The Next Page in Book Publishing History Should Be a Digitized One

Michael Schrage is a writer, consultant and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He writes this column independently for The Times

Bought a good book lately? Wish you could have gotten a bit more for the money? There’s now a cheap and easy way to make good books even better--and publishers needn’t kill a single extra tree to do it.

Instead of simply selling books, publishers should offer two books for (nearly) the price of one: a printed copy for you and a digital version for your personal computer. At a cost of barely a dollar a book, publishers today could easily bind in a 3 1/2-inch, double density floppy disk packed with the indexed text of the original.

Big biographies, business books, self-help tomes, trashy summer novels--it doesn’t matter. For just a buck or two more, you have a book that both you and your computer can read.

Why would you want this? Well, maybe you wouldn’t include that trashy summer novel you’re ashamed to be reading. But how about that biography or business book? Aren’t there a few quotations you would like to cut out and paste into that presentation you’re preparing?


Maybe there’s a passage you’d like to excerpt for a report. We don’t just read books anymore; we also use them as tools. As personal computers proliferate, they create a tacit demand for digital content that goes beyond spreadsheets and databases. Books in digital form literally create new dimensions of accessibility and flexibility.

Don’t ignore the reality that, thanks to the Sony Walkman and car stereos, audio books have become a $1-billion-a-year business. Conventional publishers are only now acknowledging that a little cheap technology can go a long way toward adding value to a product. Digitized books would be far easier and cheaper to produce than audio books.

But wouldn’t authors want to sell their digitized books separately, just like audiotapes? Well, first of all, who really wants to pay $19.95 to read 230 pages on a computer screen? The key is to recognize that the digital and printed versions are complements to, not substitutes for each other.

Publishers have got to get beyond the simplistic notion that paper is obsolete and computers represent the future. In reality, the printed version makes the digital version that much more valuable. The challenge is to figure out how to design, build and profit from complementary media.


Worried about illegal copying? Copy protection technologies exist, but why not encourage copying of certain kinds of books? Book publishers have survived the Xerox machine and the public library system. They’ll survive the microchip as well.

If authors are really concerned, they can simply refuse to allow a digital version of their book to be made. However, a Tom Peters would probably be delighted that managers were using digitized portions of “Liberation Management” for their presentations. More business people might buy a copy of Bartlett’s Quotations if they knew a disk would make it easy to snatch quotes for their own speeches. College students would love digital versions of their textbooks.

In other words, the presence of digital versions should boost book sales overall. That tends to happen when you give people more for their money.

“Publishers are beginning to look at putting all kinds of their books on disks,” said Carrie Friemuth, associate publisher of Times Books, a unit of Random House. “I don’t know of any publisher who is considering packaging them in quite that way. . . . We might be receptive to it; we’re now interested more broadly in distributing ideas, not just in publishing bound books.”


“I have no doubt that this may be one of the ways that electronic stuff will be popularized,” said Bob Stein, whose Voyager Co. has published digitized versions of Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” “Over a generation, we are going to change the locus of the reading experience for a lot of people. If McGraw-Hill or Simon & Schuster packaged their nonfiction books this way, they definitely would be adding value to the book.”

To be sure, the McLuhanatics swear that books will soon be as dead as the trees they’re printed on: The future lies in multimedia CD-ROMs--compact discs that blend interactive graphics, sound and text on a personal computer. Of course, it will take a few years before that technology hits mass-market proportions. What’s more, CD-ROM books are expensive to produce.

“Bundling in a floppy disk would be less expensive,” said Harriet Rubin, who publishes Doubleday’s popular Currency line of business books.

She can easily see bundling disks into many of her books within two years, she said, but added that “there is a tremendous resistance to technology in the publishing industry. . . . This is not an industry that embraces innovation.”


Perhaps disks will never become as integral to nonfiction books as page numbers and indexes, but that doesn’t mean book publishers will be able to avoid the way digital technologies can redefine their products. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you might judge its publisher by whether its books are available on disk.