Electronic Books: Hypertext and Hyperfiction Books Versus Cd-Roms - Essay

Books Versus Cd-Roms

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sarah Lyall (essay date 14 August 1994)

SOURCE: "Are These Books, or What? CD-ROM and the Literary Industry," in The New York Times Book Review, August 14, 1994, pp. 3, 20-1.

[In the following essay, Lyall discusses the future of books and CD-Roms.]

This spring William H. Gates, the plugged-in chairman of the Microsoft Corporation and a man who lives for his computer, announced that he wanted to publish a definitive 300-page discussion of his views on the information revolution—where it had been and where it was going. But when it came time to choose a format, Mr. Gates rejected the familiar tools of his trade: on-line services, floppy disks, CD-ROM's, all the hardware and all the software. He turned to a technology that has been around since the mid-15th century. He decided to sell his book as a book.

You can't get more conventional. Books are cunning and resilient creatures. They have survived world wars and revolutions and totalitarian regimes and the waxing and waning of other media, including magazines, newspapers, radio, movies, videos, records, tapes, compact disks and television. Whenever their end was predicted, books managed to defy their own death sentences and spring back to life. Books have persevered so effectively, in fact, that in 1993 more of them were sold in the United States than in any year before, $18 billion worth.

But at no time since 1450, when Johann Gutenberg introduced books to the masses by fashioning the first printing press using movable type, has the book business been at such a confusing and potentially treacherous juncture. Publishers are still competing for a share of an increasingly distracted public's attention. But now they are also struggling over control of their own industry, and over the definition of what a book is. The competition is coming not from other forms of entertainment, but from computer and software companies that are experimenting with new formats: books on CD-ROM, books on floppy disk, books that can be read on a portable personal computer using a little card and some batteries, books that incorporate voices, music and movies, books that fly wholly or in parts through on-line services and arrive directly on screen.

For publishing executives from the old school, this translates into a heady time of trying to decide how much to embrace the new technology, or even (for some) whether to embrace it at all. They are scared, and they should be, considering the type of advice they're hearing from nonpublishers like Gregory Rawlins, a computer science professor at Indiana University. "If you're not part of the steam-roller," he told a group of university press publishers recently, "you're part of the road."

Predictions of the imminent death of serious publishing are old news. But they've gained more urgency in recent years, as more and more once-autonomous publishers find themselves tiny specks on the balance sheet of some huge entertainment conglomerate that also owns record companies, television stations, movie studios and sports teams. People are getting hired and fired; divisions are being bought, sold and folded; publishers are starting "new media" departments that combine books with other forms of media, and serious books seem to be selling fewer copies than ever, supplanted by one-shot celebrity biographies and sure-fire genre books. And into this volatile environment have entered companies that seek to question publishers' raisons d'être and the very notion of what defines a book. Is a book, they ask, a collection of words fashioned into a poem or a narrative or a play printed on paper, bound with a cover, opened and closed at will and stored on a shelf with others of its kind, as has been done for 500 years? Or is a book the ideas contained within, regardless of their format? Can you stack them up and put them in a CD rack? Can you put them on a tiny little credit card, insert the card in a portable computer and read them on a screen? Can you add music and video? "We only invest in the creation of one product here, the book," said Jack Romanos, the president of the consumer group at Simon & Schuster. "But the book's gone in five different directions."

What matters is content, Mr. Romanos said, something publishers have in spades. The question is how to put it to use. "In the past, you said, 'What sort of book, how many pages, what's the trim size, what's the market?'" said Nancy Dickinson, the director of advanced media at HarperCollins. "Now you say, 'How would this idea work if I could see video or hear sound? How would this make it more accessible and a richer experience for the customer?'"

For traditional publishers, so steeped in old habits that many editors still regularly edit manuscripts on paper (even when the author turns in a version on disk), evolving into something different looks to be a bumpy and confusing proposition. Though Ms. Dickinson's department has counterparts at every big book publisher in New York, new media divisions tend to consist of a small band of computer literates preaching to the company's uninitiated, resistant masses. Publishers are stubbornly holding on to electronic rights in case their books go electronic, and most large companies have already produced half a dozen or so general interest multimedia titles on CD-ROM or floppy disk. But they're not sure what the future will require.

