Editor's Notebook - E-book Alert
Fire alarms screamed and lights flashed just as Dick Brass, vice president of technology development at Microsoft's research division, began to speak about the future of e-books at a recent conference.
The conference, Electronic Book '99, was hosted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at headquarters in Gaithersburg, MD. It attracted major e-book makers, display makers, disk drive producers, college librarians, conversion service providers, printers, book and journal publishers and representatives for the blind and vision-impaired.
As loud as they were, the shrieking alarms, which were not a special effect arranged by Brass but an NIST building alert (for which we had to evacuate), seemed trivial in comparison to the excitement that began to build in the audience as speakers unveiled possibility after possibility.
I began to see the light: The "e-book industry" is not centered on the specialized reading devices themselves. It is about distribution of digital content about to explode into an accepted modus operandi as e-commerce works its way steadily into our daily lives.
Digital distribution of content is not unfamiliar to book publishing: encyclopedia publishers and some children's educational publishers mastered the art of publishing on CDs; journal publishers are the online content experts. Glean what you can from their experiences. (News flash: Encyclopaedia Brittanica just made its content free on the Internet and will be counting on ads for revenues.)
If you're not already selling your books as digital files in some way, consider it now. What does publishing really mean to you and, more importantly, your customers? Now remove the limits of geography, paper and shipping expenses from the picture; add electronic delivery, at increasingly faster speeds and lower final storage costs.
Have you been crippled, or have you been given wings?
It's a lot to think about, but don't spend too much time pontificating. Makers of reading devices are hot on the trail of those first markets that will jump-start sales, even as technologists work to improve screens, reduce power requirements and decrease device weights to make "immersive reading" practical and possible.
Electronic reading devices are on sale today, but developers need content to sell with them. The Open E-book standard and PDF make formatting an electronic book scarcely more difficult than preparing one for print. Here's your chance to step in, partner and build an industry together.