Books aren’t just content delivery systems

 In Archive, Digital

Pages encrusted with Dead Sea salt

Floating in the Dead Sea

There will always be books, and there will always be a desire for books. Beyond those statements there is a great deal that will change of course: that’s inevitable with technological progress. Few monks copy out books by hand anymore. I have never used a quill pen. However I do choose to plan my life with a red Moleskine notebook and a fountain pen, and I’m currently enjoying a couple of books. Does that make me an illiterate in the digital epoch? No, I’m simply exercising choice.

The End is Not Nigh

I remain unconvinced by those in newspapers and publishing who prophesy ‘The End is Nigh’, particularly when they cite the music industry as their exemplar. True, books might be delivery systems for content in the same way as vinyl, CDs and cassette tapes used to be, but they are much more versatile and aesthetic objects in their own right. They will always fulfil a range of emotional and practical needs that at their best complement the ‘content’. A book can be ‘loved’ for its physical existence: its coffee stains; dog-ears and – yes – water damage. No ebook can achieve that. Does that matter?

If I were still travelling a lot I would undoubtedly have an ebook reader by now, but I wouldn’t have the same connection to it as I do with (for example) my 1st Edition Lonely Planet: Israel. Most of its data is useless of course but more than that, the whole book – every page – has a silky patina derived from falling into the salty Dead Sea. The title page shows I bought it on a hot Summer’s day in Larnaca, Cyprus: 2nd July 1990. Ebooks can be useful, but can’t conjure memories like this battered book can.

Bought in Larnaca

The future can be cheap but not free

Currently I’m wondering whether I agree with Nicholas Lovell’s ‘The Curve’. At first glance I detect an element of deliberate pessimism to attract publicity and, as an optimist, I dislike that. For example I’m sceptical that the ‘free content’ model of the internet is a permanent feature. At second glance however, he is optimistic about authors and artists in the future if they embrace ‘The Curve’: free basic content for the long-tail, but premium content for their small numbers of ‘super-fans’. This seems to be a deft repackaging of standard ‘Business 101’ about segmenting your market, which every business should be doing.

I think free content is a passing phase because most people can’t afford for it to stay free. Here are my 3 structural obstacles the internet has yet to surmount, and I’m optimistic these are already changing:

  1. Lack of technical skills to sell and buy; and easier digital downloads, all of which are improving;
  2. A juvenile something-for-nothing culture that is nurtured by young idealists. At some stage there will be a lightbulb moment. Don’t forget large corporations are also replicating the ‘free at the point of delivery’ activities thanks to their heavy investment and advertising. While the effect seems similar, the motivation is quite different.
  3. Lack of suitable banking and credit card services, particularly for micro-payments for a couple of £ or € or $ across currencies and borders. Paypal; dreaded merchant accounts and rent-seeking transaction fees from credit cards are overdue serious alternatives. As the bitcoin story showed, the internet really needs its own currency.

Due to the appalling inertia of the banking and credit card industries it’s almost impossible for most people to accept credit cards, particularly micro-payments of a couple of £. People either sell individually with PayPal (still the only game in town) or collectively via aggregator sites like Amazon. Economies of scale and creative accounting between tax jurisdictions means such sites can kill the competition and benefit from massive incumbent advantage.

Lonely Planet 1st Edition: but only personal value

When times change, as they will eventually, there will be less free content and more cheap content. That can only be a good thing.

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