Cyberbooks: A satire with lessons for e-book boosters
July 9, 2002 | 6:12 am
By Amos Bokros
Ben Bova‘s Cyberbooks is a science-fiction novel that gives TeleRead supporters–and other e-book boosters–some concrete lessons in how to convince the public of the benefits. This 13-year-old satire is eerily on target.
Cyberbooks is about an MIT software engineer by the name of Carl Lewis who invents the first electronic book. Carl is a naive idealist, and he thinks his invention will revolutionize the publishing industry and bring enormous benefits to all mankind. He reasons that e-books will make books inexpensive and available to everybody everywhere.
E-books, as Carl sees it, will enable books to be published that are of high quality, but unfortunately not financially lucrative. A sad reality for businesspeole is that approximately 75 percent of all published books actually lose money for publishers, and that most go out of print or sell for a fraction of their original price. You can buy Cyberbooks today for less than $1–in fact, a penny (shipping cost excluded) if someone hasn’t made a typo.
Just as e-book boosters do in real life, Carl also sees other advantages in digital books. They would be good for blind people, visually impaired and those with reading disabilities because e-books are able to actually read out loud anything in a digital format. Also, e-books would help the environment because fewer trees would be used for paper.
Many people in the established publishing industry, however, fear e-books. Publishers, book dealers, book store owners, distributors and printers feel that digital books will cost them their livelihood. And they try to thwart Carl.
You might say that Carl is like the main character in The Man in The White Suit, an old black-and-white English movie about Sidney Stratton, who invents a cloth material that cannot be destroyed, become dirty or wear out. Sidney thinks his invention will bring all humanity to a New Age of abundant wealth besides making himself rich. But both the factory workers and factory owners oppose the new super cloth material. The factory workers feel they will lose their jobs because if clothes do not wear out people will not buy new clothes. Business people also feel that this new cloth material will destroy their businesses because they will not be able to create a need for people to buy more clothes. The climax of the movie is a united effort by both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to crush the invention of this new material and prevent it from ever getting into the market.
Carl Lewis’s journey is similar to Sidney’s as the e-book inventor travels through the darker regions of the book publishing industry.
As the New York Post review of Cyberbooks put it, “Those unfamiliar with the publishing industry may think Bova exaggerates. Can booksellers really return all their merchandise for a full refund? Do editors spend their days at meetings discussing marketing categories and authors’ track records, leaving no time to actually read manuscripts? Does the size of the advance paid to an author actually determine the sales of his book? Do giant oil conglomerates really take over publishing houses and then run them idiotically? Alas, the answer to all these questions is Yes.”
Fittingly, in Bova’s satire, the plot mimics the cheap trashy novels that actually make money for the publishers. In Cyberbooks we see a power struggle within the industry. There is murder, romance, mystery and, of course, sex.
Carl Lewis is forced to give up his dream of the electronic book after a successful effort to stop his invention by those with an invested interest in the established publishing industry. But he triumphs in the end.
In my opinion, via Carl, Ben Bova unwittingly shows what TeleRead supporters and others must do to make e-books a common reality in the future. Here is a list of lessons from Cyberbooks that must be understood by anyone promoting electronic books.
Lesson One: Do not present electronic books as a radical idea which will revolutionize society. Perhaps the biggest mistake former congressmen Newt Gingrich made was promoting a radical interpretation of Alvin Tofler’s Third Wave to the American people. Americans and most of the world want slow reform. When any new technology is presented as a radical change, no matter how beneficial, most people will see it as a threat to an establish way of life.
In convincing people of the benefits of electronic books, we should emphasize that electronic books will not replace printed books. Rather, e-books will be an addition to printed books. Paperbacks did not replace hardcover books. Libraries did not put bookstores out of business. In the same way television and video rental stores have not put movie theaters out of business. Each new technology only expands the market.
Electronic books will not replace books for people happy with the established way books are printed and distributed. E-books are a method to help people who do not have quick inexpensive access to a variety of printed books. Therefore the emphasis at TeleRead should always be on how electronic books are a good for those who really need them. Such as those who are poor and live in areas without decent libraries. TeleRead should also emphasize how electronic books are good for those who are blind and have reading disabilities. In each of these cases we are pointing out how electronic books can help in areas where traditional books do not serve readers well. In all of these cases we are not threatening people with established interest in the status quo.
