Why we no longer need paper

1 Sep

What have Seth Godin, Laura Lippman, the Huffington Post and the Oxford English Dictionary got in common?

They say it’s not a crime to make a mistake.

Clearly that’s not always the case and so I prefer the faithful bed fellow of that phrase: “The real crime is the failure to learn from ones mistakes”.

Thus it was with an approving nod that I read at the weekend that the venerable Oxford Online Dictionary had announced its next edition might only be available online.

The current (and second) edition of the dictionary – 20 hefty volumes costing £750 ($1,165) – has been sold around 30,000 times since publication in 1989, mostly to obsessive bibliophiles and weird collectors.

The next edition will likely be read by a great many more people and will not be made of dead trees. In fact, the current digital version is already enjoying two million visits a month.

It seems the publishers of this lofty institute of learning have heeded the lessons that should have been learnt by its older cousin, that notorious casualty of the digital age, Encyclopaedia Britannica.

You probably already know the fable of how Wikipedia killed Britannica, or at least sent it into a prolonged coma.

The latter was started nearly 250 years ago. Millions upon millions of pounds were spent by the hundred or more editors who oversaw publication of its volumes. It even started an online edition in the 1990s, which was eventually read regularly by about 200,000 people and held 112,000 articles.

Then along came Wikipedia with a new idea and, very soon, a scale and a popularity that dwarfed Britannica’s with 10 million articles – three million of them in English – and 275 million readers per month.

And the new idea? Wikipedia was built by using the loosely coordinated work of millions of knowledgeable people, each happy to contribute a tiny slice of the whole for free. These contributors were released from the limiting shackles of paper, allowing them to produce something so vast, yet so contemporary, it utterly eclipsed its hapless predecessor.

You see, Wikipedia understood what Britannica had failed to grasp, for all its centuries in the business: that publishers of encyclopaedias do not sell books; they sell knowledge.

Paper is just a medium and a passing one at that, like cave-painting, radio and the World Wide Web.

Yes, there is evidence everywhere at the moment that it is nearing its final days. It’s impossible to ignore this seismic shift in the way we are all communicating.

For example, another story from the weekend – in the Wall Street Journal – told how the popular American thriller writer Laura Lippman has sold more eBook copies (4,739) than hardcover copies (4,000) of her latest novel since it went on sale August 17th.

Her publisher Harper Collins says it’s the first time electronic editions have outsold paper copies of a new mainstream release. This news would not have surprised Amazon, which announced the previous weekend that sales of digital books on its US website had begun to outstrip hardback books.

Almost simultaneously, the world’s most famous marketing thinker and best-selling author, Seth Godin, was causing all sorts of ripples in the publishing world when he announced that he wasn’t going to produce any more books. He said he has so many direct customer relationships, largely via his blog, that he no longer needed a traditional publisher.

And let’s remind ourselves that one of the world’s fastest-growing publishers of written news, features and opinion, the Huffington Post, has never had a use for paper. HuffPo recently broke into the top 10 US news sites and is now bigger than the New York Times.

Yet, whinnying pathetically next to these majestic snorting race horses are the clapped-out, buck-toothed nags.

Encyclopedia Britannica could have become the world’s largest search engine years before anyone had ever uttered the word ‘Google’, curating the world’s online information. Yet it chose not to because search engines are not what it does.

Similarly, thousands of struggling local and national newspapers across the world could have thrived by distributing interesting, sharable, searchable content – but chose not to because that’s not what they do.

Wrong and wrong. It is exactly what they should be doing.

Encyclopaedias curate knowledge, authors tell stories and newspapers produce news, features and opinion – and the sooner they realise their businesses do not involve paper, the better for them.

Distributing that news, that knowledge, those stories and those features is an old problem that needs a new solution.

What it doesn’t need is more dead trees.


8 Responses to “Why we no longer need paper”

  1. Dan Wilson September 1, 2010 at 9:48 pm #

    So the OED has sold 30k sets “mostly to obsessive bibliophiles and weird collectors.”

    I suspect libraries are the bulk of the buyers. But I’d love a set myself.

    • michaeltaggart September 1, 2010 at 10:06 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by Dan and fair point. I’d love a set too but I don’t have a study that is sufficiently cavernous. In fact, I don’t have a study. Or £750.

  2. Dan Wilson September 1, 2010 at 10:21 pm #

    I turned a set down one wet afternoon in Kilburn. I had neither the 50 notes nor the transport to take them back to my student digs.

    • michaeltaggart September 2, 2010 at 6:02 am #

      I found some dirt cheap delivery deals when I was flicking around. But would you pay the £750 for a new set? Presumably not, since you haven’t?

  3. Paul Hutchings September 1, 2010 at 10:34 pm #

    Digital makes a lot of sense for reference books, I think we are going to wait a good while longer before digital overtakes paper in the novel. It’s not what book readers want.

    Paper may be made of dead trees (though we could make them out of bushes) but this disparages a great technology. It is light, durable, easily accessed, flicked through and written on. It is portable and it doesn’t consume any energy once produced. Readers also love the feel and the smell!

    Not only that, you buy a book and it is yours forever to do with as you wish. You buy a digital copy and it’s like a rental with all kinds of terms and conditions that restrict your usage. That makes sense for reference.

    • michaeltaggart September 2, 2010 at 6:14 am #

      Thanks Paul. Having just transferred all my books from one flat to another I’m not sure I’d agree paper is light! I’d also challenge the suggestion it’s easily accessed, especially if you don’t already own a particular book. ‘Paperless’ books are a few mouse clicks away whether you ‘own’ them or not.

      But you raise a very good point about the interface: it is very easy to get hold of a piece of paper and jot something onto it. It’s also very easy to draw on and transport (if there’s not too much of it), although you literally couldn’t take the OED round with you in hard copy but could easily do so on an iPad or Kindle. Electronic screens are sometimes harsh and headache-inducing – books are not. You can’t take audio at your own pace.

      As for the smell and other emotive stuff – you’re absolutely right. This is why I find it hard to eschew hard copies. But the evidence shows the world is beginning to think differently. It’s also likely a lot of hearts were broken when the stone tablet was first dispensed with. But the ‘business case’ would have overwhelmed the sentimental impulse.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  4. Jason Rigby September 2, 2010 at 1:34 pm #

    Great blog…

    However I’m not totally convinced of the tree saving ethics behind the digitising of reference material, novels, newspapers.

    The common misconception is that digital material compared to printed material comes with no ecological price. This concept fails to acknowledge the energy costs of running the huge data centres hosting and serving up this information. These are required to be running 24/7 with multiple redundancy back ups, not to mention the end users own power consumption sitting at a computer accessing this growing library of information and entertainment.

    Google estimate that one Google search is currently equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2. This does not take into account the CO2 generated by the user. It may not sound much, but this is only going to increase as computers become a bigger part of more people’s lives, and information technology consumes an increasing amount of energy.

    Books are recycle-able, consume zero energy once made, consume zero energy when not being used and cost zero energy to use. Most printed material comes from sustainable forestry sources these days, and what better way to offset our current carbon emissions than by planting more trees.

  5. michaeltaggart September 2, 2010 at 1:52 pm #

    @Jason – very good point, which Paul touched on above. My response is that, if it is more environmentally/ecologically friendly to use paper (and I respect the arguments on both sides of this debate), then this, alone, is not a good reason to keep using it. We can (and should) work on the carbon footprints of the new methods of communication.

    The most important questions are: what communications are (a) most efficient and (b) most effective? We should take into account the likelihood that they will be accessible, whether they can promote benevolent, truthful expression, and whether they increase societal utility.

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