Look ma, no ink!

Look ma, no ink! By Janelle Brown. The technology industry tries to invent a better book. Will publishers bite?

Published August 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Marcus Colombano, director of marketing at NuvoMedia, has an impressive array of digital accessories spread before him on the table. His laptop sluggishly pulls up a Web page; his PalmPilot chortles and bleeps as it exchanges digital business cards with mine; his cell phone sits at the ready by his side.

Add to that array a fourth, less familiar device: the RocketBook. The size of a paperback novel, the RocketBook is yet another computing product that NuvoMedia hopes to convince us all to add to our briefcases and backpacks. The RocketBook, Marcus tells me, will eliminate the need to tote around a bag full of paperbacks, periodicals and reference texts. Instead, we'll just download all our reading needs into this handy reading tablet.

Four such electronic "books" are expected to come on the market in the next year: the RocketBook, the SoftBook, the Everybook and the Librius Millennium Reader. Ranging from $200 to $1,500, each of these products is a variation on the concept of a portable reading tablet that will hold multiple books and periodicals, all retrieved from the Internet or a proprietary network of some kind. These products, their producers say, are the future of the book -- RocketBook, in a moment of high hubris on its Web site, even equates its product with the invention of papyrus and the debut of the Gutenberg press.

"Death-of-the-book" hype may be a hoary tradition in the high-tech world, but today's publishing industry does have a desperate need for some new thinking. Books are appallingly expensive to print, inventory, store and ship. That means new titles must sell well or vanish. Because a few monolithic, profit-focused companies are controlling the publishing industry, critics claim, we are seeing fewer and fewer fringe books and new authors -- and even established authors who sell respectably but not spectacularly (the so-called midlist) are having a tough time staying in print.

Enter technology, whose tentacles of change are finally infiltrating the glacial and technophobic publishing industry. The electronic reading tablet is not the only innovation being championed. There are also print-on-demand technologies, "digital ink" projects and Net distribution systems that send books in either Adobe Acrobat (PDF) or PalmPilot formats. If the publishing industry allows itself to be revolutionized, the world may see an unfathomably vast cornucopia of texts, all digitized and archivable, awaiting only paper, plastic or pixels to come to life.

Why would someone want an electronic book? The companies have a standard sales pitch: The electronic book offers convenience and portability (you can carry multiple books with you at no extra burden), utility (you can search and annotate cumbersome reference materials) and availability (digital books will be available for immediate download).

"Books are great for reading under certain circumstances, but not always," argues Martin Eberhard, CEO of NuvoMedia. "When I travel, I bring a lot of books with me, for example. Typically, I can't fit all the books I want with me in my briefcase, I can't read them when they turn the movie on or I can only select from the books in the airport bookstore. So the RocketBook makes sense for a fair amount of people reading material and traveling."

The two best-known products that will appear on the market this winter -- the RocketBook and the SoftBook -- have certain similar features: touch screens with a stylus for note taking, searching and bookmarking capabilities and large-print functions. But beyond these features, there are striking disparities among the four new products that show how different the interpretation of "electronic book" really is.

Compare the RocketBook to the SoftBook, for example. Priced at the higher end of the four devices available ($499), the RocketBook pitches portability and clarity: a 105 dots per inch screen (most computers today use a 72-dpi screen) with a glare-resistant or "transvective" finish. The size of a paperback book, it weighs a mere 1 pound, 4 ounces and is designed so that the "spine" curves in the palm of your hand. It most closely resembles an oversize "personal digital assistant" or PalmPilot, both in design and in functionality.

The creators of the $299 SoftBook, on the other hand, believe readers will be sold on a "book-like" experience. It's heavier (nearly 3 pounds) but also much larger (8 1/2-by-11 inches), since its creators believed that readers would prefer a bigger screen to a higher-resolution one. The book mimicry extends throughout the interface: You can "fold" corners of pages and scribble right on the digital pages with a stylus. To complete the metaphor, they've tacked a leather cover on top.

There's also the oversize Everybook, with a whopping $1,600 price tag, which takes the book paradigm even further: It opens just like a book, with twin facing screens, and uses color PDF formatting that exactly replicates book layouts. At the opposite end of the spectrum there's the Librius Millennium: a low-resolution, paperback-size, 1-pound product that hopes to entice the mass market with a $200 price tag.

And there's yet another digital-book device: Though they may not know it, the 1.6 million PalmPilot owners also possess the world's first mass-market reading tablet. Several publishers now offer titles that can be downloaded onto the PalmPilot, including alternative press Online Originals, a sci-fi series from Peanut Press and a book of New York restaurant reviews from HarperCollins. The screen is tiny and the resolution is awful -- but it's certainly portable, and there's no need to add yet another digital product to your pocket.

But portability and metaphors aside, the biggest question is whether readers will want to read books on a computer display at all. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen is pessimistic: "It's a pure matter of technology: The screen resolution is too bad. We know from human-factor studies that reading speed is 25 percent lower on the screen than on the printed page." He predicts that high-tech books won't be widespread until the invention of a mass-market 300-dpi resolution screen technology (which would provide roughly the same clarity as print).

