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When papyrus was introduced by progressive scribes in ancient Egypt, it is certain that the more conservative elements in the profession held that it would never replace the clay tablet.

In medieval times, the printed book was regarded as a frivolous innovation which could never replace the hand-made book. The spasms of persecution following its introduction are commonly attributed to the church’s fear of the spread of independent thought, but another underlying reason was annoyance at the loss of the considerable revenue derived from its monopoly on the production of books.

Much later, it was asserted that television would never catch on because no-one would want to sit at home watching a little box in the corner. A chairman of IBM estimated the world market for computers at about a dozen machines.

Something similar is happening again, according to members of Knocklofty’s eBook development division. At parties and other gatherings, many of them now tell fibs about what they do.

“It’s worse than admitting you’re a doctor,” one of them complained. “Every time I say ‘electronic book’, back comes the riposte ‘Ah, but it’ll never replace a real book’, or ‘I don’t want to sit at a computer to read a book’. So now I just say I’m an actuary; they lose interest at once and I can get on with some serious drinking.’

Others say it’s like trying to explain the virtues of soap to those brought up to believe that the wire brush and carbolic method is the last word in personal hygiene.

It’s true that eBooks have been just around the corner for some time now, but the technology to make them cheap and commonplace is now moving from the laboratory to the factory.

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Knocklofty expects that the advent of inexpensive and simple eBook readers will restore the slightly frayed moral fibre of those who staff the division. Sony, for example, is now selling such a device for about $US300, and if Moore’s Law holds true they will be below $100 before long. They are as easy to read as a printed book and you won’t lose your place if you put it down or drop it.

It will never entirely replace the printed book. Plainly, it doesn’t have the aesthetic appeal, the tactile and olfactory rewards of handling a well-produced printed book, new or old, but it will become the medium for most new literature, for textbooks and other kinds of publishing — perhaps even poetry, the mere mention of which stampedes the bravest of publishers.

Those who continue to champion the printed book might consider the economic and environmental implications of the huge, toxic and wasteful industry they are keeping in business.

Consider first the advantages offered by the electronic book. Today’s pioneering eBook readers can store up to 80 average-length books in a device about the same size as a standard paperback and weighing rather less; add extra memory — which becomes cheaper almost daily — and it is possible to carry some thousands of books in your pocket.

Consider next what this means in physical terms. Unless you’re one of those books-do-furnish-a-room types, think of the savings on shelves alone; better still, you don’t have to dust eBooks. Silverfish, moulds, bookworms and wasps seeking nesting material can’t harm them. eBooks, unlike many moderately-priced printed books, don’t fall to bits after a few readings or a year or two on the shelf.

And remember the last time you moved house: carton upon ponderous carton of books to be packed, labelled, transported, unpacked and rearranged. An eBook reader, as we’ve said, fits all that unto your pocket — and leaves plenty of room for the money you’ve saved on the cost of the removal.

Most of us are either too busy or insufficiently anal-retentive to store our books in anything like library order — and that means we waste a lot of our lives scouring shelves looking for books we haven’t used for a while. ‘Where’s that novel? Did it have a black spine or was it a red one? Or did I lend it to someone?’ An eBook reader will find the book you want in seconds.

Buying books is easier, too. The helpful, knowledgeable independent bookseller is a threatened species and is rapidly being replaced by chainstores, most of them staffed by people who know little and care less about what they’re selling. You can find and buy eBooks on the web in minutes; most publishers will let you browse at least part of an eBook.

On a larger scale, eBooks can do a lot to shrink your carbon footprint. For a start, forests don’t have to be chopped down and chipped up for paper; oil doesn’t have to be processed for printing ink and burned to transport logs, paper and the books themselves over long distances; there is no need for vast warehouses and distribution centres, all of which add to the carbon cost of every book. The actual cost of making and distributing an eBook is too small to be worth calculating.

But the economic impact they will have on the lives of writers and publishers — as well as readers — is probably too large to be easily calculated.

Publishing is a form of gambling with inherent risks that make roulette look like a safe and sober investment. Because the costs of production are so enormous, every new book is a gamble; even if the gamble comes off, it’s still attended by almost unbelievable waste. More than 40 per cent of a best-seller ends up being pulped because, except in very rare cases, not every outlet sells every book it orders; back they go to the publisher — at his expense. And recycling printed paper is a very toxic business indeed.

Because the book trade is dealing with physical items with an indeterminate shelf life and a fickle, capricious consumer, money churns very slowly in publishing. A publisher has to front up the cash for editing, design, increasingly expensive printing and, more rarely these days, an advance to the author, but it will be at least six months after a book’s release before a trickle of revenue comes back through his door. This fiscal drag explains why the careers of small independent publishers are so bumpy and so brief.

The dismal economics of publishing mean that both publisher and author usually get only the slenderest of returns for their pains, and sometimes only the pains. The distribution network absorbs as much as 60 per cent of the price the public pays for a book; out of the remainder, the publisher has to pay for production, overheads and a pittance to the author, who might be counted lucky to receive $2 as his share of a $35 book.

eBooks dispense with most of the risk. Without the huge costs of production and distribution, publishers can afford to encourage new authors who might previously have been thought too risky to back and offer them a better deal into the bargain; that better deal extends to the reader, who will pay less for an eBook than for its printed equivalent — and who will enjoy more diverse and adventurous literature as a result.

After all, the vast machinery of the publishing industry with its huge factories dependent on vanishing resources and on the destruction of forests is simply an enormously cumbersome way of achieving a very simple aim: putting authors and readers in touch with each other. The eBook is the greatest step towards that objective since Gutenberg pulled the first printed sheet out of his converted wine press in 1448.