The evolution of the written word

The printed page has evolved considerably since Johannes Gutenberg mass-produced the bible in 1455, Ben Frankin’s colonial lending library and the rotary press. While webbed newspapers, glossy magazines and paperback books deliver literature to billions worldwide on a daily basis, you can only carry or house so many at once.

E-books may be the next innovation, allowing anyone to access, carry and house limitless electronic libraries in perpetuity.

Electronic texts have a primary advantage to traditional books: no dead trees. With nothing physical to move or store, distribution costs are trivial, supply equals demand exactly. No longer do publishers have to waste resources on printing, distributing and destroying unsold books. E-books are immediately available to anyone anywhere at any time. Both brick and mortar stores and electronic storefronts can stock an unlimited selection of e-books, make them searchable and deliver on demand.

Most computers are already capable of displaying e-books. With the development and commercialization of new e-book
viewing technologies on handheld computers and print-quality mutable digital paper, e-book tablets can soon look and feel like traditional books, but without the paper cuts. While somewhat costly at a few hundred dollars each, e-book tablets quickly pay for themselves through storage savings alone. Ruggedized, water-proof, self-illuminating tablets that are much more durable than conventional books are now approaching commercialization, and tablet lighting can be made more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs.

Yet another advantage e-books have is their longevity. E-books stored on even today’s primitive writable optical media will last hundreds of years, and duplicates are pennies each to produce compared to costly printed text which can degrade, get moldy or eaten within a few decades. The e-book you read today will be the same book 20 years from now. For libraries, immutability, in combination with user-specific and sharable bookmarks and annotations which don’t permanently alter the text or the book, has significant monetary advantages to say nothing of costs associated with air-conditioning buildings and reconditioning worn books.

Some claim that like so many other electronics gizmos before them, e-books will be lost to standards obsolescence. Most e-books available today are based on well-known, well-documented standards used by the hardcopy print industry, with roots dating back a couple decades. Standardization also means e-books can be enlarged or read aloud on a variety of devices, making them accessible to a much larger audience than traditional books.

Authors can also gain from e-books. Unlimited size means that authors can include as much content as they wish with fewer format restrictions and add levels of interactivity not possible with printed diagrams. Clickable cross-references which show the sources on screen are much more useful than footnotes. The low cost to produce and revise e-books means that more authors can publish and distribute more frequently without being independently wealthy. This also allows authors to distribute politically inconvenient texts and readers to conceal them.

Like the Gutenberg press, e-books will be the wave of the future.

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