Saturday, February 7, 2009

Books: a Sustainability Challenge

I've been thinking about this for a while now, but today after watching this video from the TED Talks website, I've decided to give up one of my most favourite but at the same time selfish pleasures for the sake of a personal challenge that will hopefully make my life more sustainable. Namely I have decided that whenever it is possible to obtain an electronic copy of a book (whether by downloading or buying an ebook), I am not going to buy a paper book from now on. Now holding books in my hands, and owning books, and smelling them, fresh off the press or old and dusty, is something I really love. I do understand though that since I own a beautiful piece of technology, a MacBook that is light enough to take with me pretty much anywhere, and now I also own an iPhone, which is even lighter, and still gives me access to data storage. And if I don't use this technology to minimize my footprint (in this case by not supporting the cutting down of trees), then I am simply being selfish and irresponsible. Now, we've had many debates and arguments with my dad in the past about this, and he has repeatedly told me that I should stop buying books and start reading them online, but he never brought up the sustainability argument. I don't know if he's thought of it in terms of sustainability, he mostly pointed out the convenience, but now that I have thought about the impact we, laptop owners, could make if we stop buying paper books, and I think that this is something I have to do, and this is something I will do my best to promote among the people who listen to what I have to say.

So it's this:

versus this:

Now, related to the personal challenge above is another idea I've had, a more global one, I suppose.
For a while now I've been thinking that for the novel I am writing I'd like to use more than just text to carry the message across. I wanted to use drawings (which is conventional for books), but I also wanted to work with musicians and have music added to the book as well. Of course I'd also like to have URLs in it too whenever I mention something that I think people should look up if they wanted to understand what I am talking about, and imagine putting URLs in a book. How many of us will actually get up from their couch and type the URL or the search query into google? Would you? I thought so. Now on top of that imagine how much that would cost if this kind of a book project were a physical entity. First, the printing costs would be quite high because it will have to be in color, and on good quality (preferably glossy) paper if I wanted to have the images. Then it will have to have a CD with the music, which is a whole new cost, plus a pain in the neck for the reader, since they will have to be near a CD player while reading a certain page. Now with an ebook, of course conventional PDF format won't do, but I think it's fairly simple with the technology available to make a book, once I have the text, audio, and graphics, that's simple for people to read, platform-independent of course. I can even make a trial version right now, and it will be cost-effective, with the only limitation that people who do not have access to a computer will not be able to read it. It's going to take me at while to finish writing though, so by that time I am hoping that most people in the developed English-speaking world in general, as well as maybe 99% of my target audience specifically, will have access to a computer with audio output. Also, imagine the possibilities. Let's say I wrote a brilliant book, and found a publisher willing to sign a contract with me, and they publish it. In Canada. If I want people outside of Canada or North America to read it, there's more negotiation, more arguing, and it will take quite some time for it to be published, say, in GB. What if I want English-speaking people in Asia to read it? It will take a tremendous amount of work, and I think I would prefer spending the time and efforts on promoting a website where you can download the book (or better yet make a deal with iTunes, for example), instead. Of course the best part of it is the sustainability of the project, but I think that financially it's reasonable as well. Obviously I will have to figure a way to promote the final product, and this is when a publishing house comes in to do the work—the write writes, and they do the marketing. I have failed so far in marketing, but I think this would be a very interesting project for other writers to explore, and I think if a technological platform is in place, then some authors would be interested in making books that are more than just text and pictures. We already have it with blogging, and websites of newspapers use this approach, more or less, having an HTML of the text, with pictures, video links and audio links. Reading in a browser though is not entirely convenient at times, and I was thinking of something more integrated, like a file you can play in iTunes (maybe not iTunes, but it's the closest program to what I want so far), or like a PDF with embedded audio and graphics (the latter easily done). But even a browser would do, and yet I have not seen any widely-available ebooks that use this idea of integrating audio or video.

Now I haven't yet had a chance to explore carefully if something like this has been done before for fiction. It's not popularized if it has been done.
A little aside: damn, I wonder why it is that I get all these creativity rushes on Saturdays, 2 hours before it's time to leave for my kendo practice, and have to decide if I should skip the practice again in favour of taking the time to explore my ideas. Anyways, back to the idea. I think I would like to investigate the possibilities with this idea, I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for writers. The online music industry has taken off well, and it seems that all three, the record companies, the musicians, and the listeners are happy with the convenience it provides. I don't see why this shouldn't work with books. We already have an ebook marker (although a small one compared to the paper book market), and electronic devices like cell-phones and iPods can help make this a reality.
I don't know if any of you reading this blog have as much interest in this idea as I do, but if you do have interest, and if you do have input, please tell me what you think. I would be very curious to see what you have to say, and I am looking forward to my weekly Skype call home to talk about this idea with my dad tonight. I am also going to tell my brother about this idea and see what he thinks—I am very curious.

If this idea turns out to be not as great as it sounds, and hard to implement, or rather, if this idea turns out to be a failure financially and logistically (which I don't think it will, look at the Google Book Project), then at the very least I will use my energy to promote the support for ebooks in favour of paper books, and public libraries in favour of bookstores.

P.S. This post is not a business plan, and I do realize that it's lacking details and cost break-downs, and other details on why this idea might be a success. If anyone were to criticize this idea, they would rightly point out that this post as such lacks specificity to make it a valid feasible idea. I realize that, my purpose was not to provide details but to share the general idea and to see the response. For anyone interested in discussing this idea with me more I can write a more detailed outline, just email. I am not entirely comfortable posting more details on a public blog until I am actually at the stage where I can make a proposal to publishers, or ebook companies, or Apple, or Google. This idea is at its infant stage right now and it will take time and research to implement it, or even to test its feasibility. The purpose this particular blog post is to share my thoughts and to ask for feedback.

P.P.S. I am really glad I came to Japan at this point of my life, living here really does make me more aware of how sustainable my own life is (please see my other posts here and here if you want to know why I say this).


Jeff said...

Just a thought, but what about buying used books?

Katya said...

I do that already, but that still supports the paper book industry, right? I was thinking that if I can do without a paper book period, then I shouldn't buy it.