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From Atlantic Unbound:

"Portable Musings," by Sven Birkerts (September 10, 1998)
The book is the network, the network is knowledge, and soon you'll be able to curl up in bed with all of it. This calls for some serious rumination.

From The Atlantic:

"Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?," by Charles C. Mann (September 1998)
"Today the marketplace of ideas is being shaken up by the competing demands of technology, finance, and law. Large sums of money are at stake. Change seems inevitable. One way or another, we will lay a new institutional foundation for literary culture in the United States."

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites:

"You say you want an e-book revolution?," by Robert S. Boynton (Time Digital, December 2000)
"Readers and writers of the world, unite: a flood of electronic books and reading devices are hitting the market, but don't burn your library cards just yet." Time Digital offers a cover-story package on e-books just in time for your holiday shopping. It includes useful guides to e-publishing Web sites and e-book manufacturers.

Exit Gutenberg?

At last week's eBook World conference in New York, only one thing was certain: the future of our literary culture is up for grabs. The first installment of a new online column covering the emerging world of digital publishing -- and its effects on what and how we read

by Ralph Lombreglia

November 16, 2000

If you've been taking perverse pleasure in the Limbo-like netherworld of the presidential election, you might well have enjoyed the Heisenbergian uncertainties on display at the inaugural eBook World in New York last week. Moderated by Michael Wolff -- the New York magazine media columnist whose 1998 memoir, Burn Rate, is an essential text of Internet entrepreneurship -- eBook World filled a vast hotel banquet room (at nearly $1,000 a head) for two days of speeches and panel discussions on the imminent digital erasure of everything we thought we knew about the acts of writing, publishing, and reading.

Many members of the publishing industry seemed to have arrived at eBook World braced for the news that books per se are history -- as if, having heard for so long about the medieval inefficiencies of their business, they came to the Marriott Marquis Hotel to make a deal with the techno-devil and step back out into Times Square as electronic spirits, entitled to call themselves publishers in the twenty-first century only because they had shuffled off the shackles of ink and paper forever.

Indeed, the consensus at the conference was that digital delivery of most "content" (formerly known as writing, photography, illustration, etc.) is inevitable. The consolation was that "inevitable" might be a long way off. Richard Sarnoff, the president of Random House New Media, told the audience to imagine the future not five or ten but a hundred years from now: Did anyone doubt that ink on paper would be obsolete in 2100? No one doubted it. But when Dick Brass, Microsoft's vice president in charge of electronic books and "tablet" computing devices, reiterated the company's prediction that the last print edition of The New York Times would appear in 2018, you could feel the thought-wave slither through the room like an eel. 2018? Hey, I was planning to be around in 2018 -- and with some time to look at the paper finally, too.

Despite Microsoft's confidence, the path to electronic literary culture is steep, and the e-book has gained little traction so far. In the words of eBook World panelist Richard Curtis, a literary agent turned e-publisher, "e-books only have two problems: supply and demand." At the moment, a tiny fraction of any publisher's catalogue is available in one of the existing e-book formats. And "formats," in the plural, is one of the reasons. E-books are software, and the future of reading is presently being held hostage in a computer "standards war" where competing companies try to ensure that their proprietary technology becomes the toll-taker at the gate. Most publishers and retailers now offer every e-book title in at least two incompatible formats, sometimes three, and it may not stop there -- although everyone knows that most of the existing formats will be obsolete sooner or later.

Still, even though we're years away from an elegant digital replacement for the book, there are some compelling reasons for publishers to "go digital" now. For one, paper books can be "delivered" digitally, too. "Print-on-demand" technology allows a book to live in digital form inside a vast data-management system, manifesting itself physically only when someone calls for it. Today, most print-on-demand requires heavy, centralized machinery, but even so it has begun to solve the print-run uncertainties and warehousing costs that have bedeviled the industry for ages. And already a few American bookstores have smaller versions of the machines on site, allowing them to create, at the time of sale, books indistinguishable from standard trade paperbacks. These networked, instant printing presses will be ubiquitous soon, which means, among other things, that a book warehoused in digital form will be available to most readers almost immediately, and that it need not ever go "out of print" -- because it was never "in print" in the first place.

