google and the future of print 10.03.2006, 8:11 AM
posted by ben vershbow
Veteran editor and publisher Jason Epstein, the man who first introduced paperbacks to American readers, discusses recent Google-related books (John Battelle, Jean-Noël Jeanneney, David Vise etc.) in the New York Review, and takes the opportunity to promote his own vision for the future of publishing. As if to reassure the Updikes of the world, Epstein insists that the "sparkling cloud of snippets" unleashed by Google's mass digitization of libraries will, in combination with a radically decentralized print-on-demand infrastructure, guarantee a bright future for paper books:
[Google cofounder Larry] Page's original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices.
Epstein predicts that in the near future nearly all books will be located and accessed through a universal digital library (such as Google and its competitors are building), and, when desired, delivered directly to readers around the world -- made to order, one at a time -- through printing machines no bigger than a Xerox copier or ATM, which you'll find at your local library or Kinkos, or maybe eventually in your home.
Predicated on the "long tail" paradigm of sustained low-amplitude sales over time (known in book publishing as the backlist), these machines would, according to Epstein, replace the publishing system that has been in place since Gutenberg, eliminating the intermediate steps of bulk printing, warehousing, retail distribution, and reversing the recent trend of consolidation that has depleted print culture and turned book business into a blockbuster market.
Epstein has founded a new company, OnDemand Books, to realize this vision, and earlier this year, they installed test versions of the new "Espresso Book Machine" (pictured) -- capable of producing a trade paperback in ten minutes -- at the World Bank in Washington and (with no small measure of symbolism) at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.
Epstein is confident that, with a print publishing system as distributed and (nearly) instantaneous as the internet, the codex book will persist as the dominant reading mode far into the digital age.
bowerbird on October 3, 2006 2:32 PM:
epstein has been saying all this for a long time.
it's the kind of e-book/p-book synergy i have
mentioned here many times, in many threads...
i'm not sure how many people will want to pay
to have a book printed, once screens are sharp
and portable and ubiquitously web-connected,
but the idea is that we should be _able_ to...
ben vershbow on October 3, 2006 3:44 PM:
Right, Epstein has been talking about point of sale printing since at least 2001 (see here). The new ingredient here is large-scale book digitization carried out by search engines. Presumably, print-on-demand will be one of the ways in which Google will monetize Book Search, which currently lacks any real architecture of revenue. Remember that the service was originally called Google Print.
I share some of your skepticism about Epstein's vision. Not that it would be a bad thing to reorganize print publishing in this way, I'm just not convinced it will constitute the total revolution he predicts. Print-on-demand will more likely be a single part of the puzzle.
bowerbird on October 4, 2006 3:01 PM:
well, not to put too fine of a point on it, but
i have no _skepticism_ about epstein's ideas.
indeed, i think it is absolutely the right path.
_every_ branch library should have a machine
that they use to print out a book, on-demand,
whenever someone wants to "check it out"...
(and, if we looked at the cost of _reshelving_
a book in most libraries, we might decide to
tell that person not to bother to bring it back,
unless they'd otherwise just throw it away.)
it's just that i think tomorrow's generation --
who were born and raised reading on-screen
-- might consider hardcopy to be a hassle, a
bulky inconvenience they'd rather live without,
in all but a tiny sliver of certain circumstances.
after all, they carry their star-trek communi-pad
everywhere anyway, and can access the book on
_that_, so why port around a paper copy of it too?
paper will always have its uses. but i'd imagine
it would mostly be seen as old-fashioned, and
-- by young kids anyway -- definitely uncool.
so i believe epstein might be living in the past,
even as he sees himself moving into the future.
nonetheless, i'd love to see a machine like this
on every other block of our world, that'd be rad.
if i _do_ have a quibble with epstein's thinking,
it would be that it seems to me that he is stuck
in the mode of a one-size-fits-all type of book,
the mode publishers have always had in the past.
however, to my line of thinking, if we're gonna
print out our books one-at-a-time, on-demand,
then we should take advantage of our ability to
custom-tailor the book for its intended recipient,
in terms of the font, font-size, leading, page-size,
page-count, and many other production variables.
taking this individualized train of thought farther,
i'd think it would be desirable to open up access
to these machines, so that _any_person_ could
route material to them, to be printed and bound.
in my world, people would do this as casually as
they now run to kinko's and xerox all their crap.
so again, epstein seems to be living in the past,
when only publishers had a need to make books,
whereas in _my_ future, we are _all_ publishers.
but i wish i had an epstein machine in my den...
Gary Frost on October 6, 2006 10:30 PM:
Yes. Everyone is now an author and everyone is now a publisher. The issue is then what becomes of this empowerment. Epstein simply mentions that one possibility is that these individuals may choose to produce a paper book, indifferent to the fact that the enabling technology is all digital and that all the pre-press work is done on the screen. Even the printing is not printing, its electrostatic copying. Electronic printing is not a small revolution in itself. Already full color high-speed copier production is standard in children's book production on-demand.
The scrapbook market has already made this somewhat curious transition, utilizing digital photography and screen typography to produce paper scrapbooks. Same with Zines. And as with Zines, we should not imagine that a magic threshold will be crossed when younger readers refuse to move from screens to print. Younger readers are timelessly different from older readers; one prefers audio and non-text visual while the other gravitates to print.
