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2011-06, 370, Bruce Preston, Evolution of the Book

From clay tablets to Apple Tablet :part I

e-books and publishing in the electronic age

Bruce Preston
(A talk to BCSA meeting in Sydney Saturday 6 March 2010)

WHEN FIRST ASKED about giving this talk I thought the BCSA was the Bikers Club of South Australia; so I was a little apprehensive about coming here. Richard Blair asked me to talk after I’d published a novel, The Lion and the Covenant, via the print-on-demand method. About writing a novel, I wanted to share with you that it’s a bit like having constipation — you know there’s a book in there somewhere, but getting it out can be the problem.
Originally I was going to talk about how I made my mystery thriller available in print-on-demand format (POD), as opposed to the traditional method of publishing. However, this topic only makes sense within the context of the general evolution of the book. So what is this print-on-demand? Simply put, it is just what the name implies — you print copies of a book, usually one or just a few at a time, only as and when there is a specific demand for them; normally an actual order to buy. Of course, doing that implies some revolutionary shifts, both in technology and in attitudes.

The POD concept is in fact a by-product of the Internet. Some people presume that the Age of the Internet may lead to the extinction of the physical, printed book. But there is a strange paradox involved with the Internet. Although it can make texts available electronically, it has also led to it becoming easier than ever before to track down and obtain physical books, and to acquire physical books in ways never before possible. So how did we get into this strange situation, which seems to be going in two directions at once? The book itself is clearly evolving, but unless we understand where it has come from, we can’t really see where it might be going to.

OK, let’s go back to the beginning. From the earliest eras of cave and rock painting, before any writing whatsoever, our forebears soon grew to understand the concept of symbols. So, the earliest kinds of illustrations, such as drawings of a bear or a giant kangaroo, very quick-

They began to carry deeper meanings and even express what was held to be sacred in nature. Children draw before they can write, and so it was in was in the infancy of humanity.
As it turned out, the pictures were to be the key to writing anyhow. Humans developed pictograms, an early kind of writing using symbols that bore a resemblance to the words they stood for. This idea made a lot of progress, and led to Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese characters, among others. The idea of writing then marched on thorough various experimental forms to the most fluid and successful concept, the alphabet, introduced by the Phoenicians.
Writing with words that were developed beyond pictograms was invented before the Phoenicians by the Sumerians, about 5000 years ago. Their cuneiform script was very limited and prosaic to begin with. As far as we know, this kind of writing arose from symbols that were used for the keeping of accounts. Possibly bookmaking accounts, I suspect. So, sad to say, either bean counters or bookmakers were the first authors. The Sumerians gradually developed baked clay tablets, which can perhaps be regarded as the first books. These were soon followed by the papyrus rolls of the Egyptians. From around 500 BC the papyrus roll became dominant, although clay tablets survived for another 500 years or so. I mention that to make the point that old forms of the book tend to continue for considerable periods of time alongside newer ones, particularly as a craft product or item of value. For example, as you know, various private printing presses still produce books today with materials and carefully handcrafted bindings now abandoned by the mainstream.

The more modern form of the book, the codex, consists of multiple separate leaves of pages bound between protective covers. This format has been with us for about 1900 years. Within 200 years of its introduction, the codex became dominant. Those first codex books used either papyrus, from the plant of the same name, or parchment made from animal skins, as the writing surface. By the 7th century AD, parchment had almost replaced papyrus altogether in Europe and the Middle East. Parchment use did not seem impractical in those days, since books were still rare items hand-copied in only very limited quantities.

It’s a big jump from those days to the concept of the modern book aswe know it today. Before the mass production of books could become possible, three more key advances were required: paper, printing and mass literacy.
Paper was invented in China as early as 105 AD, and was at first prepared from bark and cannabis hemp. So perhaps they smoked their literature as well as reading it. Chinese paper-making eventually spread to the Arab world via Samarkand and the Silk Road. The Arabs introduced paper into Europe through Spain, but it was not actually made in Europe — Italy — until around 1276 AD: Paper was not made in England until 1495. One reason for this slow advance was that European-style paper, made usually from flax and hemp, was at first inferior to parchment, especially for illustrations. So, until it was improved, paper was not very suitable for the style of illustrated manuscript then common in the West, and it was looked down on to begin with. In fact they didn’t even bother trying to smoke it.

The second key advance required was printing, also a Chinese invention. The first known printed book was produced in China in the ninth century AD, from engraved wooden blocks. In Korea there was apparently also an early, isolated use of movable but wooden type at one temple. In Europe, we finally saw Gutenberg’s printing press, using cast metal type, around 1450 AD. However this was still hand-composed on a mostly wooden press. After Gutenberg, things really speeded up, with major progress as often as every few hundred years. So we had the metal printing press developed by Lord Charles Stanhope in 1803. After that, things really spun out of control. At breakneck speed we had the rotary press in 1846, and then offset printing in 1904, becoming dominant by 1980!