Screen technology comes in many forms, however, and other innovators are taking the opposite route: Instead of turning the computer into a book, they are trying to turn the book into a computer. The technology is called "digital ink," and two different variations are being developed at Xerox PARC and the MIT Media Lab. Xerox PARC's project, for example, involves embedding minute plastic beads in liquid within a page. The beads change color when an electronic charge runs through them; reset the charge, and you'll reset the text. PARC predicts that a first version will be available in a year or two.

"Paper carries with it a huge amount of context that you're only subliminally aware of," explains John Knights, principal in market and technology innovation at Xerox PARC. "People get a lot of context from the way things are presented; the problem with the electronic screen is that it is missing that. You can goof around with fonts and stuff, but you can't get that kind of feeling from it."

But even the Xerox PARC invention doesn't perfectly duplicate paper. The quality and texture of the product's "paper," says Knights, is somewhere between rubber and thick cardboard. The resolution is closer to newsprint than letterpress. And each page will cost about a dollar to produce, as compared to a few cents for paper, making initial costs prohibitive: instead of a 500-page volume that you can "fill" once with the text of an entire book, the digital-ink book will probably contain only 10 or 20 pages, which you will have to "refresh" once you finish reading them.

"The attraction of this kind of medium for the electronic book is that it looks and feels like paper, you can turn pages," explains Knights. "But in essence it's just an electronic display technology -- it doesn't matter which electronic paper or ink technology you get, you aren't going to get something that looks like a 500-page volume. It's not going to happen. Sorry."

Reading on-screen -- or on electronic pages -- may never be the same as reading on paper. But you get used to it: I read an entire book (Online Originals' thriller "The Angels of Russia") on my PalmPilot, wading through text on that minuscule pixelated screen, and it wasn't so bad. Certainly a paper book would have been a more pleasant experience, but there were advantages to portable reading: I could whip it out of my pocket while stuck on the bus, and read under the covers by the greenish back-lit glow.

Which begs the question: Does a reading tablet have to be book-like? If it's serving a specific function, coming in handy in a certain environment, does the text have to mimic ink-and-paper? What if people are willing to overlook screen size and resolution as long as they can have their texts with them? A leather cover and a large screen, after all, can't hide the fact that the heft in your hand is a computer, not a book -- that you're holding plastic and pixels, not paper and ink.

The success of the electronic book may hinge on whether the consumer is willing to accept reading on screen, or overlook its faults, but there's a thornier issue: Without books to sell, there will be no business. RocketBook, SoftBook and the rest are not only competing for readers, but for publishers. Each company needs to convince publishers to convert their books into its proprietary digital format and to retail it in the provided outlets, whether online or in-store.

The digital book purveyors are quick to point to their partnerships -- SoftBook has received titles from HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Random House for its pilot program, and RocketBook has both a lineup of publishers and an investment from Bertelsmann Ventures -- as proof that publishers are crazy about the new format. But the truth is a little more complicated: The notoriously archaic publishing industry still needs a lot of convincing.

"Our goal is to see the market develop, and we're happy if the market develops another avenue to sell our books," says Jonathan Guttenberg, vice president of new media at Random House. "Beyond that, there are a lot of things we have to learn about the companies, and make sure that their business models protect both the authors and the publisher."

Guttenberg's careful comment is typical. Although most of the publishers are quick to issue bully statements about their love of future technologies, many seem wary of throwing themselves full-force into a new medium -- especially after being burned by their past investments in failed CD-ROM projects.

One concern is the potential costs. The electronic book companies, though waiving some of the initial fees to help build their libraries, variously plan to charge for retailing, distributing and converting the publisher's books into compatible formats. In fact, the three companies I spoke with all see their profits coming not from hardware sales, but from serving in these capacities.

"What it all comes down to, very simply, is if [publishers] potentially see a profit in this. No one, no matter how much a Luddite they are, is going to be opposed to that," says Kevin Kraynick, senior producer of Internet development at HarperCollins, which has offered up 10 books for the SoftBook pilot program. "The first sales are going to be terribly minute, so you have to wonder how much a publisher is going to want to invest in this in the early stages." He adds: "A lot of these companies have to get together and agree on a standard. Publishers aren't going to sit well with having to pay to create different digital files for each of the producers." Yet so far, most companies in this market are creating closed formats rather than open platforms -- which could lead to a Balkanized market in which no one has sufficient momentum to create a new standard.

Regardless of the initial costs, the advocates of the electronic book point to long-term benefits: Currently, 50,000 books go out of print every year thanks to the high cost of printing, inventory and shipping. If a title sells only a few thousand copies each year, it's not worth reprinting. With the digital book, no title would ever have to go out of print; all costs are up front.

This extends to the authors and titles that don't get published because they lack widespread appeal. As NuvoMedia's Eberhard explains: "Electronic books lower the bar on publishing books. The first time you write a book you have to convince the publishers that you have a marketable audience, that it's worth their trouble to set it up, print it, send it to bookstores and deal with what comes back. In the electronic arena, that risk is gone. All they have to do is set it up. Your odds of getting your book published are much, much better."

