This is not exactly news, but the speed and ease of replicating information has given it a fresh urgency. The problem for those of us who live by selling information is that although we retain what we give away, it's not worth as much as it was before. And one of the ironies of the transition to an "information economy" is that a major element of this economy's infrastructure, the Internet, is in fact the most marvellous system humankind has yet devised for giving things away.
This has led Netizens to be extraordinarily generous, but also to expect to get nearly everything for nothing. A book publisher's site with only token sample texts may look like short change to readers who know they can download entire books elsewhere. Publisher John Hatt, who pioneered the reissuing of old travel books under the Eland imprint (www.travelbooks.co.uk), claims to be "probably the first publisher to offer an extract of any title that we publish". But he can be confident that the people who might buy his books are lovers of books themselves, rather than of loose chains of digitised information shuttling around the Net. He is also likely to be spared the attentions of steel-toothed agents, keen to resolve the complex problems of copyright in electronic media.
Eland is fortunately placed to take advantage of the Web, since its market is bookish and its theme of travel appears to be a hot button on the Net. It works for the Rough Guides, too. In the bookshops, their excellent Rough Guide to the Internet - a rare, if not unique, instance of a Net guide I can recommend without embarrassment to the unwired - has just entered its second edition after becoming the best selling of all Rough Guide titles. Meanwhile, in collaboration with the electronic magazine HotWired, the company is placing the texts of its terrestrially-orientated books on the Web (www.hotwired.com/rough).
This is an instance of virtuous donation, where a publisher can give away the stuff of its revenue without running any serious risk of losing sales. In theory, travellers could download the texts, print them out, staple them together and put them in their backpacks. But the results would fall apart before they reached the bus station, and in any case wouldn't include the maps. Nor is there much prospect of rough travellers roaming the world with pounds 1,000 laptops, looking for power sockets for their battery chargers.
According to Mark Ellingham, the Guides' publisher, electronic publication is an end in itself. When his company thinks of the Net, he claims, "we give not a second thought to selling books". The reason becomes clear from a still more remarkable boast: "I would imagine we're the only general UK publisher currently making money from the Net."
The source of the revenue is the advertising - airlines, car hire, software - that accompanies the texts. According to Ellingham, the income from these will make the online Rough Guide to the USA almost as profitable this year as the printed version. A proportion of the money is put into a pool, which is then divided among the authors. This seems an admirable and straightforward scheme, but then Rough Guide authors are not the sort to have carnivorous agents.