The irony is that screen based reading and a digital revolution in technologies is engendering a renaissance of print. Specialized industries of high speed copying, library and limited edition binding and ultra-short run book production are in quick transition. And all the marketing is free, especially as Google and Wikis engender enthusiasms for older books. Now the dozen readers interested in ten specific imprints (multiplied by millions) will buy their own books.
bowerbird on October 7, 2006 1:25 PM:
> The irony is that screen based reading
> and a digital revolution in technologies
> is engendering a renaissance of print.
i fail to see why this is an "irony".
access to content in one form can breed
desire for that content in other forms,
especially if the first form is deficient
in some way. (and -- until we have those
star-trek communipads with continuous access
to the web -- our screens _are_ deficient.)
there's nothing "ironic" about any of that.
Gary Frost on October 7, 2006 7:00 PM:
Yes. I see what you mean. The only ironic aspect is that digital communications, digital research and digital delivery is supposed to be sweeping in an entirely different mode of reading and learning. From my narrow perspective digital transmission appears also to be sweeping in a familar, well established method of print reading and learning via the new technologies themselves.
Lightning Source printed 16 million books on demand last year and expects 40 million this year. I think this pilot plant of Ingram Publishers is only five years old. When I first visited two years ago they were printing 9,000 a day, mostly different titles. In the back plant was the Nashville distribution center for Amazon. They actually filled orders the same day.
bowerbird on October 8, 2006 12:28 PM:
> The only ironic aspect is that
> digital communications, digital research
> and digital delivery is supposed to be
> sweeping in an entirely different mode
> of reading and learning.
an "entirely different mode"? um, not really...
cyberspace engenders interaction possibilities
-- notably a revolutionary many-to-many one,
which turns the old authoritarian one-to-many
format on its head in ways we can't anticipate --
all of which _might_ transform "learning" as we
have come to mold it across the 20th century,
which most observers acknowledge as broken
such that "transforming" it will be a good thing.
and _writing_ a book might well come to change,
if experiments undertaken here are an indication,
since what was once primarily a solitary endeavor
has potential (via our many-to-many network) to
be informed by a vastly greater social component.
but "reading" those books? i'd say that will likely
remain the same it has been for a very long time.
indeed, when we have the ability to look back,
we might well find the development of the novel,
or the paperback, or comic-books, or the blog,
or advertiser-driven fashion/style magazines,
or the short story, or even performance poetry
might well have exerted a greater impact on
_reading_ than a simple shift of medium from
paper to screen, all other things being equal...
after all, it is the _nature_ of the content that
goes inside your head that makes a difference,
_not_ the specific vehicle that deposits it there.
far greater than a mere switching of the medium
is that cyberspace makes every book ubiquitous.
we have the _potential_ -- if we refuse to let our
corporate publisher overloads snatch it back --
to bring every book to every person _worldwide_.
and the concept of "out of print" is now outdated.
so we _are_ "sweeping in an entirely different"
_library_, of that there is absolutely no question.
moreover, the _discussion_ of what we have read
-- again, using that many-to-many possibility --
is now easily expanded in an exponential manner,
so _after-effects_ of reading are bound to change.
but the actual _reading_ per se? the one word
after another building the narrative of the story,
or explicating the complete line of an argument?
well, i don't see that changing much just because
those words are shown on a screen, not on paper,
especially not to kids born-and-raised on screens.
and so far, i haven't heard even _one_ convincing
reason why it _might_, and i'm listening closely...
Gary Frost on October 9, 2006 9:40 PM:
Like book reading, screen reading is timeless. The first screen was the night sky. High resolution, wide field. Electronic screens still work best in the dark. Pages in the daytime and screens in the nighttime. Its timeless. Reading the screen of the night sky societies began to connect the dots. Mythologies, news omens and astrophysics have all been imposed on the screen of the night sky.
But the night sky also presents us with the universe, or so it seems. In this way it is like network communication and screen based research. It dwarfs the individual reader and so the reader wants to see a mirror and not the universe. Blogs, live journals, Wikis, Google searches list servs are all used as mirrors to reflect personas, rather than universes. A mirror puts the reader in front of the universe.
To guide yourself through the universe you need a cursor. The first cursor was the pointed finger. You will see them drawn in manuscripts and see the "fists" in period printing. The cursor is also represented by the Yad, the small silver hand used to track recital from Judaic scriptures. And the same function is presented by the cursor in the teleprompter screen which also prompts recitation in a contemporary context. From the papyrus scroll to the teleprompter to any longer computer text display, the endemic need to utilize the scroll format and to impose tracking with a cursor appears timeless.
Now let's adventure a bit with the timeless physical book. My question here is whether it possible that the practiced manipulation of codex reading also conveys conceptual patterns to the mind. Does the physical paper book somehow enable the manual understanding of print concepts? Stranger still, does the action and physicality of a book impose a particular receptivity to the content of a book? Is there a haptics of comprehension?
Watch yourself reading. You will find that you begin to turn the page at the start of the page reading and that your fingers will glide under the leaf to coincide the page turning with the completed page reading. You will also find, pages later, that you can recall the physical location of an encountered idea.
At first the hand-to-mind path seems difficult to define and historians remark on the lack of documentation of the hand skills. The needed realization is that dexterity itself is a medium of information. Hand skills have been conveyed for hundreds of thousands of years by direct exchange from hands to hands. Perhaps the practiced deftness of page turning is a clock that moves us through content; a punctuation of the page.