The electronic book could also improve the prospects for digital presses. Since the birth of the Net, budding literary entrepreneurs have tried to figure out ways to circumvent the creaky and expensive publishing industry by selling books in PDF files that could be distributed via e-mail; but most have found that sales are few and far between. Not only are these indie presses hard to find, since they have no mainstream retail outlets, but the reviewers are scarce and consumers are skeptical about reading at a computer.

Some of these presses are already experimenting with PalmPilot formats: Online Originals' sales took off when it began selling Palm versions of its 35 titles. The electronic book could also serve as a new, low-cost distribution platform. And if mainstream publishers are convinced to pick up the format, then digital presses can potentially ride into bookstores on their coattails. SoftBook is even encouraging independent publishers and authors to set up their own "bookstores" on the dial-up network where readers will browse and buy SoftBook titles.

Of course, there are skeptics. Philip Harris, founder of Electron Press, thought the electronic book would be a great medium for his small publishing house's library of edgier titles (currently distributed as PDF files) -- until he comprehended the fees that the electronic book companies would charge to sell his text for an electronic book. Instead, he envisions yet another alternative to the digital books and PalmPilots: the laptop. "Now that high-resolution, light notebooks are coming down so low in price, we think this will be the way it's going," says Harris. "I've seen laptops that are no bigger than Vogue magazine, and weigh less, and I think people will read books on something like that."

According to Steve Riggio, vice chairman of Barnes and Noble, there are currently around 150,000 titles on the shelves of its bookstores across the United States -- a sizable number, until you consider the sheer number of books that have been written throughout the centuries. Barnes and Noble, in fact, sold 750,000 thousand titles last year -- but those additional titles were through special orders, since there's only so much shelf space.

Online bookstores like Amazon.com have already boosted the number of titles readily available into the millions. But what if you could walk into a bookstore and ask for any book that was ever written and have it handed to you on the spot? Digital technology and storage make that technically feasible, though the publishing industry's existing legal and financial structure would likely resist such a change. As a partner with RocketBook, Barnes and Noble is already talking about placing RocketBook download terminals in its stores; but there's another technology that could also make this scenario possible: print-on-demand.

Unlike electronic books or digital ink, print-on-demand is a technology that the publishing industry is fired up about now. Print-on-demand machines eliminate the concept of print runs by enabling one book to be printed at a time. You order the book, the printer pulls up the digital file and prints a copy, thus eliminating inventory costs, overly ambitious print runs and returns. No book has to go out of print once it's been put into print-on-demand rotation.

Ultimately, explains Riggio, a Barnes and Noble might have a print-on-demand machine installed right in the bookstore. Mass market books would still be on the shelves, but customers could ask for any book in the digital library and have it printed while they wait.

Already, Ingram Books, the largest U.S. book distributor, is implementing the system, and its Lightning Print division has lined up an impressive array of participating publishers. As a distributor, Ingram keeps the digital files in its system; when an order comes in from a bookstore, it simply prints the book and ships it out. It's a system that works particularly well with online bookstores: Other than minor variations in print and cover quality, the reader never knows the difference. The next step is moving that press from the distributor's warehouse to the retail shop.

"In the long run, a book's life cycle will ... flow into the digital library and be available as long as someone wants to order it," says Larry Brewster, general manager of Lightning Print. "There's no reason at all that literary content can't be available for everyone in the future. And then you'll start seeing a large volume of books in the digital library, instead of being in a warehouse."

Although print-on-demand most directly addresses publishing costs, it could also serve as a boon for hundreds of thousands of frustrated unpublished authors. According to John Feldcamp, president of Xlibris, there are 500,000 new books written each year, but only 50,000 survive the publishing industry's "filters" and make it into print. Xlibris is a high-tech update on the vanity-press model, using print-on-demand technology to make it cheap for authors to self-publish. For a few hundred dollars, those authors can now afford to publish themselves and sell print-on-demand titles via alternative online bookstores.

It's difficult to envision a world in which there are literally trillions of books at your fingertips, in which any "writer" could hawk any text in virtual or physical bookstores, to be downloaded onto paper or into reading tablets. The merits of a book industry in which quality filters have been removed are questionable -- it's the Web all over again -- but it's certainly a dizzying prospect of personal empowerment. It's also all conjecture -- as is the future of electronic books, digital ink and any other of the technology scenarios that futurists like to conceive.

Will consumers be willing to ante up for yet another digital device to tote around? Maybe not. But maybe version 2.0 of some of these devices will include digital assistant functions as well, or e-mail capabilities, so that consumers can leave their laptops at work and skip buying a PalmPilot. Or maybe Palm will offer its next product in varying sizes -- a "reader's version," perhaps, with a large screen and better resolution. Or maybe digital ink will turn out to be the best technology of all.

Webster's dictionary still defines a book as "a number of sheets of paper, parchment, etc. with writing or print on them, fastened together along one edge, usually between protective covers." But such a narrow definition is rapidly falling out of date -- and in the little space that "etc." provides, today's digital-book innovators see a world of possibilities.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

Related Topics ------------------------------------------