But Do They Make Good Pillows?

MP900308953Eleven years ago, my old-school editor Joe and I presented our hottest item to our production team: an “interactive edition” textbook that included a CD-ROM with both audio and video content.  [To get what a big deal this was at the time, note that my cubicle was full of floppy disks containing backed-up files from my Gateway computer, stemmed from the belief that everything electronic would crash on January 1, 2000.]  When the discussion turned to the new concept of e-books, where students and instructors could access content on the web with a special code, Joe complained, “Why can’t books just be books?”  He then half-convinced me that by 2010, publishers would be extinct because books would be made “for computers.” He resigned eight months later.

Joe wasn’t entirely off base.  Today, customers walking into Borders are confronted with displays for Kobo, Cruz, Sony and Franklin e-readers before reaching any bookshelves.  After Christmas, a co-worker showing off her prized new Kindle bragged that it can even be read upside-down. So can books, if that’s what you’re into. According to their commercials, Kindles are also great for people who love having dogs lick their books while they’re reading.

An environmental columnist declared e-readers more earth-friendly than printed books, although libraries were still his favorite option (which is great, as I’m at the Providence branch weekly scouring for new stuff).  Publishers know it’s normal for several people to share a book, whether through a library or circulating a favorite copy amongst friends. However, they’re banking on most people paying for the content. If it’s sold via an e-reader or website, so be it.

Now enter ION, a Rhode Island establishment that’s revolutionizing the digitization of books.  The Cumberland company, which in 2007 created the “TTUSB” record-to-MP3 converter, recently announced its Book Saver Book Scanner.  The device, touted as the “fastest and most convenient” conversion system from print to digital format, allows users to scan a 200-page book in about 15 minutes.  The files, saved to an SD card, could then be used in any computer or e-reader.

HackCollege, a site about open-source software, posted this video showing the scanner at work.  Although it looks a little tiring to hand-turn the pages, it’s amazing.  It’s seven times faster than other personal book scanners and, at $150, fairly affordable.  The upside: it brings the technology used by Google and the Library of Congress to people’s homes and schools.  The downside: it brings the technology used by Google and the Library of Congress to people’s homes and schools.

I couldn’t help but note that the first comment on the Book Saver video said,

Well the bookstore might hate you for it, but could you just buy the textbooks you need, scan them, and then return them all the next day? You can keep copies of the books on your computer and if you need them for a final or something like that you can print out the chapters you would. Even with the price of the book saver that would have to be cheaper.

It wouldn’t just be the bookstore hating this, my friend.  It would be the author(s) who wrote the book; the agents who helped match them to a publisher; the editorial, design and production crews who nursed the manuscript into a book; the manufacturers of its paper, ink, and binding materials; the printers that print them; the warehouses that store them;  the truck drivers who deliver them.  Each book puts a little food on a lot of tables before reaching the bookstore.

The Book Saver Book Scanner is exactly the type of product Joe would have feared.  A Canadian media professor thinks students, but not publishers, will embrace it.

“From a user’s point of view, flipping pages is still a pain. But, there is every incentive for students and consumers to have one person go through the labour and then share this digital copy,” she said. “That’s where the copyright concerns come in really quickly.”

The Canadians, the article goes on to say, haven’t updated their copyright years since 1997, which was pre-Napster.  A current attempt to update their legislation questions whether consumers have a right to make personal copies of e-books, DVDs and games.

In October, Japan grappled with its own copyright issues for digitized books. It doesn’t sound like the problem will be solved quickly.

America’s own Digital Millennium Copyright Act, signed into law in 1998, has its own points of controversy.  In some cases, publishers could be caught between meeting ADA accessibility requirements and risking losing money from that open content. In February 2009, they were grumpy that a new version of Kindle contained an experimental audio feature, which further complicated copyright issues. That day, the CEO of Bertlesmann AG Random House stated that “e-books are still a very small business–less than 1% of [Random House’s] revenue.”  The following October, the CEO of that same company announced that e-books would soon reach 10% of the company’s sales. For the world’s largest publisher of trade books, that’s a lot of e-books in little time.

I imagine that today’s book publishers aren’t far off from the music industry, where MP3s are beginning to replace the labor and work of everyone involved in the design, construction, marketing and delivery of physical albums.  Like their recording-industry counterparts, book publishers must be struggling to renegotiate authors’ payment for various types of downloads and devise ways to punish those who download content without paying. Corporations, consumers and copyright laws aren’t yet in sync for e-books, but it’s nice to know that at least one Rhode Island company is looking ahead while developing products for the digital age.

I’m curious to see where we’ll look in another eleven years.  Will traditionalists like me read electronic-only books by 2022?  There are crazier things to imagine.  According to some theories on the web, soon we’ll have microchip implants so the “elites” can track our movements, just like we’ve supposedly been tracked in recent years with the GPS features in our electronic devices.  These folks don’t mention whether the chips will contain the latest Stephen King thrillers, though.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

3 thoughts on “But Do They Make Good Pillows?”

  1. Great piece Annie. And while I have happily sold my vinyl and embraced my iPod with both ears, I will never give up real paper books. I have to hold a book, and I like the cover art. . . on the cover. Does anyone else think people look awkward holding these things in public? They always look like they’re reading a menu.

  2. Annie Messier

    Thank you, Kevin, for the much-needed laugh!

    Hey, no matter how technologically advanced we get, we’ll always have consumers of kitschy stuff. I suspect ION’s just going with the flow. 25 million Snuggie sales can’t be wrong ; )

  3. “it’s nice to know that at least one Rhode Island company is looking ahead while developing products for the digital age”

    That is good news! Can you point us to them? Surely you wouldn’t be referring to the creators of this groundbreaking product:

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