One thing that does seem clear is that in the lucrative academic and reference markets, new media are quickly overtaking traditional books, and for good reason. Consider the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The complete set costs more than $1,500, weighs 118 pounds and takes up more than four feet of shelf space. A commensurate encyclopedia on CD-ROM—Microsoft's Encarta, for instance—costs $99.99, holds up to 650 megabytes of data, weighs under an ounce, and could fit in your purse. And it's rich with extras. Look up Beethoven, for instance, and the text of the regular entry appears on your screen. Click your mouse and you can listen to a 30-second snippet from the Ninth Symphony. Click again and you can learn how Wagner was influenced by Beethoven, and hear the results. Look up Edvard Munch, click your mouse and see a high-resolution version of The Scream appear on your screen.

It's the same with dictionaries. Looking up a word in, say, the Oxford English Dictionary requires hauling an unwieldy volume down from a shelf and then hauling another volume down, too, if the first definition piqued your interest in a new word somewhere else. For the condensed version of the dictionary, the only one most people can afford, you need a magnifying glass to read the type. But all the volumes can fit on a single CD-ROM, which can store up to 300,000 pages of text and do cross-referencing in a flash.

Donald Norman, who founded the department of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, and who now holds Apple Computer's highest research position, said: "Within 10 years, dictionaries will essentially all be electronic. They will win because they offer ease of access and readability."

Books on floppy disk are useful for quick cross-referencing. And with its video and audio components, the CD-ROM also lends itself naturally to other reference works, books that teach you, for instance, how to adjust the brakes on your Trans Am, install a shelf in the basement, learn American Sign Language, plant a rosebush, truss a chicken, or search through thousands of choices to find a film to rent on Sunday night. Companies like Byron Preiss Multimedia, which began as a conventional book packager, are beginning to take traditional titles and make them reference works. A forthcoming CD-ROM based on John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath allows readers to see photographs that inspired Steinbeck, a map of the Joad family's route through Oklahoma and video interviews with people in Steinbeck's life. Somewhere in there lurks the novel's text, which seems almost beside the point next to the souped-up new features. But Byron Preiss himself insists that The Grapes of Wrath on CD-ROM will never supplant The Grapes of Wrath, the book. "It doesn't replace the experience of sitting in bed reading," he said. "It coexists, and it amplifies the book."

Electronic publishing is making a serious impact in children's books. "What is clear is that children are much more comfortable with technology," said Randi Benton, who recently set up Random House's new media division. The company recently embarked on a joint venture with Broderbund Software, an interactive children's software company, to start Living Books, which provide lively sounds, elaborate graphics and hundreds of things to play with in such stories as Aesop's fable "The Tortoise and the Hare" and Mercer Mayer's Just Grandma and Me. Such books—which have sold tens of thousands of copies already—are somewhere between computer games and hypertext fiction, a new computer-based format that turns traditional beginning-to-end narrative on its head by affording the reader the thoroughly post-modern opportunity to skip from place to place in the text, creating his own story and arriving at his own ending.

"I think the idea that this next generation is going to start at page 1 and go to page 284 and then close the book is wrong," said the president of Warner Books, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who recently discovered the joys of an on-line world when he got himself hooked up to the Internet. "This is a generation that has been raised on MTV and a multitude of stimuli. They don't think linearly; they think mosaically. And they're much more used to getting their information from talking and listening than from reading books."

It's easy to be seduced by the new products, but part of the trick for publishers these days is to avoid investing too much in technology that might burn out as completely as LP records. Richard Sarnoff, who heads the new media group of Bantam Doubleday Dell, said, "We have to decide what is likely to augment, and what is likely to cannibalize, our business." Big publishers have several ways to go. They can buy their own software companies. They can form copublishing partnerships, as Putnam did when it made a deal with Sony to publish H. R. Haldeman's diaries, Putnam in hard cover and Sony on CD-ROM. They can embark on joint ventures or buy stakes in multimedia companies.

