Prompted by his recent purchase of a heavily discounted Sony eReader, Adrian Hon posted some thoughts on The Death of Publishers. He reckons that publishers have a decade at best before they go the way of the music industry:
Ripped books do have one huge advantage over MP3s and videos; they are tiny. An uncompressed novel takes up about 100kb in plain text; even with formatting, you could compress it down to around 50kb. That means that a hundred novels would be 5MB – a wholly unremarkable size that could be emailed between friends easily. Ten thousand novels – say, the last 20 years of books worth reading – would take up 500MB. Thatâ€™s about the same size as a ripped TV show that millions of people around the world routinely download every week.
The barrier isn't distributing the text, it's getting the text into a digital format. The music industry was screwed as soon as multimedia PCs became commonplace because the CD format they were so happy to encourage us all to move to a couple of decades ago made it trivially easy for anyone with a CD drive in their computer to rip the content they already owned to play on their computer or MP3 player.
In principle it's easy enough to take a book, scan the pages and feed the resulting images to OCR software, but very few people bother to do so. Lots of people have scanners, but not everyone has an automated sheet feeder for their scanner, and most people who've bought a book aren't willing to mutilate the book by separating the pages from the spine so they can be scanned.
If you want a usable scanned book, you'll then have to do some proof-reading and spelling checking, to pick up as many OCR errors as you can, and finally convert the text to a format that everyone can use, one that replicates the original's layout at least to the extent of accommodating paragraph indents, fonts and emphasis. I'd suggest HTML or PDF, but some people would probably like RTF or (heaven help us!) Microsoft Word, or perhaps one of the various mobile document formats supported by Palm or Windows for Pocket PC. Not impossible to do, but not a process you can automate with 100% reliability.
There are also questions of post-production quality control. You can check to make sure that you've ripped your CD properly by playing the whole thing back; any significant flaws in the recording like surface noise or stuttering will stick out like a sore thumb. How many people will bother to read an entire book to look for the occasional dropped comma or OCR-mangled word. An occasional typo would hardly be a deal-breaker if you're getting the book for free, but it could easily become intensely irritating.
Another point is that the album market is global: most international acts essentially sell the same CD (with the odd variation in track listings and packaging) worldwide: rip the latest U2 CD and you have a product the whole world will want. Books need translating into foreign languages to crack the mass market worldwide; language barriers serve as region codes.
As Adrian notes, it only takes one person to scan and upload a book, but the requirement that you mutilate your original alone will do quite a bit to reduce the pool of readers who would be willing and able to turn round and scan a book tomorrow with the technology they have to hand. The proportion of people with CD collections who could rip their music collection without further ado is, I suspect, very much higher.
The point is that text is trivially easy to send around the internet. We do it every day when we surf the web. When you couple that reality with affordable eBook readers, you have a serious problem for publishers.
Not just "affordable" eBook readers: affordable eBook readers anyone people are interested in buying and carrying round with them. (Remember the discounted Sony eReader than prompted Adrian to write his post: do you think perhaps it was discounted because the retailer wasn't exactly fighting off customers for the thing at the full retail price?)
I've been reading eBooks for years on my various Psion and Palm PDAs, but I very rarely see anyone else following suit during my daily commute. I'd need a great deal of persuading to spend money on a separate device to carry round in order to read eBooks, and I very much doubt that the average member of the public will feel any differently. The majority of the reading public will only take an interest in eBooks when they're integrated in a device they already want to carry round – i.e., their mobile phone. If trends in phone design lead us in the direction of larger devices that double as portable media players then possibly there's a window of opportunity for eBooks on mobile phones. If portability continues to be the priority, eBook readers will remain a minority interest for the foreseeable future.
The problem will unfold much as it has done with music publishers, with stagnating and then slowing sales of physical products. After a few years of unsuccessfully battling both the piraters and the manufacturers of eBook readers, the publishers will eventually start selling books online at a slightly lower price than in retail. Authors will begin to drift away from publishers – young ones to start with, then a few more famous ones who have nothing to lose and 50% to gain.
Well, possibly. In the music industry you can try to compensate for a loss of income from sales of your albums by touring a lot and releasing work more frequently than the two year release-tour-release cycle the major acts currently follow. If you're an author whose publisher cuts the price of your work, what's your replacement income stream: reading tours?
I'm not saying eBooks will never, ever take off. I just think that the book publishing business has enough advantages compared to the music industry – the extra hassle involved in digitising product, language barriers, the lack of demand for electronic books in the mass market – to give them quite some time to sit back and watch what direction to film and music businesses go in before deciding to shift decisively in the direction of the eBook market.
Finally, I've picked on one particular aspect of Adrian's argument that I had doubts about, but his post is worth reading in full for his thoughts on publishers' web sites and the ways in which they fail to even attempt to build a community around their authors' works.