Paper trail

13th June 2011

If you are thinking of switching to e-readers or introducing e-books in the workplace or at home, you might want to wait a while. As FSN writer Lesley Meall discovers, despite the hype, virtual books may be one more example of information technology creating as many problems as it solves. 

When the notion of the paperless office first entered the public consciousness many of us were expecting something a little more science fiction than the science fact we have so far ended up with. Time will tell, of course: digital devices such as the Kindle may eventually replace physical books (but I hope not), electronic communications may eventually eliminate the need to send and receive paper documents (but I suspect not), and the myriad software and systems that aim to automate and streamline paper-based processes may eventually live up to their promises (but I wouldn’t bet on it). 

So, where does this leave us? Well, e-books are apparently outselling the traditional variety in the UK and the US on Amazon, according to Christopher North, vice president of media at Amazon; though it is hard to work out how many devices are being sold and who is buying them. Amazon doesn’t share the sales figures for actual devices, and before the pre-Christmas shop-fest, when Pew Research Centre surveyed Generations and their gadgets, it found that only 5 per cent of all US adults owned an e-book reader such as a Kindle (and just 4 per cent owned a tablet computer such as an iPad) – whilst all of us own at least one ‘real’ book. 

But traditional publishing houses are struggling to sustain the growth investors demand, and high street book retailers are struggling just to survive. The Borders Group, the second largest book retailer in the US, filed for bankruptcy in February,and the UK’s largest book chain Waterstone’s recently changed hands, so the publishing industry is clearly going through a disruptive phase. Whether this will be the end of books, as we know them, is something else. Professor John Thompson of Cambridge University has been researching this for his book Merchants of Culture, and he is not convinced. 

‘Around 95 percent of the revenues in the industry still come from physical book sales,’ he reports, but as ‘the only thing growing is e-book sales’, everyone focuses on this and then attributes the revolution in publishing to it – rather than the real causes. This isn’t the place to go into these causes any more deeply, but if you are one of the many millions who ‘cherish the book’ and you want a balanced perspective on its future, Thompson gives an enlightening interview in The Brooklyn Rail, where amongst other things he addresses one of the fundamental misunderstandings about the cost of e-books – that they are cheaper to produce. 

‘The question of the printing and paper is a relatively minor part of publisher’s cost, maybe 10 percent of their overall costs,’ he explains. Most of the costs are related to the overhead costs of running a publishing organisation: the editorial time required by publishing and development, the design work, the marketing and publicity expenditure, all remain whether it’s to be printed or not. ‘When you move to the electronic form of delivery, the biggest difference is with regard to the intermediaries in the supply chain and the real estate of the bookstores,’ he adds, ‘and everything associated with the side of physically moving the books’. Hence the struggles of Borders and Waterstone’s. 

When you are reading for pleasure, the choice between digital and physical books is largely emotional, which is not unlike the way we respond to devices such the iPad: you either love them or hate them, can’t wait to get your sticky little fingers on one, or can’t be bothered. Things are rather different for business consumers. If you are going to introduce e-readers into the workplace they have to justify themselves financially – don’t they. Well, if our past experiences of technology and its introduction into the world of work are anything to go by, perhaps they will simply need to seem to be able to justify themselves financially. 

Cloud computing is widely regarded as a least cost option for accessing software and other technology assets, but things are not this straightforward (as FSN highlighted here and here). The relatively brief history of ERP systems is littered with expensive disappointments and failures, but this doesn’t stop businesses from continuing to invest in them, ever hopeful that this time it will be different (as FSN highlighted here). Then there are the myriad electronic systems which have, at no small cost and with varying degrees of success, tried to make it easier for us to share paper documents: from content and electronic document management systems through email to the humble fax. 

After I bemoaned its continued existence in a previous FSN article (whilst constructively considering some of the superior online alternatives for sharing documents), somebody (constructively) pointed out to me what a valuable tool the fax machine remains for many businesses. But this stalwart device is not without problems: the world is still full of analogue fax machines that don’t get on well with digital telephone lines – though a ‘line converter’ soon sorts out the problem.

 Then there is email. It is wonderful and there is no way that most of us could begin to manage in a world that no longer includes it (for a while, at least). We have been spoiled (in more ways than one) by its immediacy, ease of use, and what is well on the way to being its universal accessibility. But who could have guessed, when we first rushed to embrace its many possibilities, that we would eventually need special tools to filter out the rubbish and psychic powers to spot the really important stuff (emails with the unhelpful title ‘Re:’ should be as much an anathema as spam). 

By now, you think we’d all know better; you’d think we might appreciate that in the case of technology as with everything else, things rarely turn out the way we expect them too; but no. So Forrester Research is predicting that sales of digital titles (and e-readers) will top $1 billion during 2011, and the New York Times recently added e-books to its Best Seller list, and many comentators are gleefully using developments such as this, and Amazon’s disingenuous claims of e-book hegemony to justify assertions that this is the beginning of the end for the book as we have known it.  

I know that I am tempting fate by stating this, but chances are that the old world of books and the new world of e-books will coexist side by side for some time to come. The changes seem destined to be a little more evolutionary than revolutionary – despite the potentially disruptive influence of digital distribution and consumption – because at the moment, e-readers are still battling their way through the format wars stage. So if you are thinking of creating your own digital library, for pleasure or for business use, in the hope that it will save you either money or time (or both), you need to factor in current constraints and future possibilities.  

At the moment, there is a ‘tower of eBabel’ of e-book publishing formats, and the digital rights management (DRM) situation currently benefits publishers and retailers to the disadvantage of the consumer. Although the levels of complexity (and available features) vary across e-readers, e-book retailers, and DRM platforms, you can not yet buy and read any e-book anywhere, using any software platform you choose, on any device you choose, whether that is a phone, tablet, laptop, PC, or even an e-reader – though reading e-books in a browser can take some of the pain from the process courtesy of the Google e-books service and Amazon’s  ‘Look Inside’ feature. 

But universal DRM for e-books remains elusive. Until bodies such as the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) and the International Digital Publishing forum (IDPF) can reach a consensus on what to do about DRM interoperability or standardisation, most of the e-books you buy will remain closely tied by DRM technology to a particular seller or reading device, courtesy of Amazon, Apple and Adobe (with the latter’s DRM software being used by Google e-books and in Barnes & Noble Nooks and Sony and Kobo Readers). Then there is the difficulty of organising and managing your virtual library: with the best will in the world, it’s not easy. 

With traditional books you can take a haphazard approach. You can organise your books by subject, the chronology of acquisition, or the the size of your bookshelves and the books which will fit on them, and it won’t take long for you to find what you are looking for. But in the world of the e-book things are more complicated. As there is no universal e-bookshelf, you buy and read a book, but if you want to take another look at some point in the future, you’ll need to remember where and how you bought it. Until these barriers are eliminated, e-books will be yet one more example of digital media creating as many problems as they attempt to solve.