Reading this post recently, I found myself asking why ebooks haven’t really taken off as a medium. Certainly more recent efforts, such as Amazon’s Kindle, have helped to reignite the market after a rather dubious development period over the past decade or so, but if one compares the ubiquity of mobile phones or digital audio players, e-books are entirely missing from the landscape. 1According to The Guardian in April 2008, ebooks accounted for less than 1% of the total publishing market, albeit this share has no doubt increased since.
In purely utilitarian terms, should the technology ever be fully and appropriately used, ebooks have a lot to offer over their paper counterparts. There are far fewer requirements and resources needed for production, and distribution is much easier. Whilst a device on which to read ebooks might outweigh a single volume, additional books add nothing, and in terms of transporting books en mass, ebooks are clearly in favour. The ability to flick through a paper volume might be lost in the electronic form, but this is clearly compensated for by vastly improved tools for search and cross-referencing. Likewise combining other forms of media such as video and audio is a perfectly reasonable conception with ebooks, that the paper variety can’t really compete with on any level. They’re also more easily manipulable, in terms of being able to zoom, highlight or simple leave your own annotations about the place. All of which is to say nothing of the potential advantages for newspapers and other periodicals.
As an avid reader, it often occurs to me just how second-hand book retailers manage to turn a profit. Even assuming the raw stock can be acquired at very little cost, the vast majority of books can go unsold almost indefinitely, all the while occupying shelf or storage space that costs money to maintain. I read somewhere that on average a second-hand bookseller can expect a third of his stock to be sold within six months, another third to be sold on an indefinite timescale, and the final third to simply go unsold. Obviously this has a knockon effect where turnover is slow. On a recent trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town, I came across plenty of bookstores that clearly have to elevate prices to remain profitable. No doubt in their case, the annual book festival and holiday season are a major source of revenue that would otherwise cause most to close their doors in an otherwise small and overcrowded market ecosystem.
There are very few today who would deny that the quality of our food has dropped, partly as a result of the change embodied by the death of the local shop and the rise of the supermarket. Where once the only change was that our food was pre-grown, now we find it has been pre-grown, pre-made, pre-cooked, pre-packaged, pre-distributed, and often find our purchases are precluded by lack of choice for good measure. Of course, supermarkets are the just one example of today’s monopolies, that much should be clear. Enter the store at one end, and you can start your purchases with your baby food at one end, and walk all the way through life till you need find a buy-one-get-one-free headstone and a “Value” lawyer to deal with your wills and probate. Plus the stores are so big these days that you might in fact need the coffin by the time you finally leave.
This idea is one which keeps popping up from time to time, normally on those occasions when it would actually come in useful, only to be thrown on the backburner for another time or a more talented author. Well this time I’ve decided just to throw the idea down on electronic paper for anyone with the skills and the time to make it work have a go. Of course, it’s quite likely that such a website already exists and that I just haven’t yet been able to find it, but if anyone knows of such a place, let me know!
Ostensibly the website is aimed at those allegedly few remaining people who cook, though it would appear equally useful to people planning dinner parties, students looking for something to go with their pasta, or just about anyone curious enough to experiment with a few different ingredients. In its essence, the website would be nothing more than a large recipe repository, with everything from snacks and sandwiches to stews and casseroles, with anything in between. Recipes would be submitted by users, moderated and standardised, but the slightly clever part is that these recipes would not be displayed as flat text files—it’s 2007 after all—but would be cross-referenced in such a way as to make the whole collection completely accessible.