The paperless alternatives

Even in its simplest form electronic publishing can be a cheap and easy way of adding value to a book, says Chris Pamplin. Chris Pamplin is the editor of the UK Register of Expert Witnesses.

It is easy to see why so many publishing houses favour moving into electronic publishing. It is all about image. Take a book, throw a basic level of IT knowledge at it, and readers think they are dealing with a progressive publishing house with a great product at the leading edge of technology – the "if it is on CD-ROM then it must be good" syndrome.

But before moving into electronic publishing would-be publishers should think carefully about what form the product is going to take and how it is going to be distributed. These considerations apply whether converting an established paper-based publication, such as The White Book, or launching a completely new product.

There are two general approaches to electronic book publishing:

reproduce the book format on-screen, including page layout and numbering, and add a search facility – basically little more than electronic paper; or

analyse the product, extract the essence and create a data-based software product – something much more useful and exciting.

Creating an electronic paper version of a book makes good business sense because it can be cheap and easy. The main expense of producing a conventional printed book is the typesetting and printing costs, which account for the bulk of the cover price.

But it is simple and relatively cheap to export an electronically typeset document to an appropriate software package for publication as an electronic book. The only other costs are preparation time, the floppy disk or CD-ROM duplication and the packaging.

With further development an electronic book can become quite useful. For example, regulations can be "hot-keyed" so that when users click on them the relevant piece of legislation is displayed. The publisher could do the same for landmark cases, addresses, telephone numbers and so on. However, these facilities all add to production costs.

Without this sort of development, however, an electronic book can be less useful than the original, printed version. It is certainly less convenient, requiring a fast, highly specified computer to run the CD at a usable speed.

The alternative to electronic publishing involves breaking away from the book metaphor altogether and designing products that provide flexible access to the publication's information. This works particularly well with data-based publications, such as directories listing legal practices.

But this information-centred approach requires considerable time and money. If, for example, the book has been established for some time and data is not stored in modern databases, costs could include having to re-enter all data into a specially commissioned database.

But the benefits for users can be enormous, including fast searching, minimal duplication of information and multiple user access at any networked computer.

The phenomenal growth of the Internet has provided a third way of publishing information – the World Wide Web. The web is a collection of information "pages" interconnected by "hypertext links", which are simply references from one page to another. Anyone browsing the web can follow their own path through the information.

Lodging pages on the web is relatively cheap and easy. The web's strength lies in the ease and speed with which information can be updated and published, as long as you have the expertise to upload new pages.

Rapid advances in site programming and design mean that the best web sites are evolving into interactive, information-centred areas that combine speed and good looks. Some sites are even beginning to allow searches to be performed that generate new pages based on the interests of the browser.

Any computer-based product can be delivered using any of the three most common formats: floppy disks, CD-ROMs and online services. It is image, cost and time that determine which one is chosen.

A publisher with a product that has to be updated daily will opt for the Internet, whereas a directory publisher will have to decide whether the information will fit on to a series of disks or onto a single CD-ROM, and assess the cost of postage and packaging.

The Internet offers an easy and accessible online delivery mechanism, but only if the target market is also online.

It is easy to publish your own material electronically. But to produce a product that will succeed in your target market, you have to spend time designing the publication to exploit its unique features and the electronic medium. Only by doing this will you improve on the paper-based equivalent.