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“About a decade ago, some publishers were predicting that books would soon be a thing of the past, and that we would all be reading downloadable texts on portable hand-held screens. Wishful thinking, it turns out.”

fromCan’t Judge an E-Book by Its Screen? Well, Maybe You Canby Charles McGrath, New York Times 24 November 2006

When I began researching e-books in the late 1990s statements on e-books were balanced, but from 2001 onward, with the crash, McGrath’s kind of commentary rapidly grew more prominent. In The Myth of the Paperless Office (2002) Sellen and Harper made the claim that current e-books are way off the mark when it comes to offering the kinds of tools that people need in the workplace (p162).

What are the tools we need in the workplace? Do we need computers? It seems we do. Offices have been transformed by them, whether we like it or not. Hypertext onscreen organisation of documents lost out to a print-based pdf style of documents, which required a photocopier. Was this necessary?

Now I wouldn’t accuse McGrath (or anyone) of being a pawn or pimp in the pay of big publishing or other print-based interests, but if big publishing et al were paying McGrath to ‘write down’ the prospects of the e-book, then he couldn’t, in my opinion, do a better job.

I don’t underestimate how e-books threaten traditional publishing practices. As David Dorman wrote in 1999: “The increasing separation of the physical book from its information content is unsettling our traditional laws and practices regarding intellectual-property rights” American Libraries 30/2. But the discourse in the organised media against the e-book is now so well developed it is disabling consumer freedoms—against the e-reader in this case, but why should we quibble over a small distinction between an e-book and an e-reader, if The New York Times can’t be bothered with it (as McGrath writes: “Sony has introduced its new version of the e-book”).

McGrath claims: “…the various book-replacement devices available back then have mostly been dumped on the recycling heap. They were too hard to read, people complained, and also too heavy, guzzling so much battery power that they quickly grew hot in the hand.”

Who complained? Perhaps he could spare a line to tell us. What McGrath tells us isn’t what I found ‘back then’ when I ran a usability test in London with the two Gemstar e-readers (2001). It isn’t what another tester from, Laura Miller, found when she tested an e-reader in 2000. McGrath sums up his position in his final line telling us that exasperated with the Sony Reader, he felt like tossing it “out on the driveway” and running “over it with the car.”

Now, who really cares what McGrath, personally, thinks of these technologies and I certainly don’t want to sell anyone an e-book or e-reader. But unbiased commentary on e-books etc. from the organised media could be useful. If organised publishing and ‘the help’ would cease drumming up fears by masquerading prejudice as rational thought, readers and book consumers would be able to see that the e-book and e-reader are no match, threat or rival to the print book. They are simply different reading tools.


Since the beginning of their commercial life around 1999-2000, corporate publishers and their allies have priced trade e-books out of the mass market:

Wade Roush in MIT’s Technology Review: “ ‘A Good Read’ – The new Sony Reader is the coolest e-book device yet–for those who can stomach the price of e-content (8 November, 2006) highlights the problem that is STILL happening:

“The other flaw, as already mentioned, is the price of e-books at Sony’s Connect eBooks site. The site offers a decent range of titles, including many current bestsellers. Most of the publishers working with Sony charge less for electronic editions than for print hardcovers, and Sony further discounts these prices. Walter Mosley’s Fortunate Son, for example, lists at $32.95 in hardcover, while the electronic edition is discounted to $17.95, and Sony Connect sells it for $14.36. But I just can’t see average readers paying that much for e-books, which, after all, have about as much physical substance as the digital signals that flit through your PC. A $5.95 paperback may have onion-skin-thin paper and almost invisibly small type, but at least it’s a concrete thing you can hold and put on your shelf. E-books may not be seen as a viable alternative to print books until they’re so cheap that their ephemerality doesn’t matter. Until publishers and hardware makers can turn e-books into a sensible economic proposition, the way Apple’s iTunes Store has done with $0.99 downloadable songs and $1.99 TV shows, I fear the technology will languish.”

In my upcoming: ‘Power Over Publishing: organised publishing’s strategic suppression of the trade e-book’ (and in an article for the next LOGOS, Journal of the World Book Community 17/3, ‘The Trade e-book frenzy of 2000’) I track the comments of shrewd observers of e-books, some of them knowing full well even then that price was ‘the strategy’ – making it impossible for e-books to perform in the marketplace (see also LOGOS 14/4, 2003).

Corporate publishers set out to deceive consumers on e-books, using luxury pricing to hide behind. M.J. Rose wrote and commented on price in 2000 (Mayfield’s article,1284,41633,00.html) challenging Henry Yuen and Gemstar’s odd policies), saying that high e-book prices would virtually guarantee that “demand would never arrive”. Corporate publishers must have grinned reading that. [Why would Yuen price his own products out of the market? Start with the U.S Department of Justice’s web page (2003) “Justice Department Reaches Settlement with Gemstar-TV Guide for Illegal Pre-Merger Coordination” ..and join the pixels.]

