text; a librarian who lends books out and a bookseller who is both sales person and consultant; but with the difference that everything happens on the Web, leading to a book without pages.

Here are some figures on the number of titles available in various countries:

USA: a million;
United Kingdom: five hundred thousand;
Germany: a hundred thousand
France: fifty thousand;
Italy: seven thousand.

In Italy the average cost of an e-book is 8 euros. The market is 0.0… % of that of the paper book market. And that is why we are so seriously behind the times. According to Marco Ferrario of Book Republic, while the market remains below fifty thousand titles, it can never grow.

Leonardo Chiariglione, the head of Cedeo, believes that this country is too small to become a battlefield for technology, just as, during the 16th century, it was too small for foreign armies. There are over twenty formats available. Standardisation is needed. Furthermore, as Renato Salvetti of Edigita notes, e-readers are too expensive for the time being and their files are chock-full of errors. Compared with traditional books, customers say that e-books are rubbish. But within three years they will all have paper-quality screens. Very soon they will be rechargeable through solar energy, thus making the batteries last forever.

Even before the format wars, there have been device wars. Some, such as the iPad which is similar to a normal computer, are backlit and are tiring on the eyes; others are non-backlit and have been designed specifically for reading. The device war has so far been won by iPad, with fifteen million devices sold in 2010, as against 2.4 million Kindles.

Ricky Cavallero would like to divert funds away from the traditional side of the business so as to finance the new business. He says it is not possible to use the business’s existing organisational structure: there has to be a change both of outlook and organisation. Given that he will no longer be selling books but licences instead, he asserts: “I’m no longer a publisher; I have become a library.”

But what is a digital book? What should it be able to do that a traditional book can’t do, and what should we expect of one?

We should expect that it has the same features as a traditional book, because we will want to carry it around, read it, make annotations, underline words or phrases, lend it to people and more besides. Strangely, one of the things people miss most is the smell of a book. When people talk about e-books, it is often in rejection: “I could never use an e-book because I like to feel them, to sniff at them…” That is why an e-book must, as well as everything else, be pleasant to the touch and give off a nice smell of paper.

However, new functions are added to old, including that of socialisation. A book becomes something people share, talk about, read together and discuss. An experience of a book becomes a social experience and this is one aspect that can acquire added value through social networking. The social element in the sharing of a passion is highly important.

And then there is the most obvious and wonderful feature: the opportunity to have an entire library in one device: a reader which can contain 3500 books with no problem at all. To get an idea of how sudden the change has been, one only has to remember that in New York a year and a half ago, e-books had never been seen and the iPad did not even exist. Now they are almost being doled out with chocolate bars.

Another idea of the suddenness of the change can be seen in school text books. In Italy from next year, it will no longer be possible exclusively to have paper text books: there will either be a mix of digital and paper, or digital only. One final statistic: on Amazon, the world’s largest retailer of e-books, controlling 76 per cent of the American market, sales of e-books outstripped those of paper books in the first few months of this year: 143 e-books sold, for every hundred paper books.

The Book is dead: long live the eBook!  Vol.2

While paper-based publishers, unable to change their business model, are asleep in their castles, new operators have arrived on the scene. One of these is Simplicissimus who, together with the Rimini Fair, have set up EBook Lab. Publishing on Stealth, the distribution platform set up by Simplicissimus, costs five per cent of the cover price of the e-books sold. And that’s all: Stealth is putting them all on online bookshops.

Solar System: the ebook of Touch Press

“But not everyone will survive”, predicts Cavallero, of the Mondadori publishing house. “There will be a very high casualty rate among new arrivals. A few dinosaurs will come through, or, if not, they’ll die extremely hard.”

For now, the only thing we can be sure of is the continued existence of the three giants who control almost the entire American market: Amazon, Google and Apple. Other giants battling for the new market include Baker and Taylor, the long-established entertainment and book distributor, who have created Blio. Launched in the USA in September 2010, Blio has 75 000  titles already available and a further 120 000 will be ready by the end of the year.

One of the most interesting opportunities for writers is about to be provided by ‘Print On Demand’, or the chance to publish one’s own book. Anyone can print his own book and sell it over the Net. Or you can decide not to bother to print it and sell it as an e-book instead. In either case, sales are made online, thus cutting out publishers and bookstores.
You may say that it has always been possible to do this, but we are not talking about printing a book and distributing it among a small circle of friends and relatives. Doing it online is another game altogether.

Take the case of Amanda Hocking, the most striking example of a writer who has published her own work. At the age of 26, she has already published eight novels in the genre of fantasy and the paranormal, through Amazon and similar sites. She sells around a hundred thousand e-books a month and pockets seventy per cent of the takings. This way, although she sells her books very cheaply indeed – between one and three dollars a copy – she has become a millionairess. All of which is deliciously satisfying to someone whose work has been rejected by the publishing houses.

The same goes for Stephen Leather, a well-known English thriller writer. After seeing three of his novels turned down by his publisher, he made them available only in e-book form. Surprise, surprise: since November he has outstripped both Grisham and Larsson and is top of the sales charts on Amazon UK.

