Douglas Adams, the Rocket and me

When US book industry blogger Kassia Kroszer told me she’d been writing about digital publishing since 1998, I got to thinking about when I’d first contemplated, and written about, the ebook concept.

Reading the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as a teenager no doubt helped my thinking on the subject along. What a tragedy that its Mac-mad author, Douglas Adams, wasn’t around to see Steve Jobs launch the iPad. He would have been beside himself (like Zaphod Beeblebrox) with excitement.

I interviewed Adams in April 1998 for The Sydney Morning Herald’s Icon section. He came to Australia to promote his Starship Titanic computer game at that year’s Sydney Writers Festival. Our discussion inevitably came around to the future of the book.

I asked Adams whether he thought the book was under threat from new media.

“No. No more than it was from films, TV and radio. Each of these had an impact on the book, and indeed on each other, but it’s mostly a question of adjustment,” he said.

“Each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses. I’d be interested to know how many books will still be printed on paper in 10 years’ time and how many will be printed electronically.

“But the idea of the book, in its form if you like, in other words 100,000 words arranged into a story, will persist, whatever other forms come to exist alongside it.”

Adams died three years later, but his predictions have played out. By 2008, major publishers’ titles were available (in the US at least, it was later here and in the UK) for the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader among other devices. In Australia, as many as 5 per cent of book sales are now digital, but we trail the UK (11 per cent) and US (20 per cent).

What do you think he would’ve made of the iPhone and iPad? I suspect he’d have started an app business, creating enhanced ebooks that would have made our minds boggle.

I wish for his sake and for ours that he’d lived on to be a part of all this.

That profile wasn’t my first writing on the ebook.

There was plenty of talk (and writing) on ebooks in the late 1990s.
In October 1997, Icon’s editor, Tony Sarno, published a joint print and digital project called The Online Book Fair. As Icon’s web site producer, I helped coordinate the online publication of extracts from 15 new Australian books (including a couple by authors who became all time favourites: Madeleine St John and Linda Jaivin), and an interactive online novella started by Bryce Courtenay with contributions by our readers. I interviewed Jaivin and two more of the authors, Emma Tom and Richard Ryan, on camera to produce short video clips for Icon’s Net TV section.

I remember being incredibly jealous of my colleague Sue Lowe, who wrote the main feature for the print edition. She interviewed local and international booksellers, who were just starting to sell their physical books online; authors who were thrilled at the prospect of their work reaching new audiences via the web; and publishers who even then were wrangling with the complex issues around digital publication.

Lowe spoke to Allen & Unwin publisher Elizabeth Weiss, who remains one of industry experts on digital in Australia, for the 1997 story. Weiss said Allen & Unwin was hoping to start publishing online late in 1998, allowing sections of text to be downloaded and charged for separately.

“We’re not talking about entire novels, but [a service for] people who want a single chapter of a book and are willing to pay to have it immediately available at home,” she said.

Back then, the online experiments were limited because people didn’t want to read large amounts of text on computer screens, which were tiring on the eyes and not portable.

Fast forward to 2011, and readers are increasingly taking advantage of “chunking” to buy novellas, individual short stories and long form journalism in ebook form on their handheld smartphones, ereaders and tablets.

Lowe’s piece ended with a reference to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology experiment in ereader production. Their prototype of a leather-bound book with electronic pages would allow its users to “be alerted the day the manuscript is finished and download it from the publisher – or even the author. No printing, distribution, no territorial licensing, no expensive inventory and no returns”.

These were more predictions that have proven to be spot on, then, particularly the move to self-publishing for authors, though territorial rights continue to exist and confound in our 2011 ebook world, and few are publishing raw, unedited manuscripts.

By 1999, when Penguin published my little green book about the Internet, Weird Wild Web, online bookshopping was such a big deal I devoted two pages to it. The last couple of lines?

“Eventually, of course, you’ll be able to download novels to groovy little electronic book viewers, like the Rocket eBook (check out www.nuvomedia.com for more).”

I had forgotten all about the Rocket until I thumbed through the book last week, and that link no longer exists because NuvoMedia has long since been swallowed by a bigger fish, but here’s some info on the device from a press release on launch that same year:

“The Rocket eBook and future Rocket eBook-enabled readers will allow users to easily carry a small library with them, wherever they go. This 22-oz. (627 grams) hand-held information appliance can hold at least 4,000 pages (about 10 novels) of text and graphics at a time. Its user interface is designed for reading with optimised screen technology that is easy to read in all lighting situations. A battery life of 17 hours with the backlight on and 33 hours with the backlight off will provide users uninterrupted reading whether in the office, at home or on the go. Being digital, books read on the Rocket eBook can be browsed, searched, annotated, highlighted, bookmarked, linked and indexed in ways impossible with a paper book.”

Ten novels, eh? Compare that to the 1000+ books we can load onto an e-ink reader these days and it’s no wonder the Rocket didn’t take off.

Charlotte’s posts on books, digital publishing and social media also appear on Twitter (@ebookish), Facebook (www.facebook.com/ebookish) and at ebookish.com.au.

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Charlotte Harper

Charlotte Harper is a Canberra journalist, blogger, editor and publisher who has worked in newspapers, magazines, books and online. She runs digital-first non-fiction publisher Editia and covered book industry developments at ebookish.com.au before joining Booku.com. A former literary editor of The South China Morning Post, Charlotte has also written about books and technology for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. She once edited a mobile phone and gadget magazine, and is a published author, of a book about digital publishing – Weird Wild Web (Penguin Australia 1999).