I. A Different Form of Book

The most simple version of an electronic or ebook (a number of critics reject this term) is one which is viewed on a computer screen or via a computer-based projection rather than on the printed page, but which in all other respects is identical to a traditional book. In this case, the book's pages are "virtual": they appear and function in the same way as printed pages; but in reality do not exist. However, the book itself exists as a file or collection of data files, which may or may not be stored separately from the computer whose screen it is displayed on. (For example, the book may exist on a floppy disk, CD or cartridge which can be inserted into the computer; on an internal or external hard disk linked directly to the computer's Central Processing Unit [CPU]; or on another computer which is accessed via the telephone system using a modem.) Even using this simple and limited definition of an ebook as a "virtual" traditional book, however, there is fierce resistance from book lovers. Printed books can't and won't ever be replaced by e-books, the arguments go, because:

"I like to read books at any time and in any place - on the train, in front of the TV, in the bath, trekking across the desert . . ."

At first sight, the ebook cannot compete with the printed text in terms of cost, flexibility and portability. The cost of buying a computer in order to read the ebook is prohibitive and reading onscreen is extremely restrictive in many ways, and many commentators have pointed this out. However, the technology which is actually required to read an ebook is far less expensive and cumbersome than the multi-purpose personal computer or PC, and is perfectly portable. A more appropriate analogy than the computer in terms of the device required to read an ebook would be the personal or portable CD player.

The ideal portable reading device for an ebook would be cheap, light, durable and waterproof, and comply with a worldwide compatibility standard. The power supply will, of course, have to be sustainable; solar- rather than battery-powered. It is probable that the reading device which eventually becomes the standard will combine an internal hard disk and modem for accessing and storing e-books via the telephone system with a CD, cartridge or floppy disk drive for accessing "books" which have been bought directly. Pages would be displayed on a screen, and scrolled through - "turned over" - by pressing a button.

Using such a reading device, readers would be able to manipulate the text of a book to suit them as individuals. For example, readers could choose from a selection of display fonts, and visually impaired readers would be able to increase the type size by using a larger screen or by zooming in on the text. Readers could also alter the amount of text which is displayed at a time. Many readers "speed-read" by absorbing chunks of text rather than reading each word separately; if they can establish the optimum size of such a chunk, the reading device should allow them to display text one chunk at a time, speeding up their reading still further.

With a cheap, light, durable and waterproof portable reading device, a reader could not only take and read an ebook anywhere, they could also drop it in their bath without needing to spend hours drying it out again on the radiator in the sad knowledge that it will never be the same again. And given the enormous amount of information which can be stored on one CD or mini-hard disk - 2000 conventional books on one full-size CD, for example - readers could take more and "heavier" books with them wherever they go in the world. Another analogy with the reading device would be the personal stereo, which was unthinkable in the 1970s, expensive and sought-after at the beginning of the 1980s, and is now available worldwide for less than £10 (1997 prices).

In fact, handheld electronic reading devices have been under development since the 1960s. A pioneer was Alan Kay, who built a cardboard model of a portable hypermedia system in 1968, the Dynabook. The Dynabook has yet to be realised, but in 1990 Sony launched its ebook player, the DataDiscMan, for around £400 - in 1996 it retailed at around £99 - and by the mid-1990s more than half a million units had been sold, playing mini-CDs which will also play on a PC. In the future, some people may prefer to incorporate their reading devices into other forms of miniaturised "palmtop" computer technology; others may prefer a descendant of the Dynabook or DataDiscMan.

"People don't want to read text on a screen."

This may be true at present for many readers. However, most children in the developed world are now familiar with handheld computer games-playing machines such as Nintendo's GameBoy and Sega's Game Gear. These machines display tiny, monochrome graphics on unlit screens, yet to the child or adult using the machines, the screens vividly represent a wide range of credible settings, situations and worlds. The enormous success of these machines demonstrates that consumers will happily accept this low level of quality, although a much higher quality is attainable and consumers should be encouraged to demand it. The success of handheld games-playing machines also shows that there is no innate barrier to consumer acceptance of handheld electronic reading devices. Indeed, to the child who has grown up with a Game Boy or Game Gear, using "palmtop" technology may appear to be more "natural" and desirable than using the printed book.

