Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Prototyping books

Books are encapsulated (and structured) written expression. Just like a formal speech is encapsulated spoken expression, a musical performance is encapsulated musical expression and so on. All forms of encapsulated expression involve the generation of ideas, experimentation with various forms of expression, arrangement of pieces of expression into some linear or spatial order, reorganization of elements as the encapsulation takes shape, and so on. We recognize all these as various steps in a process of prototyping. Prototyping is needed because all encapsulated expression (except for extempore or improvisation) in intended to assume a definite final form which is then frozen for future performances. Unlike theater, recorded encapsulated expression such as books and music don't involve the original artists themselves.

Tools for book prototyping have been around for hundreds of years but only in the past few decades have they begin transforming radically. The earliest tools were palm leaf, parchment, tree bark, or some such surface and some kind of stick or a quill along with ink. Typically, the 'artists' themselves wrote out the work and this was then made available to readers. Later, the role of 'copying writers' emerged whose task was to merely make exact copies of the original through writing. Gutenberg's press changed that process and the 'copying writer' was replaced by a 'typesetter' who laid out the type after which any number of copies could be made. The artist/writer created the original manuscript on paper, the typesetter employed the manuscript to set type, and the printer made any number of copies required.

The advent of the desktop computer and laser printer made it possible for anybody to be the writer, 'type setter' as well the printer all rolled into one.

Today book publishing has become a huge business, but it has also created some dilemmas. Book publishing works on the principle of economies of scale. Publishers want to ensure that there will be sufficient demand for a certain work before proceeding to publish it. Consequently, publishing is a guessing game, and many potentially popular works are rejected, while several duds are published and ignored by the market. Publishing becomes a game of percentages. Books are published in batches and fresh batches are printed only if publishers forecast a sufficient demand.
Laser printers are fine for printing a few copies to share with friends and family, while book publishers require estimates of many thousand - hopefully tens of thousands - before agreeing ot to publish a book. Some once popular books go out of print and then become difficult to access.

A solution is needed to fill the middle ground and books on demand may just be the disruptive innovation to do that. Print on demand makes it nearly as economical to print ten copies of a book as one hundred since the overheads are low. The technology also ensures that (assuming copyright issues are sorted out) no book will ever go out of print. Additional benefits emerge - it will no longer be necessary to warehouse any but the most popular and fast-moving titles; books with low demand will always be available if the customer is willing to pay a little more and wait a little longer. And people looking for rare works usually are.

Writers are free now to actually prototype books: they may write one and print out a small number of copies and based on demand and feedback, update the book and print many more. Of course, this is already possible with electronic publishing, especially on the web. And Project Gutenberg is making many classics that have entered the public domain available on the internet. Further, book readers such as Amazon's Kindle are trying to make the physical book obsolete. But it will be a while before physical books fall out of favor; while the demand for physical books may reduce, they will continue to exist because they are more durable than electronic devices, don't need batteries and one never need worry about changes in data storage formats and incompatibilities.

The Espresso Book Machine discussed in this article in the Boston Globe is pioneering printing books on demand at the Northshire bookstore.
When the machine is connected to an expanded online catalog of titles later this year, Morrow said, the bookstore will be able to offer customers an “ATM for books’’ that will provide access to millions of works.

“The idea is that soon we’ll be able to print out any book that’s ever been printed,’’ he said. “That could really change people’s image of the small bookstore.’’
In its first year, Northshire’s book machine printed dozens of original books by customers, including memoirs, autobiographies, poetry collections, and cookbooks, usually producing from 30 to 50 copies of each. The bookstore also published a young adult novel written by a local 12-year-old and a previously out-of-print guide to Manchester.

Self-publishers pay a $49 setup fee and a per-page rate that ranges from 5 to 9 cents, depending on the length. Northshire provides an a la carte menu of editorial and design services from a network of providers. Copy editing costs 1 cent per word; book design services, $40 an hour.
Rodefeld, a former graphic designer who works at a tiny desk next to the Espresso machine, produces up to 35 books a day. “It’s exciting to see an author’s face when I hand them the first book off the press,’’ she said. “To see the dream, the fantasy, become a reality - that really tickles me. I get to be Santa Claus all the time here.’’
The numbers at Northshire Bookstore, Morrow said, are “on the cusp’’ of working out. The big payoff will come, he said, when the Espresso machine is seamlessly connected to the entire universe of books, allowing the store to fulfill any request in minutes.

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