However, that was only the beginning of the modern printing revolution. Even more important, from 1968 onwards computers became involved. In 1983, the offset printing plate progressed to a format involving the laser-beam transference of stored digital information. Gradually, printing worldwide became a digital and computerised process, and the old, purely mechanical printing began to disappear. The full implications and potential of these changes were not realised at first, except by a handful of deep thinkers and science fiction writers, who I might add, are often one and the same.

To print a copy of something by the modern method today — the electronic method — requires that first you create a digital file that not only contains all the information in your book or document, it also contains the entire layout. So, if you look at the book on a screen before you print it, you see just what you will get in a printed copy. It was only a matter of time before the logical conclusion would be drawn — that books could exist in a purely electronic form. So now, the digital file is not only the mother of the book that follows it, it can even become the book itself.

So was born the concept of the e-book. Such books could incorporate new possibilities undreamed of in the printed codex book. For example, e-books can be instantly updated, they can be searchable electronically, they can even include sounds, video and a dictionary. They can also interact directly with the Internet, and therefore contain instant links to further information. As well, they can make it possible to print a new copy of any existing book at any time — print-on-demand. Or, e-books can simply remain as an electronic version of a traditional printed text. In other words, e-books can be the same as existing books or something radically different. The book, therefore, is now poised at a critical point, ready to evolve into many different new forms: if we want it to.


But, you might say, how can you read a book that has no physical existence? Actually, in a large number of ways. They range from a full-size desktop computer to a tiny mobile phone. You can also have a specific e-book reader device, or e-reader, for short. The first dedicated e-reader came out in 1998. That was called the Rocket eBook, and I remember holding the first one of those to reach Australia. In fact I actually brought it here from California, loaned with special per-mission from the manufacturers. This earliest device was surprisingly good.

Here is an example of a subsequent e-reader device. This particular one, a Korean e-reader called the Hiebook, is about eight years old and is a very early touch-screen model. It is clumsy to use, and although small, is much thicker and heavier than the more recent ones, and the screen isn’t very good either. The latest ones can now weigh as little as 180 grams. They come in a range of sizes, and give a lot better reading experience than this primitive model.


The first e-readers had to be connected to a computer in order to add books, downloaded to the computer from the World Wide Web. Then the world’s biggest bookstore, Amazon.com introduced an e-reader device called the Kindle. A huge advantage of the Kindle is that it communicates directly and wirelessly with the Internet, eliminating the need for a computer. With the Kindle you can browse Amazons bookstore on the Web, buy e-books and obtain them within seconds. The Kindle device became available in Australia in late 2009. Theres also a larger version available called the Kindle DX.


 We now have an iPad, also known as the Apple Tablet, the most famous device in the world at the time of writing. What is it? It’s essentially a portable computer in tablet form that can also be used as an e-book reader. You can add books wirelessly direct from Apple’s iBooks store on the Internet. To read them, just tap the book cover here, and instantly the text of the book will be right there before you.

You can store 50, 100 or 1000 books on this device. It can do many other things too: browse the Web, do your email, show videos, play music, all sorts of things. But, it also has great limitations as a portable e-reader. It’s heavy, it’ll be expensive, up to nearly $1000 for some versions, and the wonderful colour screen is not suitable for reading for hours on end, because it’s an LCD screen, prone to glare and difficult to use in sunlight.

If you want a portable device that’s cheaper, much lighter, and gives you a non-glare screen of book-like quality, I recommend, instead, devices such as the aforementioned Kindle, the Sony Reader, or Barnes & Noble’s Nook device. This is called the Nook e-reader. Nooky reader? It makes you wonder just what kind of literature they think you’ll be browsing on it!

More wonders in this area. Within a few years you’ll be able to get a newspaper-sized e-reader, so thin and flexible that you can roll it up just like a traditional newspaper. It will give you your daily paper, updated automatically each day by the magic of wireless Internet. Provided you’ve paid your subscription, of course. And that’s the future of newspapers, which otherwise are going broke. So, for those of you who read newspapers free on the Internet, enjoy it while you can; because they’re not going to be free for too much longer.

Going back to e-books. They have no physical existence except at the level of electrons. That has both advantages and disadvantages. Advantages include the ability to get unprecedented access to millions of books, and keep close to hand any and every one you want. There’s no theoretical reason why such books can’t be much cheaper than physical books. And in fact, huge and increasing numbers of them, books out of copyright, are available free, legally, right now. Yes, you can download lots of them into your device for nothing from the World Wide Web, and that’s pretty good value.

