Adventures in e-Books
I've witnessed, over the past few years, a mounting sentiment in the publishing community that the fundamental problem about e-books is that nobody really wants to buy them. Yes, we worry about security, we bemoan the unresolved format wars, and we fantasize about e-ink and reflective surface technologies, but secretly we're anxious about what the consumer wants. If this were not the case, then wouldn't we all just be wasting our time? The shuttering of Contentville on September 28, accompanied by an announcement from Steve Brill that, "my idea for Contentville just didn't work," would seem to suggest that the demand is just not there.
But the very same day, on Salon.com, Senior Editor Andrew Leonard observed that his desire for sophisticated book-length analyses of the Middle East, Central Asia, fundamentalist Islam and the growth of terrorism was simply insatiable, and not in the colloquial sense of the phrase. The books simply weren't available to sate his appetite. Not that they had never existed, but that they were out-of-print, on back order or published by tiny presses without the resources for large print runs in the first place. All of a sudden, a man who had ordinarily pooh-poohed e-books ("Personally, I'd much rather read a nicely bound paperback or hardcover book than a few hundred thousand words scrolling across my Palm handheld") found himself declaiming in exasperation, "So where's my e-book?"
In a sense, the mission of this new column is to answer Andrew Leonard's question. The simple response is that the infrastructure required to give him what he wants when he wants it is still incomplete. In the coming months, I will address what needs to be done to satisfy the basic requirements for an infrastructure that will be able to supply consumers with the information they seek. I will examine the strategies, the technologies and the various niche markets. Although my focus will be on the present and the near-future, there will be a time and a place for some more speculative reflection on how we all might be reading ten years hence. And I will always be mindful of where we have come from; the history of the transmission of information from an economic, cultural and societal perspective.