The Duke

According to Marco Carrara, known as “The Duke”, who runs the Baionette Librarie (Book Bayonets) blog, the only way that publishers can compete with self-publishers is by choosing their texts very carefully. “Self-publishers will produce any kind of junk”, he says. “There will be an absolute sea of garbage out there and only publishers can guarantee a mark of quality. That’s why publishers must concentrate solely on quality.”

And if we go into the business of copyright, things get complicated because “the law is outdated and does not keep pace with new circumstances. As a result it is being interpreted along Machiavellian lines”, explains Giorgio Spedicato of the University of Bologna.

Everyone agrees that the rules need to be changed, or the risk will be that no one will observe them. Copyright needs to be defined in more equitable terms, if for no other reason than that pirates can take whatever they want from the Net, since books have now become little pieces of the Web.

Alessandro Bottoni, secretary of the Partito Pirata (Pirates’ Party), tells us how to pirate an e-book. DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a group of systems that prevents copying. These systems are widely loathed because they prevent people from doing quite normal things with books, such as copying them or lending them out. Moreover, DRM enables sellers of e-books to retain control over them even after they have been sold. Bottoni tells us a story about Amazon who, after selling Orwell’s 1984 to various customers, then discovered that they were not entitled to the rights. They then proceeded to delete customers’ copies of the book remotely from their Kindle devices. Customers suddenly found that their copy of the book had simply vanished! (There’s something very Orwellian about it.)

DRM contains a code which can be identified and decrypted. You simply need to find out where it is, and then there are excellent programs such as ‘John the Ripper’ which can run through a million possible encryption keys per second. Thus, no matter how complex the encryption key is, it can be identified within a few hours.

Says Bottoni: “The biggest problem that digital publishers face is that, in the end, their products can be seen on a screen or listened to. But people have video cameras and microphones. Most copies are made like this, including music tracks. And there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself against this kind of piracy.”

Then, using DjVu, a format which generates files that are just a fraction the size of the originals, you can ‘photograph’ all of Treccani (Italy’s biggest encyclopedia) and put it on the Net in the form of a tiny file, without worrying about protection. Concludes Bottoni, “Customisation is the best form of protection. And the only way to avoid being pirated is to be worth the money you make!”

While books were tangible objects, you had to observe the rules: if you wanted the book you had to buy it. But now that books have lost their physical form, people are moving towards the idea that everyone is entitled to knowledge. From this point of view, the notion of copyright seems to be melting away.

However, just a few days ago we learned that the deal between Google and the publishing houses was rejected by an American judge on the grounds that it violated copyright and antitrust legislation. So Google will not be able to put its huge digital bookshop online, a resource to which, whether willingly or not, all authors were added, and through which they could be paid each time their works were clicked on and viewed.

Although the application was rejected, the antitrust authority has requested an overhaul of the law on copyright which will allow for technological and financial developments on the Web. What is now needed is a solution which will protect intellectual property while at the same time allowing the exploitation of intellectual resources through new technology.

Another hot spot can be found in high schools, where ‘digital natives’ with ‘connective thought’ processes come up against teachers rooted in their individual disciplines. This has led to a reversal of roles: the schoolkids now teach their teachers how to use all the technologies that they bring to class, only to have their teachers confiscate them!

Max Whitby

The idea that an e-book is not simply a digital photocopy of a paper-based book has been demonstrated by Max Whitby, the head of Touch Press. This firm’s idea was to go beyond the printed page and create something that would be three-dimensional and interactive. So they brought together some of America’s best software designers who, alongside authors, created The Elements, a book for the i-Pad. They sold 300 000 copies in fifteen months and 185 000 e-books in ten months. Whitby has shown it to us and it’s wonderful. The elements – gold, for example – rotate when touched, grow larger or smaller, turn upside down, and so forth. Solar System, their second e-book, has also been a runaway success. Of course, these e-books have come out in various languages, but not yet in Italian, perhaps because, as Cavallero has said, our footprint on the chessboard of the world’s languages is akin to that of a ‘patois’.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land.

Now they are about to launch The Waste Land, an e-book in Eliot’s poetry. Whitby brings on an actress who reads the poems, and shows us that it is possible to isolate individual words. The poems are read by various people, including the poet himself, and the user can skip between different readers. There are forty interviews with the greatest authorities on Eliot. It includes the best press reviews on Eliot, the Nobel prizewinner, among other features.

In other words, they have brought the TV, the press and interactivity together in a new medium. Solar System cost 250 000 dollars to make, but recouped the costs in four weeks and two days. As Whitby concludes, “Only top quality will do, but if you can do it you can make a lot of money.”

I realise that in our country we have somewhat lost the habit of top quality, but why don’t we take up Whitby’s challenge and produce a futuristic version of the Divine Comedy or The Odyssey?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land.

Redattrice in programmi Rai, pubblicista, story editor e producer di serie tv, prima in Rai, poi a Mediaset. Scrivo tanto. Nel 2011 ho creato Cronache Letterarie.

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