But mixing multimedia publishers with traditional book publishers seems counterintuitive, like mixing milk with grapefruit juice. They speak different languages. They look at their products, and at the world, in different ways. Even the word "product," applied to books, would seem anathema to editors of the old school. This spring Jason Epstein, the editorial director of Random House's adult trade group, ventured into the offices of Voyager, a Manhattan software company, one morning to talk to his former assistant, 26-year-old Maryam Mohit. Ms. Mohit, one of a flotilla of young editors who have left traditional publishing houses to join new media companies, showed him one of her latest works, the CD-ROM version of Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind. Mr. Epstein looked at the video of a tiny Marvin Minsky gesticulating at a lectern, listened to Mr. Minsky's speech on the speakers, and then spotted a turgid sentence on the screen, where the text was printed out. That's what he focused on. "I would have edited that," he said.

"The mentality of a CD-ROM publisher is different from that of a book publisher," said Michael Lynton, until recently the senior vice president for publishing at the Walt Disney Company, whose publishing arm, Hyperion Books, is investing in new media projects. "People go into book publishing and bookselling because they want to be involved with words and books. They don't want to make money. If they do, they've made a serious mistake. The CD-ROM people, and the gaming community—those people are in love with games, in love with computers and in love with making money. They have no problem talking about units."

Many publishing houses suffer from a generational divide in which their staffs can be split in two: the ones who grew up with computers and the ones who didn't. Traditional editors read The New York Review of Books, not Wired magazine; many even still use their old manual typewriters, edit by pencil, and feel unnerved by, even afraid of, computers.

At Penguin U.S.A., many editors are being gingerly exposed to new media by a 28-year-old vice president, Julie Hansen, who administers a lab where employees can drop in and play with a CD-ROM unit for the first time.

Voyager, which recently abandoned its headquarters in southern California for an enormous converted loft in Soho, has the atmosphere of a computer company: large open spaces broken up by partitions, chicly casual workers without official titles, a buzz of new ideas. In an interview about the future of books, the president, Bob Stein, was wearing a pair of baggy trousers and a T-shirt reading "Free All Political Prisoners." "Will books exist? I think that's the wrong question," Mr. Stein said. "Humans have tremendous capacity to find imaginative uses for old media, and books will be with us for generations. But the locus of important intellectual communication is going to shift away from books. The complexity of palate that authors have with these new media is going to draw them in."

Mr. Stein envisions a creative brain drain that will pull authors toward the new media. "One hundred years ago, if you were going to write stories the only choice would be plays or novels," he said. "Now, you're already thinking about the movies. And with CD-ROM's, you can create the intimate experience of a novel and the experience of video, audio and film."

Art Spiegelman is one author who has now worked in both media. Voyager recently put out the CD-ROM version of Maus, his critically acclaimed comic-book depiction of the Holocaust. It includes audio interviews with his father, who figured prominently in Maus; aerial photographs of concentration camps, and dozens of early sketches Mr. Spiegelman made when he put Maus together. "The least interesting thing about the ROM is the book itself, because it was conceived as a book," Mr. Spiegelman said. "But I don't see it as competitive with a book, any more than going to the theater is competitive or watching television is competitive. On some vague level it's a plea for attention, but the experience is a different one."

The new formats are likely to have a great effect on the production and distribution of books. For one thing, making a CD-ROM costs about 68 cents and can be done virtually instantaneously, while making a book costs between $2 and $3.50. For another, CD-ROM's are sold mostly in software stores, not traditional bookstores. They come in big, clunky boxes shrouded in glossy packaging, and they're arranged according to which machines they're compatible with—not according to subject. They're impossible to browse through, in the manner of a book, unless the store sets up a computer demonstration area. "The traditional bookstore is an extraordinary resource for the publisher because you get people on the staff who have a lot of product knowledge and can be incredibly helpful to the customer," Dan McNamee, a partner in a business called the Publishing and Media Group, said. "But they tend to be very uncomfortable with electronic products. On the other hand, software distributors are not used to providing support for highly varied product lines. And they can talk about technology, but they're not used to talking about content."

