Print's new future

Scott McQuade writes about the prospects for digital devices as a replacement for paper publications ("Print online ?", OECD Observer No 270-271 January 2009). However, the evidence, so far, does not support the thesis that dedicated e-book readers such as Kindle, Sony Reader and iRex will become the platform of choice for book readers.

In my opinion, these devices will go the way of all other attempts to offer dedicated e-book readers-into the museum of novel ideas that didn't quite make it. Students, cited by Mr McQuade as possibly rejoicing the arrival of Kindle et al, already carry around a device capable of reading e-books. It is also capable of running spreadsheets, datasets, accessing the web and much, much more. It's called a laptop. They also carry around something infinitely more portable which can also carry e-books: an iPhone. So why will they or anyone else shell out €500 for another device which can only do part of the job?

It's too soon to write off printed books. At the end of 2008, On Demand Inc launched a network of eleven Espresso Book Machines around the globe. Some are in libraries, some in bookshops. These machines, the size of a large photocopier, can make a properly bound, paperback book from a PDF file in three minutes at a cost of around 1-2 cents a page. These machines change the economics of book publishing completely. No longer will a publisher have to tie up capital by holding stock in a warehouse or spend significant sums creating CO2 by shipping kilos of books from warehouse to bookshop (only to have a large proportion expensively shipped back again, unsold). Instead, a customer walks into the bookstore, and the book they want will always be "in stock" and can be made to order. Because of the savings in capital, warehousing and shipping, books will be cheaper too. Printed books require no batteries, can be dropped endlessly, have coffee spilt on them, and suffer many other abuses and still work. These attributes, quite apart from the proven utility of reading from paper, will keep books "in print" for many years to come.

The future for books is digital and it's happening today-not with dedicated e-book readers-but on laptops, iPhones and with print-ondemand, all from digital files.


© OECD Observer No. 272, April 2009

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