The potential low cost of e-books as compared to printed books raises the possibility that in a country like Australia, where books are expensive, people will be able to afford to buy far more books in future. If you could buy books for as little as $5 each, wouldn’t you buy a lot more books? For example, my own book here I’m selling for $20 as a special local price for a printed version, but you can get an e-book of it, a digital version, on the Internet for just US$9.50.
In practical terms, it’s easy to see huge advantages to e-books. When you go on holiday you can take all the books you might want with you in one lightweight device. Or, you can keep a permanent huge portable library in a gadget that weighs just six ounces. And imagine the future for students — instead of lugging a backpack around with all those horrendously heavy textbooks, just take this one light object to school or Uni. Once they’re as cheap as chips, after their makers have ripped off all the early adopters for a couple of years, you’ll be able to keep a spare one as backup against losing it too, because you can update them from other devices, or ‘sync’ them as they say.

A disadvantage of e-books is that you can’t collect them as you can physical books. People will always treasure physical books, especially if they’re beautifully printed and made with quality materials. So the logical direction for e-books is that they will represent the part of your reading you want to either get free, like a book borrowed from a library, or buy cheaply, as with less memorable novels now represented by paper-backs that have reduced physical quality and cheap paper. In addition to that, e-reading will be ideal for ephemeral items like magazines and newspapers, and maybe the advertising clutter, like sale catalogues, that can currently junk up our mailboxes.
It can be expected that in 20 years time, new printed books will largely be confined to quality items that people really want to keep in their homes, books that are valued or treasured, plus a select number of printed books from the past, which may come to be regarded as family heirlooms.

It must be stressed that printed books will not disappear altogether, nor be confined to collectors like yourselves. The automobile did not cause the bicycle to vanish, nor TV the radio. The codex book is both too appealing and too practical to be dispensed with altogether. It’s revealing that e-readers have modelled themselves on the practicality of the codex, rather than developing a new form of their own. For example, you don’t actually need to have pages in an e-book, the text could be one continuous scroll like the papyrus rolls of old. But those rolls weren’t terribly practical, and so the concept of fixed & identifiable pages has been firmly retained in e-books. If you’ve ever been driven crazy trying to use a Google map, for example, you know that something fixed and invariable is in fact the best solution for some situations.

Now here’s a ‘biggie’. How will the advance of e-books affect bookshops over time? Well, smart bookshops will jump on the bandwagon and also offer downloadable e-books in their stores, as Dymocks are already doing. And smart bookshops will at some stage offer another, in a sense, opposite, service, one where you can get copies of nearly any physical book you might want — even if they’re out of print — the very same day, perhaps within about 15 minutes. That service, which paradoxically has evolved out of the electronic book, is another aspect of POD.

This POD uses special machines developed just for this purpose, instant printing and binding machines linked to the Internet. These machines, in their latest incarnation (EBM), cost around $120,000 dollars each. The company that makes them was on the verge of bankruptcy because of the Global Financial Crisis, but it has now teamed up with the Xerox Corporation, and soon they’ll be jointly offering these machines for sale around the world.


In the right hands, these machines will do well. I certainly can’t afford to buy one, but if any of you are well-heeled enough to be able to afford one, you could do one of two things with them. Either start a profitable little business, or just be a pioneer who can print any desired books, old or new, even self-penned ones, or titles of local community interest, inexpensively at the drop of a hat. And that’s in any quantities you like, from one single volume upwards. Of course, instead of an individual person doing this, equally a group of people, or a group of groups with a common purpose, could get together to buy such a machine and become printers, or printers and publishers, in a single step.

Obviously, commercial interest will also arise in the possibilities inherent in POD. Larger libraries are already starting to buy these machines overseas — and there’s one on order at a Melbourne university — because whenever books in their collections are lost or damaged they can simply print another one in-house. That’s for the cost of the materials and electricity only, if it’s a book in the public domain, or by paying a fee to the publisher if it’s a book still in copyright. They go to the Internet for the master file of the book, download it and print it within minutes. Copies aren’t always printed individually, they can be done in small batches, but you can’t do a mass run on this kind of machine, it is not geared to it, because it works in a different kind of way to traditional printing.

Now, here’s a very important question. What’s wrong with traditional printing that makes POD significant? My reply is — a great deal. For example, if anyone here wanted to buy a copy of my recent novel, I could sell you one for $20. I then make a dollar a copy. Any other way of buying it as a physical book would cost you significantly more. Say, $35 from a traditional publisher. Why? Well, the way publishers operate, particularly in countries like Australia, makes it very difficult for both authors and the book-buying public alike. Typically, the author will get only a small royalty of say five per cent of the selling price, and yet the reader pays a very high purchase price: outrageously high in many cases. If that sounds screwy to you, you’re absolutely right.

