Firms turn over a new leaf
We have seen the internet transform industries such as travel, retailing and property sales. Next up: the book business.
Amazon ( www.amazon.com ) has made huge strides, not just in changing the way we buy books, but also in the way we read them. Its Kindle e-book device, launched last year, enables readers to download entire novels. A similar piece of technology, the iLiad, has been available from Borders ( www.bordersstores.co.uk ) since May.
The big problem with all of these devices, of course, is that many people will never manage to break away from the idea of a book being available in a paper format.
So imagine being able to walk into a bookshop and buy one in paperback format, even if the shop doesn't have it in stock. Thanks to a new machine and the wonders of the internet, that's what you'll be able to do from October.
The Espresso Book Machine prints an entire book and binds it on the spot in less than seven minutes. Blackwell (http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk) will be installing it in a handful of its shops from this autumn.
Its makers, OnDemandBooks ( www.ondemandbooks.com ), claim that a million titles are already available for download and that a book printed on the spot will cost the same as its mass-produced counterpart.
Critics say the books have a “rubbery” feel and illustrations are not up to much. But the fact that it can be done in the first place means that publishing could be about to go the way of the record industry with all the old rules and business models being smashed to pieces.
One bookshop owner who already has a machine installed at his store in Vermont, USA, says it has enabled him to sell titles that are simply not economic to stock, such as a French translation of Tom Sawyer.
Aspiring writers can also use the machine to publish their own books. After paying a $75 set-up fee, each copy costs around seven cents a page. It means that you can produce 50 copies of your magnum opus for about $500 — in other words, for around £5 a book.
It's not the only internet challenge to traditional methods of publishing. At www.lulu.com , writers can have their work published online or in printed form. They can then promote it on Facebook ( www.facebook.com ) or MySpace ( www.myspace.com ).
Many electronic bookstores are springing up on the web. One example is www.ebooks.com.
The horror writer Stephen King was one of the first to experiment with what the web could do for writers. His work ‘The Plant’ was published online in a series of instalments in 2000 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Plant) but was never completed, possibly because it was ahead of its time. Remember that eight years ago, music was still sold on CD and you still watched TV on a box in the corner of the living room!
The traditional publishing houses have been quick to respond to the latest trends. HarperCollins has launched a service enabling customers to view the first couple of chapters of many of its books on Apple's iPod or iPhone — see http://mobile.harpercollins.co.uk.
Meanwhile Canongate ( www.canongate.net ) is one of several publishers to set up its own online “club” where members can get substantial discounts and read free previews of the titles it is about to publish.
Ironically, far from being a destroyer of the publishing industry, the internet could turn out to be something of a saviour, generating more interest in the product. And as several publishers have pointed out, people will always want physical copies of books. Lying by the pool on holiday reading a book on your laptop isn't quite the same as enjoying a paperback.
Like many other sectors of business, however, the web will change the way the industry operates. And publishers seem to have latched on to this fact rather faster than their counterparts in the record industry.
Bill Law has over 30 years' experience in IT and currently works as a consultant in the industry. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.