Whether they believed it or not, many speakers at eBook World called the writer the prime mover, the creator and ultimate owner of the intellectual property at the heart of the whole process. They don't say that in Hollywood anymore (if they ever did), and they might not be saying it much longer in New York. What happens to writers when the physical atoms of their work become electronic bits that can travel effortlessly around the world? For some observers, Stephen King's recent headline-making experiments in electronic self-publication support the notion that digital text and global networks will empower writers to reach audiences directly, potentially cutting publishers, distributors, and bookstores out of the process altogether -- a phenomenon known as "disintermediation." At eBook World, Steven Levy, the author of Hackers and other books on computer culture, remarked that this could cause publishers to see authors as the enemy. "But they always have!" replied the literary biographer James Atlas, sitting on the same panel. Another view holds that direct-to-market e-publishing will succeed only for brand-name writers like King, or for authors of highly specialized technical texts. Most writers, even near-famous ones, won't be able to create "digital product" and reach their audience without help, nor would they want to even if they could. Thus the need for various intermediaries -- like editors, agents, publicists, marketers, and other people who make the publishing business work -- will persist into the electronic future.

It seems that smart publishers and writers can turn most perceived digital threats into opportunities. Can consumers -- that is, readers -- do the same? What's in this for the average reader? Why should you care about e-publishing anyway? Well, most readers don't care, and they won't for some time to come. The bewildering standards war will see to that, if nothing else does. That's particularly unfortunate given that both Microsoft and Adobe, the two main combatants in that war, have recently brought the display of text on flat-panel screens much closer to that of print on paper. Even so, reading e-books requires a digital machine, all of which are still too clumsy, delicate, and expensive. After all, they're computers. For curling up with a book, a book is hard to beat. As the noted magazine- and Web-designer Roger Black said at eBook World, "people don't want to click a button to turn book pages." It was oft-repeated at the conference that a paper book is a nearly perfect machine.

If e-books were priced markedly lower than their physical counterparts, the public would appreciate that, but most publishers plan to price them about the same as "quality" paperbacks, at least at first. The appeal of books as physical objects is often dismissed in e-publishing circles with the phrase "books as furniture," but many readers cherish their books as material possessions, and this attachment -- sentimental or not -- may prove a greater obstacle to e-book adoption than proponents of the new technology expect.

But for certain consumers, the e-book's time has come, even in this embryonic stage of its development, and those people may be enough to get things rolling. E-books can store and transport a huge amount of text in a compact device. If you were going to a foreign country for several months and you wanted to take a dozen books with you, a laptop or an e-book reader loaded with those titles would be perfect. The person who reads a lot of complex technical, scholarly, or reference material is another natural e-book customer, because e-books offer digital searching, bookmarking, highlighting, and hypertext linking that could add real value to that kind of reading. And finally, e-books offer the possibility of multimedia enhancements to text, although that remains mostly theoretical at this point. The technology is not ready for audio or video, and good multimedia is vastly more expensive to produce or license than most publishers seem to think. You could get laughs at eBook World simply by uttering the phrase "CD-ROM," and yet a number of speakers casually referred to "adding multimedia content" to e-books.

The last panel discussion at eBook World ended with a weary nod to the clock, which had run out. The attendees staggered away, blinking their tired eyes. There was no concluding celebration or farewell cocktail party, only the anticlimax of company reps breaking down trade-show booths in the halls as the lights of Broadway began to brighten outside. I suspect that most people left the conference as confused as when they came -- yet oddly relieved for precisely that reason. Although something very big is undeniably taking place, and although a lot of money stands to be made and lost, it's clear that no one has privileged information, not even the biggest players. No one knows how it will all work out. No one is in control. And while it's true that certain parties -- Barnes & Noble, Random House, Microsoft -- have more clout than others, things can break in funny ways when computers are involved.

The creation, dissemination, and consumption of printed reading material are as basic to civilization as anything could be. The collision of those activities with high technology is going to be -- indeed, already is -- as computer programmers like to say, "not trivial." Each month in this space, I plan to examine the facts and fantasies and implications of this phenomenon. As a writer and a reader, I'm most interested in the literary side of things -- by which I simply mean the sort of writing meant for sustained reading and reflection rather than "content" meant for browsing, searching, slicing, dicing, repurposing, and the other unholy but profitable (and sometimes useful) things that happen to writing in the digital domain. And yet, as someone who has also worked in that domain for years, I somehow feel certain that "content" will get its fair share of attention here, too.

What do you think? Discuss this article in Post & Riposte's Technology & Digital Culture conference.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

More on technology and digital culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Ralph Lombreglia (lombreglia@bigfoot.com) has been a contributor to Atlantic Unbound since 1996, when he originated the Digital Culture column. His short fiction has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and other publications, and has been collected in two books, Men Under Water (1991) and Make Me Work (1994). He teaches creative writing at Boston University and is a Web and multimedia consultant.

All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
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