"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge."
– Jimmy Wales, founder, Wikipedia
We are in a transition period with digital publishing, there is a lull, a lot of reevaluation, and a resurgence in discussions about eBook vs. Print Book.
The argument is not about E vs. P, that just distracts from the content and our interaction with it. The passion we have for print is not just nostalgia it is function. Just like with records vs. digital music files we overlook the compromises we have been willing to accept. With books the choice is whether or not the text is is part of the primordial metadata pool of the internet, infinitely searchable, manipulatable and accessible like electricity - a utility of knowledge or it is siphoned, captured, separated from “The Great Metadata” and placed on a shelf. Printing text on paper and binding it in leather creates an artifact just like saving xhtml and css into a zipped file or an App that pulls data off the web and downloads it onto a restricted device in constant need of resyncing and managing . This captured content still needs tools to distribute and manage it, whether library or brick and mortar store or ebook and app store.
The mistakes we are making are not because we must choose between print or digital they are because we are focusing on devices and formats. Publishers spend too much time trying to publish to a device when like 8-track tapes the dazzle of a new device hides the critical compromises and sacrifices that make it “less” than what it was supposed to improve on. In our rush to embrace the shiny promised technological future we forget it is about the content and our interaction with it.
With documents we focused on formats and devices. We focused on how to get the xeroxed piece of paper we just made to someone on the other side of the country faster than the mail thus spawning the fax machine which delivered a poorer quality xerox which in itself was a poorer quality version printed document. We spent years putting tissue thin faxes in file folders only to pull them out months later to find they had faded away. The best way to avoid the loss of the information was to make yet another xerox of the fax. Until very recently we would think nothing of emailing or texting someone to ask if they got our fax. Now we even sign contracts by clicking a box on a website. We went from printing and publishing to broadcasting.
With music we used to sit in our room deconstructing songs replaying over and over great guitar solos or transposing the lyrics or skipping cuts we didn’t like by quickly moving the needle. With cassettes we had to fast forward or rewind it wasn’t as easy but then we didn’t have to flip the album and we could play our album in the car and we could record. But then 8 track were supposed to be an improvement yet we couldn’t rewind or fast forward at all and often songs ended up getting cut in half as they switched tracks. CDs still didn’t let you fast forward or rewind easily but at least the sound quality was much better and it allowed your computer to become a stereo. Then iPod came along which was basically a flash drive with an earphone jack. We forgot that music is not a file but sound that comes out of speakers and because of that we traded the lush sound of our stereo speakers for earbuds. We marveled at how many more songs you could put on an iPod than a 90 minute cassette or CD ROM. Apple distracted us from the beauty and revolution of the digital music file in order to sell us iPods. We only recently have begun to realize that it isn’t about reinventing the transistor radio its still about getting the music to us easier and simpler. It is not about publishing a digital music file it is about broadcasting that music directly to the speakers nearest you whether they are your computer, your headphones, your car or your exercise bike. Spotify and Pandora, streaming radio stations in mexico and podcasts from someones mother’s basement can be accessed form the web and delivered to any device with WiFi or 3G connection. Still with all the transition of music to digital the easiest and fasted way to replay a section of a song is to pick up and move a needle from vinyl. Only when we think of it not as a record but instead as on demand radio do the compromises become improvements.
There will always be things a print book can do that we compromise on with an eBook. But when we look at ereaders and tablets and cell phones and TV screens on our refrigerator instead not as books but as screens that give us access to the great universal streaming content library of the internet as easily as changing the channel on your TV then the compromises become insignificant.
The debate in publishing shouldn’t be about E vs. P it should be about Publish or Broadcast.