For some reason I seem to be a bit ranty this morning... • 18 November 2006 • The SnowBlog

For some reason I seem to be a bit ranty this morning...

...I think it's switching back to Illy coffee that's done it. That stuff is like perfectly roasted rocket fuel and it angries up the blood if you're not careful. So I respectfully blame Illy indirectly for the following:

The publishing industry seems to be full of people who are confidently dismissive of any electronic gadget that purports to do the job of a paper book. I in turn have been confidently dismissive of these people.

Two things annoy me about their position. Firstly, they tend to start with the idea that you'll never get rid of paper books completely (with which I completely agree) and skip straight to how that means electronic-book-readers will never amount to much. Secondly, they rely on what you might call the emotional qualities of paper to bolster their position. That argument seems to run: because everyone loves warm, natural paper books and hates cold, soulless gadgets, the paper book's position is safe. And I generally reply, 'you mean the way everyone loves the ungainly, toilet-paper bulk of airport blockbusters and hates the sleek, pebble-from-a-Zen-garden perfection of the latest iPods?' If I'm being petty, I like to imagine that these are the people who swore never to switch from records to CDs - and then did - and proudly renounced the mobile phone about five years back and now can't live without one. I'm not saying the world is better because it switched to CDs and everyone bought a cell phone; I'm just pointing out that it happened, over the objections and counter-predictions of many. Likewise, it's not that I'm in love with the idea of electronic-book-readers, I just don't like the complacency (and what sometimes feels like smugness) with which their approach is ignored. For instance, I'd have more time for the rampant papyrophiles if they used the following argument on me:

You know Rob, a lot of people think that paper is just a white background for applying ink to, but the fact is that paper interacts with light in strange and useful ways. Paper is made up of microscopic tubes of a plant material called cellulose which happen to be transparent. Paper only looks opaque because the light that hits it is being bent in all directions, so instead of looking at a sheet of glass, its more like a frosted window (plus papermakers chuck in a handful of china clay to make the white brighter). At the microscopic level, paper is a tangle of tiny fibre-optic strands. The light that goes into one end of a strand comes out the other end, most likely going in some completely different direction. Since the strands are all pointing in different directions that means that no matter what angle the light is coming from, or how strong it is, it tends to get evened out and sent back in all directions, almost as though the paper itself was glowing, usually with no glare or reflections. Paper takes light from harsh point-sources like a bulb, or blindingly strong sources like the sun, and turns it into a soft, even backlight behind the text. Simply putting ink on a white surface looks terrible by comparison and that's why even the best electronic displays fall short of paper when it comes to displaying the written word.

I think e-book sceptics would be on firmer ground with an argument like that. They should point out that decades of expensive R&D have yet to produce a definitive rival to something that literally grows on trees. Paper's optical advantages do a more thorough job of driving off challengers than does the typical reader's supposed love of conventionally made books, because while I might love my 1889 edition of Three Men in a Boat, with the first owner's name written in black fountain pen ink that's now turning brown with age, I don't love unwieldy, wibalin-covered hardbacks at £15 when what I really wanted was a compact £8 paperback, and I don't love most of the gaudy-covered fibrous doorstops that gradually fill up my bookshelves until I give them away. 

Personally, I believe there are still lots of reasons to prefer paper books. But Philips, Sony, E Ink Corporation and others are hard at work trying to transfer the most desirable qualities of paper books to electronic-readers (as well as inventing a few new features along the way). Instead of an LCD screen, Sony's book-reading-gizmos have electronic paper displays. Millions of tiny beads, too small to see individually, are arranged in a sheet. On one side they're white and on the other side they're black, and the circuitry built into the display can rotate them, controlling which side you see. When a patch of display has its white side up it looks rather like blank paper, and when the black side is up it looks rather like ink. And this isn't some flickery, glowing computer screen. It appears inert, dead; it just sits there, looking like slightly weird ink on slightly weird paper: just a page from a weird-looking book. But touch the control on the side and now it looks like a different page from that book. My reader isn't the latest version, but you can read it in bright sunshine or by the light of a bedside lamp. It weighs about as much as a big paperback and can hold goodness knows how many words. Zillions, if you buy a big enough memory stick (the little deely-bob that stores the words). Naturally, the new Sony readers that have just come out will be better still. Snowbooks will get a few, to see if we like them, to see how the technology's progressing, to judge how frightened we should be - and to see if they spark any great ideas about how to keep profits up should paper lose a significant piece of its market share. It seems unlikely that we'll be able to answer that question all by ourselves, so for purely selfish reasons it would be nice if those with their heads in the sand removed them and got to work on inventing the next generation of publishing. It's either that or open a rare vinyl shop.

Phew. Probably time for some camomile tea after that. 


The SnowBlog is one of the oldest publishing blogs, started in 2003, and it's been through various content management systems over the years. A 2005 techno-blunder meant we lost the early years, but the archives you're reading now go all the way back to 2005.

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