Paperless Paperbacks?

09 December 2007

Interview with

Chris Vallance

Now, Books make great presents, which is why so many new books come out in the run up to Christmas.  In this month's Technology segment, Chris Vallance tells Meera that the future of books may not be on paper...

The Kindle - Amazons e-Book readerChris Vallance -   I've been looking at the future of books, I was inspired to do this because of the launch of Amazon's kindle; it was launched on November the 19th, Kindle is Amazon's electronic book reader, this is the device that we've all been waiting for since the 1960's, the wonderful science fiction tablet that would contain the entire British library and you would be able to search through it and look at any book you wanted.

Well, the kindle offers you the opportunity to download books, it's got an innovative screen that's not going to give you that sort of blinding glare that laptops give you, and it will give you the opportunity of reading newspapers and some blogs.  But it's had mixed reviews; Robert Scoble, the big Microsoft blogger, one of the leading thinkers in the tech industry didn't like it; he found it really hard to hold and use the device.  Joel Johnson writing for Boing Boing said the $400 price tag was too high, and the cost of getting blogs, $2 a month, and newspapers $15 a month, was simply too high.  So some real mixed reviews there.  Very popular - sold out when it was launched, but at the same time a lot of people saying this isn't quite the e-book reader that maybe we've been hoping for, that we still believe can be built.

Meera -   So if that wasn't your cup of tea, what else is out there for people to go to?

Chris Vallance -   Well I think you don't have to have a swanky e-book reader to access literature online.  Maybe you just need an MP3 player.  There is this wonderful site, Librivox, which has public domain works which you can listen to as podcasts; stuff like this:

A sample of Tom Swift and The Visitor from Planet X, by Victor Appleton II. From

Tom Swift!  And the Visitor from Planet X!  By Victor Appleton II, Chapter Nine, The cave monster!

"Skipper!"  Bud cried anxiously as tom staggered back, his hands to his face.

"I'm alright, no harm done" Tom assured his friend.  Both boys were a bit shaken by the accident...

Chris Vallance -   So things like that may or may not be your cup of tea.  More things; new novels at podiobooks, or maybe you would like to have a go at writing a book yourself - there is annually the 'NaNoWriMo' event (National Novel Writing Month), which tries to encourage people to write a book in a month, bit of a challenge, that.  

Or maybe you want to help somebody else write a book?  There are a lot of authors now who are blogging, you may have seen Naomi Novik's books, the Temeraire series about dragons, she has a very interesting live journal blog.  And also, let's not forget fan-fiction - people inventing new storylines for established characters.  Again, you might find something that tickles your fancy there.  All of this stuff is free!

Meera -   So all that is available online, but what is the future of the publishing industry itself?

Chris Vallance -   Well I have to say I don't know, but I've been talking to somebody who does. is one of the most innovative web 2.0 publishing houses, basically Lulu allows people to publish very small runs of books and to distribute them online and to market them online.  Bob Young is their chief executive and well, we've seen how the music industry has been revolutionised by the web and how music companies are struggling to figure out how they're going to make money, so talking to Bob Young, I asked him if the publishing industry is going to face the same kind of challenges.

Bob Young -   I'm not going to deny that we are all, in our modern society, as businessmen subject to a huge amount of change.  And you can either embrace it, try and innovate on behalf of your customers because keep in mind the problem is being created at the expense of the suppliers, but on behalf of the consumer.  Using the internet they're able to get better value for themselves than they were ever able to in the traditional model where the only way to buy a song was to drive across town to a record store and you bought 20 songs on a CD.  But you wanted the songs on your walkman, or your electronic device.  And then along comes the internet and suddenly you can download the song direct from the site directly, and you can buy that song for 50p each, in stead of £20 for 20 songs, 19 of which you don't want, on a piece of plastic that doesn't do you any good.  

Chris Vallance -   But I just wonder what the solution is?  Books take such a long time to write, there's such an investment in them that I can't just give it away, I need people to pay quite a bit for even a low volume book for it to be worth my even considering writing it.

Bob Young -   That's right, but keep in mind that books are very different items than music.  So two things we know - one is that services such as Amazon and Sony both have e-book readers, and you can read things on your computer.  We know things are going to change.  Equally we know that they will not change in the same way that other things change because it's a different form of content.  You have to invest many, many hours to consume a book whether it's a detective story or a reference manual on quantum mechanics.  I'm not 100% sure what the future of the book industry is, all I do know is that it's very bright.  As we educate our world to a higher and higher standard, we're creating ever more readers of books.  You and I are spending more money on intellectual property; books, music, videos; than our parents did, and dramatically more than our grandparents did.  We're now spending our money on things that we consume with our mind as opposed to physical objects.

Chris Vallance -   So that was Bob Young, the CEO of in bullish mood about the opportunities for publishing creative content online.  One interesting thing he said to me is that books aren't just digital media, it's not just the text, it's also the physical product as well.  Anybody who's seen a really nicely bound old book or a new book that somebody has taken a real care over the design and the look and the feel of it - it's a product that you can't really copy in the same way.  And that again is another challenge for e-books and another challenge for things like the Kindle, recreating the look and the feel and the physical product.

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