the book is dead, long live the book

Xconomy runs an interesting profile of Nicholas Negroponte and the One Laptop per Child Foundation. In it, Negroponte discusses the foundation’s efforts — and the difficulties it faces — in getting the laptops into Gaza, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The article’s well worth the read for that discussion alone but Negroponte’s comments about the state of the printed book are also worth highlighting.

The printed book, he says, is dead. Not dead because of any technological replacement by e-readers and tablets, but dead because of the mundane economics of print.

Negroponte took time in our meeting to philosophize a bit about tablet computers. “There’s a very interesting thing happening,” he says. “Paper books are really dead—they’re gone. And they’re not being killed by tablets, they’re creating tablets.”

That’s the opposite of what many people might think—but Negroponte sees the forces at work at close hand, because of his OLPC work. “It’s the fact that physical books don’t work anymore, especially in the developing world,” he says, comparing the difficulty and cost of shipping physical books against downloading 100 books or more on a single tablet.

“It’s a complete luxury,” he says of physical books, “and it makes no sense.”

This comment provoked some snarky replies on message boards such as Slashdot with a typical reply running approximately thus, “With a real book, I never have to worry about whether the format it’s in will be supported ten or twenty years down the road. The only hardware requirements are eyes and hands, and the only software requirement is a brain, neither of which will go out of style in my lifetime.”

But, if you think of the economics of books, you can see how they begin driving the adoption of digital versions, whether PDF, eBook, or audio. And once this content moves from atoms to bits, pressure on the price point for those bits starts driving costs down.

Think of Flat World Knowledge, an Open Textbook publisher that lets readers access books for free, purchase print-on-demand versions or mp3s of specific chapters, and gives teachers the ability to remix and edit the book’s content. The strategy appears to be working. In 2009, the company secured $8 million in funding and currently has 140,000 users, half of whom end up paying $34 on average for cross-platform formats such as audio files and physical books.

The point though is that Flat World is pushing free digital as a primary option with paid versioning as a secondary volume market.

Here’s how Chris Anderson describes the company in his book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price:

Slashdot snark aside, think of Negroponte’s market — the developing world — and take another look at his comment: printed books, he says, are “a complete luxury.”

Now think of the billions living in the developing world where hardcover books can cost half a month’s salary, Amazon doesn’t deliver and local bookstores that can get new books charge even more because of transportation and procurement costs. Think of all these things and you can begin to see validity in Negroponte’s idea.

Books, and the desire for books, are creating a demand for low-cost tablets and the accessibility they afford because physical books themselves are simply, and globally, unaffordable.