But some people envision a time when bookstores themselves might be obsolete. Why would you need to walk into a store, they say, when books come on little disks for your personal computer, or when they're made more widely available through places like the On-Line Bookstore, which is based in Massachusetts and sells books through the Internet? Although bookstore executives like Steve Riggio, the executive vice president of Barnes & Noble, say they envision their stores metamorphosing into information superstores, it's unclear how this will happen.

Despite the obvious advantages of electronic books, visions of a future world confined indoors—working, playing, communicating, reading and shopping via computer—have so far vastly outpaced the realities, particularly when it comes to books. Tens of millions of people have the capacity to read books on floppy disk, but they don't.

And at this point, according to industry figures, only about 5 million households have CD-ROM attachments on their computers. The number is expected to increase to more than 10 million by the end of the year; new models of old computers are sold almost exclusively now with CD-ROM attachments. But it will take a long time before everyone has the equipment.

Meanwhile, computer companies are scrambling to come up with a technology that mimics a book completely, that can put text on a screen as effectively as on paper, but none have succeeded yet. Devices like the Powerbook and the Sony Bookman still don't come close to matching the experience of reading a paper-and-print book while curled up in a chair, in bed, on the train, under a tree, in an airplane. "The machines have to be a lot better," said Jack Hoeft, the chief executive of Bantam Doubleday Dell. "As the technology improves, I expect that they will be, and then people who want to read a book on a computer reader can do it that way."

But probably they won't want to. Olafur Olafsson, the 32-year-old president of Sony Electronic Publishing, who also happens to be the best-selling novelist of all time in his native Iceland, says, "Novels on a computer screen don't do the job." Sitting in his upper-floor office with a picture-window view of Central Park, he plucked the Alfred A. Knopf translation of his latest novel, Absolution, from his desk. Under no circumstances, he said, would he want to read it on a computer screen. "Maybe if you had something of this dimension and this weight and as easy to hold as this book," he said. "The screen would have to be easy to read, it wouldn't be able to suffer from heat and glare, and you could easily go back and forth from page to page. But I don't see that technology arriving any time soon." And after all, the modern book is the result of centuries of trial and error during which people wrote on bark, on parchment, on vellum, on clay, on scrolls, on stone, chiseling characters into surfaces or copying them out by hand.

"The book has been with us for about 500 years," said Donald Norman of Apple Computer, who recently published a book, Things That Make Us Smart, which argues that technology sometimes runs away with itself, dazzling and tyrannizing people instead of serving them by making life simpler. "People think it's unsophisticated technologically, but the book has evolved into an extremely convenient and sophisticated artifact. It uses modern paper, with good contrast and good quality print. The typefaces themselves have evolved over many years, the design and layout have evolved in esthetic quality and utility. And in many ways, the book is a good random access device that's extremely easy to scan through."

The novelist Nicholson Baker said: "We've come up with a beautifully browsable invention that needs no electricity and exists in a readable form no matter what happens. If the end of civilization comes and we lose electricity, we can hold a CD-ROM up to the light and it has totemic value, but we have no past."

There's more to it than that. In an instant culture, books represent our more ruminative, deliberate and thoughtful side. Earlier this year Bill Henderson, the editor of the Pushcart Press in Wainscott, L.I., founded a group called the Lead Pencil Club. The idea came to him when he was reading Doris Grumbach's memoir Extra Innings, which describes her grumpy ill will toward all her electronic gadgets. The club is devoted to the superiority of non-technology. Its motto is "Not So Fast," and the book is one of its favorite devices.

"America's the only country that doesn't have a past," Mr. Henderson said. "We've become speed freaks, and things like faxes and E-mail contribute to our national amnesia. Books don't allow that to happen. You go to the library and you see the past out there and you can browse at leisure. And a book is personal—you can hold it in your hand, turn down its pages, write in the margins, carry it to the beach. It's a cliché, but you can. I don't think we're going to put up with the demise of the book."

And if Mr. Gates at Microsoft likes computers so much, you might ask, why did he decide to publish his forthcoming book the regular way? "The medium is appropriate," said Jonathan...

(The entire section is 8624 words.)