Then there is the example of the book which is read illicitly while at work - anyone who has worked in an office must have observed surreptitious reading of novels. Workers in computerised offices are known to spend what can be a considerable time each week playing games which have been stored on their computers' hard disks. Multi-tasking computers allow a user to switch rapidly between different applications; some workers are adept at switching instantly from a game to work when observed, otherwise there are screensavers available which mimic the screen of someone at work and which can be switched on by moving the mouse. If, for example, the books of Jilly Cooper were available on disk, it is most likely that they would be read onscreen by many women during office hours as a preferable alternative to working.

Likewise, the late twentieth-century experience of viewing television in the developed world is now far closer to that of reading than in the past. The social experience of cinema viewing which prevailed in the early part of the century was replaced in the middle years by the experience of viewing television within the nuclear family, albeit with very little choice of what could be watched. At the end of the century, the experience is becoming almost entirely private, with many family members owning individual sets. And with video tapes and disks, multiple satellite and digital channels and viewing on demand, there is now much greater control over what can be watched.

Finally, of course, there is the World Wide Web itself: more and more people are becoming used to reading large amounts of information on their computer screen, choosing the typeface and size of type themselves. (The internet "browser" software which you are using to read this, for example Netscape or Internet Explorer, can be set to display the text in any font which you possess on your hard drive.)

"Printed books are much cheaper to produce than e-books."

At this point it is useful to look at the book production process in detail. In terms of pre-print production of books today, the battle between traditional technology and new technology was fought and overwhelmingly won in the 1980s; today the printed book almost always begins electronically. The vast majority of published titles are now written on computer using a word-processing programme, or are scanned into a computer from typescript before editing. They are then transferred on floppy disk or by modem to another computer where they are virtually "typeset", before being transferred on disk again to the printers.

One of the main reasons for this change has been cost. The old hot metal typesetting process (how many people under the age of thirty are even familiar with this?) was incredibly time-consuming and labour-intensive, and the equipment needed was extremely expensive. In contrast, the initial outlay for an Apple Mac and publishing software such as QuarkXpress (the industry standard) can be as little as £3,000 (1996 prices), while the work itself takes a fraction of the time with subsequent savings in workers' costs. To give a personal example: I was able to buy an Apple Mac together with Quark Xpress using a low-cost student loan; I then completed the typesetting and design of the printed version of The Chalet School Revisited within three weeks of purchasing these, without any previous experience of using a Mac or QuarkXpress.

The real costs of book production start when the book comes to be printed. Printers either produce a film version of each page from their computers before creating metal plates from it, or print directly from their computers on to plastic plates. These plates are then used to print the book. (Plastic plates are only suitable if small numbers of books are being produced; print runs of more than 300 require metal plates which are expensive to produce.) Traditionally, the cost of the plates is added to the first 500 copies of the book which are printed (500 is usually considered to be the minimum number which makes the process viable). The cost of printing each additional 100 books - the "run on" - is much cheaper. However, once the plate costs add just a few pence to each copy, the book has reached its minimum cost. This is often several pounds sterling (1996 prices), reflecting both the high capital costs of printers and world paper prices (after several rises during the 1980s, the price rose another 20% at the beginning of 1995).

In contrast, the cost of ebook production ranges from low to minimal. If a book is stored on a CD-Rom it can be "printed" for 70p or less per unit , using equipment costing less than £10,000, and with set-up costs, analogous to plate-making, costing around £500 (1996 prices), with 100 being the minimum number which can be pressed commercially compared to a minimum print run of 500. In addition, CD "writers" costing less than £1,000 are available which are suitable for producing smaller quantities. Alternatively, if a book is stored on computer and accessed via the telephone line using a modem before being stored on the reader's hard disk, the costs to the reader can be assessed as a combination of the telephone charges (if any) and a proportion of the initial purchase price of the computer and modem. An additional benefit of electronic publishing is that the "print run" can potentially be tailored to meet the demands of readers at any particular time, since copies can be downloaded or written on to CD at any time.

