Publishing: Will e-books be the end of printed copies?

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Abimbola Adelakun

The evolution of books has gone through many significant changes that it can be forgiven if we forget that writing actually started from cave signs: hieroglyphics and signs on tablets. Messages were transmitted through symbols and other such media. The invention of the printing machine by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 brought a revolution to books and reading. Mechanisation of the printing press meant books could be produced in large volumes. The revolution lasted for hundreds of years and today, the book is a ubiquitous item of literacy and can be found in every part of the world.

But with the advancement in technology, the days of the book might actually be numbered. Today, there are countless inventions pouring out that are threatening the existence of printed books. For instance, there are various forms of electronic books (or digital books) that are taking up the place of the book on the shelf without even taking as much space.

An e-book is an electronic text that constitutes the digital media equivalent of a conventional printed book, sometimes restricted with a digital rights management system. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines the e-book as “an electronic version of a printed book which can be read on a personal computer or hand-held device designed specifically for this purpose.”

Such devices include dedicated hardware devices known as e-Readers or e-book devices. Personal computers and some cell phones can also be used to read e-books.

They come in various formats. They are there as plain text files, which is readable on Microsoft Word, DOS and other such documents.

Hypertext Markup Language (called HTML) can be used to read e-books with the help of a web browser; Open Electronic Package; TomeRaider; Arghos Diffusion; Flip Books; FictionBook; Text Encoding Initiative; Plucker; Compressed HM; Newton e-Book; SSReader; Multimedia eBooks, etc.

The Amazon Kindle, for instance, is both a software and hardware platform developed by for the rendering and displaying of e-books and other digital media. Amazon‘s first hardware device, the Kindle First Generation, was released only in the United States on November 19, 2007.

The online encyclopedia states that the Kindle hardware device uses an e-Ink brand electronic paper display that features 16 shades of gray. It wirelessly downloads content over Amazon‘s Whispernet using the Sprint EVDO network in the USA. Newer Kindle 2 devices use AT&T‘s network and its roaming partners for international wireless access.

The Kindle hardware device is used without a computer connection, and Amazon Whispernet is accessible without any monthly fee or wireless subscription. All Kindle models provide free access to the Internet in the U.S. over cellular networks.

E-books have countless advantages. For instance, they make books that we might not have access to available. A newer technology makes this even easier. It is called Espresso Book Machine. The idea is for book production to work like a coffee machine.

The EBM functions as a print on demand machine that prints, collates, covers, and binds a single book in a few minutes. A single machine can cost from $50,000 - $75,000.

The EBM is designed small enough to fit into a retail book store or small library room, and as such, it is targeted at retail and library markets.

“Such a contraption presents a myriad of possibilities for traditional brick-and-mortar publishing as well as for publishing on demand concerns and bookstores,” says Amatirosero Ede, a Canada-based poet and publisher of Maple Tree Literary Supplement, an online magazine.

“Suffice it to say that the revolution began by Gutenberg is only being fine-tuned more than five hundred years later. The same principle of a mass production of text is involved. The EBM is at the intersection of more than 500 years of, first, analogue and, later, digital technological advances.

“An ageless book is now very possible even in spite of the threats from the Internet and related alternative ways of text generation, reading and interaction with the text - such as hypertexts, the kindle and e-books. Nevertheless, the EBM presents new challenges or perspectives for book history as discipline.

“From all accounts, the EBM‘s data bank consists of texts that are ‘orphaned‘, meaning such material have passed into the public domain, are not copyrighted, are out of print and so on. Nevertheless, serious copyright infringements can occur by accident or design. The threat of book piracy and the stealing of intellectual property are very possible and real.

“There are other book historical questions which might immediately interest the expert such as how the EBM will affect author-publisher relationships, and the book production process, its attendant questions of authorship, authorial intention and authority - texts in a data bank are probably amenable to manipulation, corruption, viral attacks and so on. This is closely tied to the question of online security generally, prone as the Internet is to interference and in spite of the illusion of textual safety.”

The EBM can potentially allow readers to obtain any book title, even books that are out of print. The machine takes as input a PDF file and prints, binds, and trims the reader‘s selection as a paperback book. It thus eliminates the middleman channels in the process and comes cheaper than printed books. It also has incredible advantage of saving the environment. No longer would trees be felled for people to hold a book.

With these advantages of e-books, just how many more years are left for the printed books?

“No, I don’t think e-books will bring printed books. I think they‘ll complement printed books,” says Chika Unigwe, a Belgium-based writer and author of The Phoenix and On Black Sisters‘ Street. “There will still be people who prefer to hold a book, to turn the pages, to smell the ink.”

Ikide Ikheloa is a United States-based writer and critic. He holds an even more revolutionary view of the revolution of e-books and printed books. ”Something digital will replace books but it won‘t be the e-book. The e-book is proprietary and primitive. As we speak, the e-book’s functions are being integrated into digital tools like the iPad. I use my iPhone and Blackberry as a digital reader. I will never buy an e-book. Buy me an iPad, anytime.”

Ede says the complex interweaving and mutual dependence of these technologies will ensure the perseverance of the book - especially when such a dynamic is accompanied and facilitated by such uncanny ease and unearthly simplification as the EBM demonstrates. ”It is reasonable to project that the EBM has recalibrated the scales and elongated the endangered life of the book.”

The e-book is not all good news. Technology is not that static and unlike books that can still remain intact after 100 years or more, e-books do not have that kind of longevity. Also, it will be idealistic to expect that the aesthetic appeal and feel of the printed book in hands can easily be replaced with something as ephemeral as the e-book. Issues have also been raised about the dangers of gazing into and reading from a computer. When most people read from the computer, they mostly scan rather than read for instruction or leisure. E-books also give rise to copyright issues.

With however, the digitisation of books, there is a possibility that literacy might be boosted.

“I think digital tools will not improve reading culture and literacy because they already have. Our writers and thinkers are oblivious of all those people reading nonsense on their smart phones perched on the backs of okada motorbikes. We should stop publishing books and start moving our ideas to the digital world. We might even make money out of it,” concludes Ikheloa.

Unigwe says that even though e-books might encourage a wider reading population, she does not see how it can make people more literate.


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