No one can doubt that digitization and the Internet, together with various factors intrinsic to the publishing industry, will radically transform the distribution of books: books can now be transmitted directly from writer to reader, eliminating much of the traditional publishing supply chain. Research, technical data, and the contents of dictionaries, manuals, certain journals, and encyclopedias of all kinds can now be sent to users’ screens, item by item, on demand. This largely ephemeral material need no longer be distributed in book form.
But for books that embody the ancient and ongoing dialogue that constitutes civilization, the format of printed and bound sheets is optimal and inescapable. True, a marginal market of indeterminate size may exist for handheld screens, serving some readers of seasonal fiction and nonfiction. However, the assumption that because content can now be transmitted electronically most books hereafter will be read on screens overlooks such factors as cost, convenience, reliability, and human nature, as well as the peculiar nature of books.
In Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Lemuel Gulliver encounters the airborne island of Laputa, inhabited by so-called projectors–what today we would call inventors. The projectors are growing cucumbers on the theory that because they absorb heat and energy from the sun, cucumbers can replace traditional sources of warmth and light: biofuels 300 years avant la lettre. Gulliver also wonders why Laputan coats fit badly, until he visits a tailor and finds himself being fitted by compass and quadrant.
The new Kindle from Amazon (see Hack) and its many failed predecessors are Laputan biofuel production and tailoring. Take, for example, the Kindle’s price of $400: the first book downloaded will cost the reader $410, assuming $10 per download. This means that the first 20 books a reader buys will cost $30 each, the first 40 will cost $20, and so on–by which time the device will probably have failed, gotten lost, or been replaced by a newer model. Or consider function. The designers of handheld readers aim to approximate as nearly as possible the characteristics of a physical book–including, I am told, pages that actually feel like paper; but why bother, when the physical book already embodies these characteristics to perfection?
The most rational form of digital transmission is not an electronic reader posing as a book but an actual library-quality paperback that has been printed, bound, and trimmed at low cost on demand, created from a digital file at point of sale by a machine like an ATM. Test versions of this machine, sponsored by On Demand Books, of which I am cofounder, are or will soon be making books in several locations. A commercial version will be ready for general distribution this summer.
Jason Epstein was the editorial director of Random House for over 40 years and a cofounder of the New York Review of Books. In 2004, he cofounded On Demand Books.