If a cheap, light, durable and waterproof portable reading device were available for around £10, and e-books themselves were sold for less than the cost of a printed book, the economics of e-publishing would become very different. In addition, many readers would prefer e-books in terms of their durability and size. There is no inherent reason, then, why e-books could not succeed.

"Nothing can replace a traditional library."

The simple fact is that a traditional library cannot begin to meet the needs of readers at the end of the twentieth century. Take the example of an average British student, with a list of four books needed in order to research for an essay. At the University library they discover that the first book has been lent to someone else and will not be returned for a week. The second is in such great demand that it can only be borrowed for up to two hours at a time, and in any case is booked up for the next two days. The third is not held at the library in question and has to be ordered from another library through the inter-library loan scheme; two weeks later, the message comes back that the book will not be available for six months. The fourth is on the shelves according to library records, but in fact is missing without trace. Perhaps this is one reason why undergraduates are often found to have used fictitious references in their essays.

Of course, most readers do not have access to University libraries in the first place and must make do with the public library system. In Britain, inner-city users find that many libraries have either closed altogether over the last decade - with the reference library often being the first to go - or operate extremely restricted opening hours (my own home borough of Newham in the East End of London being a case in point). Meanwhile rural users find that the library service is often represented by a minibus full of books which comes to their area weekly or less frequently, and even library users in prosperous urban areas find that the range of books and services on offer is shrinking rather than expanding.

And this of course assumes that a library is accessible in the first place, which is rarely true for disabled people, elderly people and ill people. It is important to remember that books themselves are physically inaccessible to many people; they are heavy - even a paperback can be too physically wearing to hold - and require a considerable amount of dexterity in order to turn the pages. Using a computer, in contrast, requires far fewer physical skills, and computers can be adapted for use by the majority of disabled people. But even if disabled people can use printed books, the design of almost every existing library is inaccessible to wheelchair users and to anyone who has difficulty using stairs or steps. This problem could be removed with the design and construction of new libraries, but even then, the physical effort associated with visiting a library and selecting books is often too great.

To give some personal examples: any trip outside my home is tiring, leaving me with less energy to spend on my research, so I am often feeling unwell by the time I get to a library. When I do get there, I find that, in order to protect books and to discourage people from entering the library for any purpose other than reading, there is nowhere comfortable for me to sit and rest or to have a cup of tea. I then find it even more tiring to wander around the shelves, physically searching for a book, particularly since there is nowhere secure to leave my coat etc so I have to carry these with me. And if I do find the books which I want, I can only carry one of them home at a time, so have to replace the rest at the end of my visit. Specialist research libraries, essential to academic research, are generally even more inaccessible, as the following two examples show.

The Royal Society of Medicine in central London has one of the foremost medical research libraries in the country. However, while it is initially accessible by lift, there are a number of internal steps. There is no librarian available to climb steps to high shelves, to lift down what are often heavy books or to help to carry books to a photocopier. And if the books wanted are in the " stacks", the reader has to descend to the basement, turn a heavy wheel to operate the machinery to move them and then move and climb up a ladder to search the shelves.

The British Newspaper Library in Colindale, North London, part of the British Library, is equally inaccessible. The reading room is on the first floor with no lift provided, while facilities including toilets and drinks machines are on the ground floor. Most of the magazines and newspapers stored in this library are in very large, heavy, bound volumes which are brought to the reader's seat by librarians. However, the volumes are then placed on the floor and there is no assistance provided to lift them on to and off desks, and in my case a request for help provoked an extremely hostile response.

Of course, vastly increased library funding, new buildings and more attention to the needs of individuals would solve many of these shortcomings, but fundamental problems would still remain. In the past few years, the UK has moved from an education system designed to keep knowledge within an elite to one which theoretically makes knowledge available to everyone, and there are simply not enough copies of existing books available to meet the demands of readers. In addition, those copies which do exist are deteriorating with every use, and the high costs of printing have resulted in lower production standards which means that the books printed today often deteriorate faster than those produced twenty years ago. However, printing costs also mean that it is not economically viable to reprint the vast majority of existing texts.