Here is M.J.Rose talking about e-book pricing and other issues in a March 2001 PBS Newshour interview:

M.J. ROSE: My trade paperbacks are $13.95. And the price of the e-books are right now about $11.00, which, if I was pricing them, it’s not what I would price them at.

TERENCE SMITH: Where would you price them?

M.J. ROSE: I would make them $4.95.


Penguin’s Allen Lane showed the way with the paperback in the 1930s. The logic of price for innovative products is: lower them fast if you want them to succeed, at least in publishing. Lane priced his early Penguins at 6p, one twelfth of the cost of the hardcover, then retailing at 6 shillings. Even that was no guarantee of success. Allen also had to get a mass distribution deal; Woolworths gave it to him.

The publishing corporations know that the distributor for e-books is already in place – The Internet and World Wide Web nexus – why they are so fearful of it, and dishonest in their dealing with the e-book. Meanwhile they are scrambling to get control of the Net and Web scenario.

Price is the internally organised publishing strategy against the e-book. Technology has always been the patsy, the fall-guy. As Roush tells us now and Rose said five years ago, whether the e-book takes off or not is all about price.

Well about time. Adobe finally understands the digital universe, it seems. In practical terms, anyone who has tried to read a double column pdf document online knows what I mean. It’s almost pointless, except for those producing photocopiers and for publishers fearing for their lives.

Ted Nelson, recently a visiting fellow at Oxford, has been talking about the misapplication of the digital alternative for years.

(see comment 4)

But of course it could have been Adobe and pdf’s point and attractiveness to investors in the first place – effectively slowing the digital environment enough for the likes of Murdoch to catch up with it.

Locking digital to the print universe is as dishonest as the inflated cost to consumer of a hardcover (hardcovers and paperbacks have always been close in terms of production cost), but the exploitation of consumers’ naivete continues. To print publishing this sort of talk is heresy, even more to the owners.

The truth is, print and digital both will benefit from freeing digital from print constraints – and publishers won’t lose, they will get another very productive arm to their business. Look at film and DVDs. There is always talk of piracy, but in real terms very little of it overall shows up. Still, the retro-heads of the print publishing industry bang the doom drum because they can’t see round the digital corner.

But if life were as simple as fitting solutions to problems London would be filled with bicycles. Instead middle aged out-of-condition novelists with nothing better to do go on radio to denounce cyclists for the ‘appalling’ dangers they present (to my knowledge not one person has been killed by a cyclist…since 1920 how many have cars killed?).

It’s the same with digital publishing, many discoursing dangers that have never existed.

“..Gemstar-TV Guide, a company controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., has also been struggling with declining circulation, although it continues to be sold on newsstands … It has launched a TV Guide channel in the United States, with celebrity news and gossip and has tried affixing free DVDs to its newsstand copies in a bid to attract customers and stay relevant.”

Is TV Guide Murdoch’s achilles heel, a reminder that he has feet of clay too? The idea he’s still trying to revive this bag of dinosaur bones has a poignancy to it.

Having paid 3 billion in 1988 for a 25 year old turkey (even then), will Murdoch never forgive himself? And what did Murdoch get for 3bn – 3 magazines? And oh yes, a ticket into the American Club. Three billion dollars must be just the highest joining fee for any club anywhere in the universe. TV Guide was his greatest error, responsible for nearly sinking him and his company in 1991. He could have had his successful American company without it. Murdoch can’t forget TV Guide.

So when people say his ongoing spat with Yuen and Gemstar (TV-Guide) is all personal I’m almost prepared to believe them, except under that red-grey-brown – whatever hair of his, Murdoch’s lethal cells are still working on more than one objective. When an old media hand like Murdoch thinks of new media, it’s like a 30 year old cobra with a small mammal in its sightline. The body may be an ironing board but the instinct for the kill is still ticking over.

When I look at the press Sony’s new e-reader is generating (or Sony is generating for it) I think: what ever happened to Gemstar? I’m no blinkered fan of digital reading or portable devices, though I do like the idea of consumer choice. When I first started researching this area the Gemstar e-readers were about to be released in the UK. They never arrived and a couple of years later News Corporation began dismantling Gemstar. The company seems to have continued as an e-book service site (as litigation between Yuen and News Corp has also continued) , but it is certainly not the same new media force that it once was. The closure and investigation of Yuen by the US government (SEC) had some effect on the Gemstar brand.

Now Sony is treading very similar e-reader territory with its new device. There are big improvements with e-ink text, but basically the devices are the same. So why was News Corp concerned with killing off one of the early pioneers of portable e-text reading devices? Did it have something to do with the fact that Gemstar’s founder, Henry Yuen – having the patent for a TV set top decoding device, and having developed it for both cable and satellite – held a big key to reaching mass consumers with his e-book/e-readers? Every time a viewer who had the set top box turned on her/his TV, h/she would have seen Yuen’s/Gemstar’s promotion for e-books.

Democratisation of information, publishing conglomerate control over the information provision process, writers and consumers (remember them?), a shrinking reader base, what does it all mean for digital and paper publishing? Watch this space for more.