You know, someone once said that writing is the only profession where nobody considers you a failure if you don’t actually make any money. If publishers say this is a fair system, I can’t understand them. The author should get more, he or she put in the huge work of writing the book. And the public should pay less than they do at present. Instead, middlemen are taking nearly all of the proceeds.

I would suggest that there needs to be a better way. Part of the problem is that the major book publishers control most of the market, and nowadays nearly all of them are owned by large multinational corporations. For those outfits, publishing is just one of their operations. These are entities run by bean counters who have no interest in reforming a system that at present maximises their profits. They’ve bought into publishing as a profitable sideline, and expect high rates of return on their capital.

I’m afraid that the qualities of the old gentlemen publishers, who would sometimes deliberately release a book they knew could not make any money, just because it was a good book, seem to have disappeared from all but the fringes of the marketplace. And this trend is being mirrored by some retailers. Have you noticed, for example, that Angus & Robertson offers fewer and fewer actual titles now; they’re pushing great stacks of bestsellers instead? That’s because A&R is now owned by a get-rich quick American share raider outfit, to whom books might as well be cans of baked beans.¹

So, POD is a new way of publishing that’s trying to break through this stranglehold. If you’re Dan Brown or Stephen King or JK Rowling, you still inevitably do it the old-fashioned way and go in for vast print run was five million copies in the USA alone. The economics of large print runs are better than those of POD. So if sales are certain because of the popularity of the author, then all concerned will inevitably make a killing, including the author. I mean, if you as a writer, only get 50 cents from each copy of your book, but you sell 40 million copies, figure it out.

My own book may be Australia’s answer to Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and in fact mine came out first; but, alas, sales so far are not such as to make a large print run possible.² And as publishers are well aware, small traditional print runs make individual copies very expensive to produce, while over-optimistic print runs mean that most copies will end up being remaindered at a loss.

Most publishers are no longer interested in books that don’t seem sure-fire big sellers. Some smaller publishers are, seeing in POD a method of releasing titles that will sell in small quantities without losing money on them. Equally important, POD is a means of keeping their backlist in print. In fact, by using POD you can abolish the concept of your books being ‘out of print’ altogether. The companies that adopt this outlook may, in future, represent the successful future of publishing, as opposed to a declining mainstream of dinosaurs.

POD has another side to it too; something that could be very valuable to community organisations. The coming of the book as a digital file has paradoxically ensured a late flowering or last golden age of the printed book. I’ve mentioned how with POD, physical books can be produced individually or a few at a time, as required, from a stored master computer file.

Soon it will be possible to order printed copies of most books that have ever been published, and the concept of ‘out of print’ will lose its meaning altogether. Rare editions will remain rare, but eventually it will be possible to buy at least a rudimentary printed version of every book that ever was, and to get free electronic copies of all books whose copyright has expired. In fact, it is already possible, today, to get free electronic copies of several million public domain books, albeit rather poor scans in many cases.

In a downside, the criminally inclined can, and do, make surreptitious illegal electronic copies of quite a few books that are still in copyright. They make them available for download by mostly younger scammers from pirate sites, sometimes using a website and concept called ‘Bit Torrent/. Bit Torrent involves splitting the book file up into multiple pieces so its actual origins can’t be traced, with the pieces then reassembling themselves on the thief’s computer after downloading. Now here’s an irony, my own novel hasn’t sold very well so far, and yet there are already at least five illegal versions of it available on the Internet. But just to get young people to read any book these days is an effort, so I guess it’s better that they’re pirating books than that they’re not reading at all. Who knows, they may even accidentally come across an old saying ‘Thou shalt not steal’, and be moved by such a quaint old concept.
In general though, POD is a feasible idea for new or relatively unknown authors. Now at the group or community level, let’s say you want to publish something that will inevitably be only a limited print run: for example, an occasional journal, or books by members of a group on particular topics of local interest. Such books are at present not economic to send to a printer for a small print run of say 100-200 copies. At present you either have to subsidise them, lose money on them, or make them rather expensive to buy to have even a hope of breaking even. Whereas, if a group had its own POD machine, it could do all its own printing for the cost of the materials plus electricity. It could also even do printing for other small groups as a source of extra income.

This then is the new world of print-on-demand, e-books and a revolutionary kind of publishing.


1 The REDGroup went into administration in early 2011, but unfortunately, they destroyed Angus & Robertson in the process, as well as Borders bookshops which they also owned in Australia & New Zealand.

2 Bruce’s novel The Lion and the Covenant (2009) is written under the authorship of B. Victor Preston. Website: <www.elecbk.com>




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