5 November 2008

The Future of the Book

The inventor of the book was probably a Christian because all the
earliest codexes contain Christian writings. Too poor to buy large pieces
of papyrus or leather scrolls, they joined together lots of small scraps
of papyrus to create a 'codex’ and wrote on both sides to maximise space.

Will our generation see the demise of the book? This has been predicted
as often as the ‘paperless office’. It may happen soon – but not yet.
Microsoft has dropped out of the electronic library business
while Google has recently had a surprise success (see below).

1) Handheld devices are good, but not good enough – yet.
2) Google has the legal go-ahead to scan everything – almost.
3) Copyright law gives power to paper – for now.
4) How to read books online – now.

1) Handheld devices are good, but not good enough – yet.

Most phones, iPods and pocket computers can display electronic books.
But no-one reads books on them, because the screens are too tiring.
Two technologies are still needed: better ePaper and better batteries.

ePaper aims to be like real paper – it reflects light instead of
transmitting it. This makes it much easier on the eye when reading for a long time.

Page-turning is slow, and pages are grey&black only (colour is coming
‘soon’), but no power is needed to maintain a page, so battery life is very long.

There are a few ePaper readers already on the market, especially:

Sony Reader PRS - details at Wikipedia and at Sony
You can buy books from Sony (not many), or display free PDF books.
It can read word processing docs if you save them as RTF,
though you need to turn to landscape to read full-width A4 or Letter size documents.

Amazon Kindle - details at Wikipedia and Amazon
You can buy books from Amazon (not many at present, but growing),
and a free email service converts your documents to the Kindle format.
Its Whispernet wireless connection gives access to new books,
and rudimentary web browsing & email, but only in USA cities.

Opinion: The screens are fairly grey, so it is like reading a cheap paperback with small print. Zooming in helps, but those over 45 will want to read this in good light.
The wireless feature is good, and it may ultimately become a 3G phone+PDA+netbook.

In the mean time, buy a device which already does all this, with a bright screen, – eg the LG X110 (reviews here and here). Many others like this will follow.

2) Google has the legal go-ahead to scan everything – almost.

Google’s plan to scan everything, including copyrighted works, landed them in court.
They have now settled with the Author’s Guild, by agreeing to set up (and pay for) a Book Rights Registry where copyright owners can agree or decline to have their works searchable on Google Books. At present Google shows only a few lines from in-copyright books which it searches, but with this agreement they can show a whole page, and offer to print the
page for a small payment, 2/3 of which goes to the owner.

At present, Google can scan all non-copyright books, and agreed books from the 20,000 publishers who have signed up with them so far. By this new agreement they will be able to scan, search and display extracts from:

  • any in-print book (4% of all titles) - if the publisher opts in
  • any out-of-copyright book (20% of all titles, mainly pre-1923)
  • any out-of-print book (76% of all titles) - if the owner doesn't opt out
This is wonderful news for scholars, because it releases the vast number of books which are not in print and cannot be printed because no-one knows who owns the copyright.

But, this doesn’t mean we can read whole books. There will be as-yet unspecified limits.
(More on the numbers, the Google_settlement and misgivings.)

3) Copyright law gives power to paper – for now.

Copyright law for books is now simplified and relatively unified.
The USA and Europe give automatic copyright to any writing after 1950 till 70 years after the death of the author (or 95 years if their employer owns it). Any book published before 1.Jan.1923 is out-of-copyright by default. Between these two dates is a grey area occupied partly by books whose copyright has been asserted, and by so-called orphaned books whose copyright ownership is uncertain.

No-one can offer full copies of books on the web unless they have permission from the copyright owner or they are out-of-copyright. This excludes the vast majority of books, which can only be read in their entirety on paper (if you can find a copy). So physical libraries are going to continue to be important for researchers for the foreseeable future.

4) How to read books online – now.

The best starting place for finding Biblical Studies books online is TynCat.com which provides automatic links to online versions at Google and Amazon.

Amazon.com provides “Search Inside” facilities for a very large number of in-print books.
TynCat identifies the books which they put online (or are in the process of putting on line) by adding an picture of the book on the left, and clicks you straight to the online copy.

Tips: Amazon may ask you for your credit card, but that is only to make sure you could pay for a copy if you wanted to buy it. The preview doesn’t cost anything.
When Amazon stops you reading after 3 pages, pick a word on that page, search for it, then carry on reading.

Books.Google.com gives access to the largest selection of out-of-print books and a surprising number of books which are in print. They are said to have scanned 7 million books! Don’t be put off by “Limited Preview” because this often means that 90% of the book is available, though there is likely to be a limit to how much you can read in one day. The missing 10% is critical for a novel, but for textbooks, the Google copy often saves a trip to a library.

Prediction: Amazon sells more books than any bookshop because it
lets customers see so much of the goods before buying. Google Books will
take over as the default way of looking things up in books, because they
are so easy to search. This will result in more books being used, and
more revenue to publishers than even Amazon has created. And probably,
more books will be sold because, ultimately, we are materialistic and we
like to own tangible things.

Tip for publishers: Make printed books which look and feel nice,
and throw in a free electronic copy to read on the train.

Some other useful online book sources, especially for out-of-copyright books:
Bible & Church History:

  • Bible-Researcher.com – careful selection of books and articles by subject
  • ABZU Ancient Near East catalogue (incl websites) - incl. academic Biblical Studies
  • BiblicalStudies.org – well organised books & articles in Biblical Studies & Theology
  • CCEL - Christian Classics Ethereal Library – from the Fathers onward, in English
  • Project_Wittenberg – mainly Lutheran & Reformation historical works
When we had a power cut at Tyndale House, people wandered about with nothing to do, even though almost every Biblical Studies book worth reading was on the shelves.
The end of the book is nigh.

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