I’ve written about why eBooks are useful, and even inevitable. But I want to take this a step further, and look at why they are important, in the sense of social impact. One useful measure is to see how eBooks serve the Triple Bottom Line (TBL).
Prologue part 1 part 2 part 3 part 4 part 5 part 6 part 7 Epilogue
Triple Bottom Line refers to the three pillars for measuring organizational success: People, Planet, and Profit. TBL has been adopted by the UN and various governments for public sector cost accounting and corporate social responsibility initiatives—which of course makes it sound awfully dull. But TBL is actually a progressive and useful way to think about how a technology will transform the organizations and societies it touches.
The Effect on People and Society
We live in the Information Age, of which the Internet is often described as the key driving force. But the Internet is just a communication vehicle, a vast cloud of information, disinformation, and generally wasted computer space, largely curated by Google.
On the other hand, eBooks are catalogued, edited, and critically validated. Whether they deliver wisdom, entertainment, facts, fancy, lies, or opinion, eBooks are part of a global digital library that is far better managed and organized than the hopelessly cluttered and chaotic Web.
While eBooks are personal and static today, they will soon become networked. Once we connect them digitally, eBooks will serve as interactive “knowledge nodes” on a vast social network. The cloud-based technology infrastructure is already here; it’s now a matter of building the eReader platform that will connect every eBook to the global community. That’s when things will get really interesting.
Tomorrow’s eBook will have the power to transform society in fundamental ways. It will drive social change in health, education, and literacy. It could even fuel a new global Renaissance. Or at least cure boredom on a global scale. Consider just a few examples, and then think about what will happen when the truly innovative thinkers get going with it:
- a medical worker in a remote village in Africa checking an online medical dictionary on her smartphone, and using that dictionary to connect with health care professionals in real-time to help prevent the spread of an epidemic;
- the works of one culture disseminated across other cultures, with few barriers to repress or censor the free flow of ideas;
- crowdsourced (volunteer) translation of millions of titles into dozens of languages, spreading knowledge and literacy effortlessly around the globe.
- members of social micro-networks sharing their views on topics from science to the arts, accessed as wikis from within the eBook’s limitless, virtual margins;
And consider the more personal ways that the eBook can contribute to our daily lives:
- a cookbook that guides you through your local grocery store, describing where to find ingredients and suggesting the perfect wine pairing;
- a car repair manual that links via Bluetooth to your vehicle’s onboard computer and reads out your fault codes (yes, there’s an app for that);
- performance poetry downloaded for 50 cents, as a video of the poet doing the reading;
- children’s books that come alive with song and video and images.
There is a vast potential, from the sublime to the pornographic, that will make eBooks the most powerful engine in the global transformation and dissemination of information since the invention of the printing press. All we have to do is build the platform that will unlock this potential. (I will describe my vision for such a platform in upcoming posts.)
Saving the Planet
The eBook obviously serves the planet in the ecological sense of saving trees and providing a sustainable future for publishing. According to ConservaTree.org, while it is difficult to calculate accurately, the general consensus is that it takes close to 24 trees to make a ton of book printing paper, and about half that for a ton of newsprint.
Ecology.com reports that “4 billion trees or 35 percent of the total trees cut around the world are used in paper industries on every continent.” And according to ePublishersWeekly, in the USA alone, upward of 30 million trees are used to make 2 billion books every year.
So go read The Lorax on your eBook. He’ll be well pleased.
Sustainable Profit Models
One certain effect that increased interactivity, connectivity, translation, and digital distribution will have on the industry is that publishers will sell more eBooks.
The eBook also has a far less expensive cost structure in terms of its supply network (printing, warehousing, shipping, and distribution). In this sense, there is a positive effect on the publisher’s bottom line, but a negative effect to the economy in that supply side industries will be disrupted by the shift to eBooks.
Of course, the book supply chain won’t be wholly disrupted for years, or even decades, while paper books continue to be manufactured and distributed. So you probably don’t need to worry about the economic impact of eBooks with the same zeal that you fret over, say, your 401k investments. Unless of course you’re heavily invested in forestry products.
But as with any ecosystem change, entirely new industries will emerge as the old ones fade. Tablet manufacturers are already reaping the benefits of sales driven by eReader capabilities, and those device manufacturing supply chains are happily growing. But for those who like to worry, there are at least a dozen, and potentially hundreds, of paper books displaced for every eReader sold, which means that the eBook’s efficient digital supply network will ultimately weaken some sectors of the economy. (Did I mention forestry?)
The evolution of eBooks as a platform, however, will improve at least two economic sectors: software applications and authoring. As eBooks become a more interactive, social platform, opportunities will arise for companion software applications (yes, yet another app marketplace) that work across individual books or entire genres.
For example, today your Kindle comes with a built-in dictionary enabling you to look up definitions, and the ability to Tweet or post to Facebook what you are reading (ho-hum). Tomorrow, you will have real social networking, embedded wikis, and thousands of apps for every genre, from medical apps to cooking apps to literary criticism apps. Interactive media, photos, and telepresence will transform the experience; your “book club” will be able to transcend global boundaries. To use a technical phrase, eBooks will be really cool.
For authors, the eBook opens up more democratized self-publishing built on the YouTube model. Dozens of self-publishing companies are already enabling aspiring authors to micro-publish, vanity publish, specialty publish, and even reach the level of bestsellers.
Self-published authors gain a larger share of royalties, but are themselves spending money on editing, publishing, and promotion, which opens up new opportunities for book publishers and related service providers. And there is even the potential for (wait for it…) in-book digital advertising revenue, like newspaper revenue models.
There will be more authors, more choices, more opportunities, countless hidden gems, and yes, a lot more rubbish too. But we’ll also have more collaboration, ratings, editorial curation, popularity metrics, and community policing and moderation to help us find our way.
The eBook platform of the future will change civilization and the economy in several interesting ways. One of the most critical will be the effect of social networking. So of course that will be the topic of my next blog post.