The other fundamental problem with the existing library system is the necessary restraint which it puts on the range of books available to readers. Using the British Library and the inter-library loan system, it is theoretically possible to read a copy of just about any book which has been published in the United Kingdom. However, it may take months to obtain a copy, and in the case of rarer books it will involve travelling to a specialist library - sometimes hundreds of miles away and often totally inaccessible - in order to read them. If a reader wants to obtain a copy of a book published in another country, often in another language, they may never be successful. The reader also, of course, has to know that the book they want exists in the first place. "I like to browse because I come across texts I didn't know about" is frequently given as a reason why a reader rejects the idea of the electronic library. However, browsing in a traditional library is necessarily restricted to the limited range of books it stocks; it is unlikely that the student in the example given above would have found many alternative books on their subject in their University's library.

An electronic online library, in contrast, could theoretically make available a copy of every book in the world to anyone with access to the telephone network via a modem - this could be through a private phone or a public facility - fulfiling the utopian dream of a universal library. Because the number of copies which can be made are limitless and are produced on demand, the number of potential readers of each book would be unlimited. Readers could "browse" through every existing work in the world, in addition to accessing new books immediately they are published electronically. (The print process is time-consuming, as is the distribution of printed books, and together with the economics of print publishing mean that publications are often delayed for months or even years after the writing/editing process is complete.) And the electronic library would retain its stock indefinitely; there would be no problem with deterioration through use or climactic conditions.

The beginnings of this library currently exists as the World Wide Web or W3 and Ted Nelson's Xanadu Project. Writing about the Web, Dale Spender claims that, already: "My computer means as much to me now as a library of books once did - it represents a key to another universe, to a realm of information, creativity, and international ideas." One important point which the Web illustrates is that the texts in an electronic library do not have to be stored in the same place; it is the access to and distribution of the texts which is important. The failure of the British Library to fulfil its aims is inextricably linked to its concept of a separate, physical storage space for books, visited by readers, without the realisation that it does not matter where the books are stored so long as readers have access to them.

Does the reader exist who can honestly say that they would have not read more widely if a cheap, light, durable, waterproof, portable reading device linked to an electronic library containing hundreds of thousands of texts had been made available to them - if they could lie in bed and browse through the books held in every library in the world, including those that no longer exist in "reality"? The example of the fans of girls' school story author Elinor M. Brent-Dyer shows that book lovers are currently prevented from reading and re-reading many of the books which they would like to read, because so few copies of these books exist and it is not economically viable to reprint them. And as discussed above, book lovers using traditional libraries are also prevented from reading texts because they are unaware that they exist, and/or because they cannot gain access to them.

George Landow points out of the manuscripts which preceded the printed book that:

The fans of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer who seek to read her book The School by the River (1930) have a similar experience today. First, they have to find out that the book exists by consulting a copy of Helen McClelland's biography Behind the Chalet School, which itself was out of print for more than ten years until the Bettany Press edition of 1996, of which only 1,000 copies were printed. There they will find a full bibliography of Brent-Dyer's works, whereas her current publishers, HarperCollins, list only the other books to which they hold the copyright in the front of their Chalet School paperbacks. Then fans would have to find the money and rearrange their work and/or domestic responsibilities in order to visit the British Library or other copyright library in order to read the book, and risk encountering muggers, rapists and terrorist bombs along the way. No wonder, then, that the women who have read The School by the River also regard it as "a rare privileged opportunity". Libraries may appear to be friendly places which are accessible to all, whereas computers appear to be expensive and to demand specialist skills, but the reality can be somewhat different.

"The costs of moving to an ebook and library system are prohibitive."

As we have already seen, the costs of print publishing are high and continue to rise, while existing book stocks are shrinking and deteriorating. The cost of reprinting books to meet the growing demand cannot be quantified; meanwhile the costs of maintaining and rebuilding our existing libraries are enormous and the cost of new library buildings can be ludicrous. The most obvious example is the new British Library building near Kings Cross in London: in 1996 construction costs continued to rise beyond all the original estimates; while the completion date continued to be put back and it was estimated that the library's capacity would be reached within the next decade. Meanwhile the surrounding air pollution is the worst in the country, which will hasten the deterioration of the stock. If the same amount of money had been spent on developing an electronic version of the British Library, the original library and its stock could have been preserved for future generations, while a good part of the electronic library would already be "open".

