Jan Hugo

Books in the digital age

We launched publishing business in 1993. The word "internet" started to be widely known but most people ignored it. Ten years later internet was already widely used, and gradually became the leading information medium, at least in academic world. Many people began to ask whether books have any future in the quickly changing world, which seemed to be evolving towards free access to digital information of any kind. Soon it became apparent that books do have future – quite bright – revenues of many publishing houses in English speaking countries doubled since early nineties, with considerable help of the internet.

There are dozens of approaches to the topic of books versus internet. I’d like to deal just with one of them, the one often overlooked by those who philozophize on the future of the books. But it is something very substantial for authors and publishers: internet is free, books do cost money. With respect to the focus of Maxdorf Publishing I do not deal with books in general but mainly with textbooks, handbooks, monographs – simply the STM (science, technology and medicine).

When Arthur Biedl came from Vienna to Prague in 1914 to take over the chair of Experimental Pathology (Institute of Pathophysiology today – a place where I spent happy 15 years before leaving for publishing business), everyone who wanted to study endocrinology – then a newly constituted branch of internal medicine – had to buy his 1910 book "Innere Sekretion: ihre physiologischen Grundlagen und ihre Bedeutung für die Pathologie". There was no comparable book on this subject before the WWI.

At present (February 2015) PubMed lists more than 130,000 articles with keyword endocrinology and ten times more with a term hormone; one quarter of them free to download. You can find articles on any conceivable detail of endocrinology from signal transduction to pharmacoeconomics. You can read years and years every day, everything free and authored by experts from leading institutions. So why to buy a book when such an amount of detailed information is available for free? Moreover, any single book can comprise only its tiny scrap.

The reason for buying real books is the economy of time with the memory in the lead role, both being limited somehow. When you decide to learn endocrinology – either to pass the exam or to diagnose and treat your patients – you simply need the book. Book that has the beginning and the end, chapters with clear hierarchy and structure and perfectly written and copy-editted text that doesn’t force you to go back and forth and read senteces twice to understand them. And first of all, the author able to expertly pick up the substantial 1 % of the vast amount of information available. You must have the core information in your head – the rest you can search or browse. There are many other reasons why a quarter of century after the internet was born textbooks sell better than before; but the main reason with STM books is the economy of time – how much of it you can afford to waste searching and browsing alternative free sources.

I have stated above I am writing about STM books. However, not everything with page count high enough and bound as a book could be consisered a real book. increasingly there are published sereis of mostly independent articles bound ideally by a subject and physically by a bookbinders glue. Logicaly, these book-like publications form a spine of open-access book business. Yes, some are being sold too (the buyers are mostly researchers), and to be sincere, some become milestones of the field, just like congresses, which - by the way - trigger part of these books.

And what about e-learning? Yes, e-learing is quite "trendy" and hypothetically it should replace real textbooks. But … When you are a student or a young academic, you imagine that if you had written a book you would give it free to everyone. You long for publicity and for being cited (more than for money) and in addition you feel a part of the community of your fellow young academics and former college mates. Twenty years later you will be well aware of the time you invested into your knowledge, and especially into the writing. You cannnot write a good book within weeks and mostly not even within months - contrary to many e-learning texts which are sometimes written very effectively with Ctrl C and Ctrl V. So when you finish your writing, in the end, you probably feel you have the right to be paid for it. But there is one more level with the money is in the game. Even if you really felt you did not care for royalties (e.g. you abide to your youth ideals or anything else) than you probably have an ambition to know how many real readers you have, so you need some reliable criterion for that. And there is no better benchmark than money. Money for the books sold is the hard data, much harder than number of clicks or downloads. Yes, even the fact that someone took money from his or her purse and bought your book need not necessarily mean he would read it, but be sure, people usually do not waste money.

Of course, what I’ve written here is nothing new under the Sun. Since the books ceased to be a precious article, i.e. since the second half of the 19th century, people found there were good books and bad ones. The former live for decades with growing number of editions, the later end in waste paper after spending years in "book for a penny" shelf. Biedl's book was still being sold 20 years after he came to Prague, even after his death in 1933. In thirties there were dozens of books and hundreds of journal articles on endocrinology, but Biedl's book was a good one. So the answer to the question if books do have any future in the digital age is yes, they do. The good books do.

A colleague of mine – after having read the draft of this essay – asked me why I had not dealt with the the "printed books versus ebooks" topic. I will do this soon, but without "versus". Unlike "books to buy" versus "internet for free" printed books and ebooks are not enemies in no way, at least from the author’s or publisher’s perspective (not so the printer’s, of course). As a reader I love both and sometimes buy both – as I prefer reading the "real" book at home and iPad in the train.

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