Friday, June 25, 2010

Introducing the Totebag for eBooks

As we hurtle towards a future where books come on Kindles and iPads and Nooks, we tend to overlook the loss of many products and services attached to the print book ecosystem. Tens of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on books will suffer tragic dislocations in their lives. While many bemoan the plight of bookstore workers, librarians, editors, and authors, there are other small industry segments no one ever thinks of.

Totebag manufacturing is just one of these overlooked industries. Half of the world's  novelty totebags for books are manufactured in a single town in China called Shu Bao (δΉ¦εŒ…). Shu Bao is located in an inland area of China that has concentrated on book related products; neighboring towns specialize in bookmarks, dust covers and those little alphabet labels used in dictionary manufacture. At this weekend's American Library Association (ALA) meeting in Washington DC, I had a chance to speak with Shu Bau's mayor, Yi Rui-Da, who doubles as a sort of totebag ambassador and salesman to the world. Yi was in town to start getting the word out about digital book totebags.

Yi told me that the central committee of his town has been closely watching the shift to eReading for at least 10 years. They've seen one of the neighboring towns become quite wealthy by shifting their manufacturing to iPad covers, and hope to make a similar transition themselves. The lesson of what happened to buggy-whip manufacturers after the introduction of the Model T is known to the committee. Some committee members thought the town was in the luggage business, and preferred to stay in the luggage business. Other committee members, aware of the specialized fibers that must be added to their totebag fabrics, argued that the town was really in the information portability business; these voices prevailed.

To make the transition to transporting eBooks, the town had to nurture its programming talent, of which it has an abundance. Totebags are made in factories that employ hundreds of teenage girls. But it's not like the old days, when the girl were virtual slaves, sewing everything by hand. In a modern totebag factory, the girls program automated sewing robots using specialized smartphone apps. Over the past 5 years, the top sewing machine programmers have gone on to advanced operating system hacking; before, they would get bored with programming and get married.

The culmination of this program of training and development is the digital book totebag. I got a demo of this widget in a private suite at one of the conference hotels, but was not permitted to photograph it. The prototype looks nothing like a canvas totebag of course- it's more a mess of wires and connectors. The functionality is quite impressive, however. I was easily able to download an eBook from a Kindle to the "totebag" using a red suction-cup connector that came with some sort of special grease. I then attached an iPad using a USB connector and viewed the book in iBooks. I was also able to connect the totebag to my Google Books account and use the Kindle book there. Yi had a number of other devices to try; each of them had its own quirks, but more or less worked.

I asked Yi how this seeming magic had been accomplished; the most I could get out of him was that any book is "just another sewing pattern". I also asked him if standards for content and DRM would make ebooks portability possible without his digital totebag widget. We had a good long laugh at that one.
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  1. Dude. It is nowhere near April first. :-)

  2. I was shocked by how long you had me. Guess it goes to show just how gullible I am!

  3. April first is in fact the target date for the digital book totebag product launch; the month of April was deemed most auspicious because the characters meaning April, ε››ζœˆ,look like a woman dumping a totebag.