"People can't operate the technology."

Similar sentiments were expressed with the introduction of the gramophone and wireless, but of course today we take their modern descendants for granted. Instead, items which need programming, such as the microwave oven, CD player and video recorder, can cause particular fear and resistance. However, with reference to computer technology, Dale Spender points out that:


It is noticeable that children find it natural and simple to operate new technologies, perhaps because they have no fear and are happy to experiment with pushing buttons until they discover how these function. And children can actively view and use video tapes [visual texts] several years before they are competent to read printed books [written texts], showing that new technology is lowering the age at which textual competence can first be reached. As Dale Spender points out:


To give a personal example: at twenty months old my niece was able to operate her parents' VHS video player by loading and playing tapes. Although she had never been taught - and in fact had been discouraged from touching the machine - she had watched her parents and then copied them, pushing different buttons until she achieved the result she wanted in the same way that several of her toys have buttons to push which result in an action or reward. She understood that she could move past sections of a tape which she didn't want to watch, but could watch favourite sections repeatedly, although at this age she was unable to operate the fast-forward and rewind functions.

When I bought my niece the video of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, she viewed it through once and after that demanded it was wound forward to the song she called "Hi Ho" immediately she put the tape into the machine. Too young to understand the meaning of the marks on the screen, she still understood that rolling credits signified the end of the tape, whereupon she would start to cry until the tape was rewound for her. The tape itself came to a premature end at her hands, but from the "boken, I boken" which was gabbled down the phone to me, I assume that in the process she had discovered cause and effect after feeding porridge into the machine. Another example which was given to me anecdotally at the Oxford University "Beyond the Book" conference in 1995 concerned a child who referred to video tapes as "books".

What, however, of older people who have traditionally been slow or non-readers and who have failed throughout their school career? Will they be able to operate the technology, or will they be excluded still further from participating in hypermedia? The following example is taken from research I undertook in 1990 for an ITV series called Breadline Britain in the 1990s. As part of this research I spent six weeks inside, a sprawling urban area of north-east England which was once the centre of heavy manufacturing industry based on the coastal estuary, but which had suffered from high unemployment levels since the beginning of the 1980s. There were two key reasons for the dearth of jobs: the change throughout Britain from manufacturing industries based in the north of the country to service industries based in the south; and the replacement of large numbers of workers within the remaining manufacturing industries by new technology. Old working divisions had also broken down: whereas a skilled labourer used to be accompanied by an unskilled manual labourer as his "mate"; the former was now expected to carry out his work alone.

When I came into close contact with young unemployed men living on one council housing estate in the area, I discovered that there was another, over-riding reason why they could not find work: they were functionally illiterate. Staff at the local adult literacy centre explained that these young men had been genuinely slow learners at school, added to which they had often missed school due to illness or family problems. Earlier in the century, such young men would have been able to find manual work by word of mouth, but what little manual work still existed now required applicants to be literate in order to fill in application forms and then to be able to read health and safety signs. Their peers had been able to find work or had left the area to work elsewhere; these young men were trapped into dependency on the welfare state.

However, when I learned how these young men spent their time, I discovered that they were some of the most visually literate people I had ever encountered in terms of video, television and computer technologies. Due to a combination of cheap introductory offers and an ability to manipulate the technology illicitly, the majority had access to satellite TV at their own homes or those of relatives or friends and watched a wide range of programmes. The local Job Centre was a three-mile walk away, so a group would gather in the evening with a working friend who could read, and then access the Teletext service for the latest employment vacancies. Most had video players/recorders, either rented or "knocked off" (stolen goods resold cheaply), and had watched almost every film released over the late 1980s. (A number of cheap video rental businesses operated on the estate, but these young men also had access to cheap pirate copies of every Hollywood film - sometimes before it was released in the US - by calling a mobile phone number and asking for a film to be delivered to their door.) They could not, of course, afford to buy computers, but a local community worker had made his IBM-compatible PC available to them and they could use a wide variety of visual programmes such as games.