Lesson Two: Along with not scaring people, we at TeleRead should not touch sensitive political quagmires which only alienates our mission from other groups. Let us take two examples. In the past while promoting the benefits of electronic books, I have pointed out that books could be available in all languages; with the development of powerful new translating software, any book could be translated into any language immediately. I suggested this could solve the dilemma of bilingual education. I quickly learned afterwards this was no way to make friends. For many people any idea even suggesting that bilingual education had some benefits would quickly kill any idea associated with it.
Another benefit of electronic books that I used to emphasize was e-books not only could make books available to the blind, visually impaired, and those with reading disabilities, but also, via audio versions, help those who are functionally illiterate. I was accused of encouraging people to remain functionally illiterate and not learn to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact e-books are being used as powerful tools to learn the skill of reading.
Lesson Three: Along with not touching sensitive issues in regards to electronic books, TeleRead should never surrender itself to either the political left or the political right. The Teleread effort is bipartisan. Anyone who considers himself liberal, conservative, capitalist, or socialist should be able to support TeleRead. I am very happy that William F. Buckley Jr. supports our initiative. But I would be just as happy if anyone of the left would also support us.
Extremist groups probably do not take much interest in TeleRead, and they shouldn’t be encouraged to do so. I remember promoting TeleRead to radical environmentalists in California. I talked about how e-books could save trees and help the environment. These radical environmentalists retorted that E-books were just another form of computers making people more materialistic and encouraging corporate greed. Besides that, the radical environmentalists argued that books should be made out of recycled garbage. At the same time I have heard market fundamentalists argue that TeleRead is simply an expansion of the federal government.
These extreme groups, whether of the left or of the right, are in their own universe of reality. No matter what the benefits of electronic books, extremists groups will never concede the value of electronic books. Since the extremest groups are not interested in the TeleRead concept, TeleRead should not work at trying to draw them in.
Lesson Four: The only way for electronic books and TeleRead to succeed is for inexpensive, powerful tablets and laptops to be available and popularly used. Twenty years ago when I first became a futurist I promoted the concept of distance education, and I was laughed at. Many people argued to me that individuals would never sit in front of a computer and take a class from some school thousands of miles away. Today millions of people all across the globe communicate all day over the world through the Internet.
We are seeing an explosion of courses being made available all over the Internet through existing educational institutions. The Highway of the Internet was needed for people to start taking the concept of distance education, distance health-care, and distance legal services seriously. We must encourage distribution of tablets and laptops. In the same way that Apple computers donated computers to grade schools before educational software was readily available; We need to encourage computer companies to donate laptops to grade schools, high schools, and colleges. Anyone who has seen how young people cannot go anywhere without their cell phones could easily see how e-books could be just as portable and popular.
Lesson Five: While many older people will find e-books beneficial, it will be the younger generation that will truly bond with electronic books. An example of this was with word processors. Even though word processors were clearly superior to typewriters, many people who had grown up with typewriters simply could never switch to word processors. That is perfectly okay. However, we at TeleRead or any other futuristic organization must recognize that a voluntary evolutionary approach is how we can convince people that our new paradigms will work. If we at TeleRead, or any other futuristic organization, take a radical coercive method we will fail to convince people of our new paradigm, and for that matter we should fail for trying this arrogant and nondemocratic approach.
Lesson Six: The last thing that we can learn from Cyberbooks is that we need to win our war with a Trojan Horse. In the novel Cyberbooks we have a happier ending than The Man in The White Suit. After Carl Lewis is defeated, it is suggested to him that Lewis promote his electronic book as a toy rather than the substitute for a book. The novel finishes 50 years in the future and electronic books have completely replaced printed books. Carl Lewis marries the woman he loves and dies a billionaire.
TeleRead is not about making money for its supporters, but perhaps the lessons from Cyberbooks can help us succeed in our own way.