The real question is not "Can people learn to read e-books?" but "Why are so many people in Britain still unable to read printed books?". Another example is the East London comprehensive school of which I was a governor until January 1996, where one in ten children could not read when they entered the school aged eleven, and one in four left five years later with no meaningful qualifications. In contrast, children as young as two or three years old are now learning to read with computer programmes, which progress at the individual child's own pace, can "speak" sounds and words to the child, reward the child with music and messages of encouragement and have the added advantage of never losing patience or becoming irritable. Unlike printed books, e-books have the ability to teach the user how to read them, and thus may create their own readers.

"There's no point in using computers at the moment because the systems keep changing."

During the 1990s two systems or "platforms" have become dominant for personal computer users: the IBM-compatible PC; and the Apple Macintosh. Within each system, a series of computers are available which are progressively more powerful and offer more features. In 1994 Apple Macintosh launched the Power PC (commonly known as the Power Mac) which is a hybrid machine offering users the ability to run both Macintosh and PC programmes, and these are now being made by other manufacturers as well. Whether or not the Power PC becomes dominant, or whether the two platforms remain alongside each other, it is unlikely that they will be replaced in the near future.

The reasons for this belief are as follows. Platforms changed over the 1980s as companies struggled for market dominance, as rapid technological advances allowed ever more sophisticated machines and as designers perfected the design of the Windows and Mac Graphic User Interfaces (GUIs). However, by 1995 this battle had been won by the PC, with a substantial minority of users remaining with the Mac because of its ease of use and the superior quality of its multimedia creative programmes. For a number of years companies other than IBM have been able to manufacture PCs under license, and in 1995 the first Mac "clones" were produced following a policy change by Apple Macintosh. With the enormous amount of money invested in the development, manufacture and purchase of these platforms, and the time invested by users in learning to operate them, it is unlikely that a new and significant rival to them will appear in the short term (although users will be encouraged to buy more sophisticated versions of the two platforms and their operating software).

Rather, the aim will be to extend the use of computers and thus the market base, while continuing to develop the software market. In the process, personal computers are likely to become easier to operate, and their use will be experienced increasingly as natural in the same way that the use of a printed book - holding it up, opening it, reading succeeding lines of text from left to right, turning pages - now appears natural in a wide variety of situations. However, if and when new platforms are developed, users will still have access to popular software programmes, as these will continue to be adapted and developed. And since texts on the World Wide Web are being developed using a common system called HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language), this will allow them to be reissued in new formats with relative ease.

"I just like the feel and smell of a book."

Presumably the same sentiment was expressed during the move from handwritten documents to printed texts. However, there is a real issue here about the role of books as physical objects and the part which they play in readers' lives. Chris Barlas has argued that "with electronic culture, no artefact remains. Culture, in a word, has been materialised. It only exists as a series of 0s and 1s at the level of digital code." This, however, is not strictly true, since it ignores the means by which this code is stored.

What is probable is that the e-books of the future will exist in two forms: on a storage device such as CD; and on computers' hard disks. Since transferring the text of an entire book to a personal computer's hard disk using a modem via the telephone system is time-consuming, and also expensive in areas such as the UK where all phone calls must be paid for, buying an ebook on CD may be the easiest option. CDs or similar storage devices are also likely to function as different editions of printed books do today; they will be produced at a particular time and geographical location in the electronic equivalent of a print works, and may only be altered in subsequent "printings".

The appearance of CDs can be customised, and they come encased in a printed sleeve or box containing a printed insert which is analogous to the protective dustwrappers of traditional printed books. In the future, CDs or similar storage devices are therefore likely to function as printed books do today in terms of being displayed on shelves, dusted, lent to friends and subsequently lost, then sought after in secondhand shops and car boot sales etc. They may also come to play the same role as sought-after out of print books today if the text is ever removed from an online library. In fact, one day we may simply think of them as "books".

Next: II. A Different Nature
Return to: The E-Book and the Future of Reading Index
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