For the past eight years, I have been blindly optimistic about the future of e-books. I have made countless speeches, attended numerous meetings flacking the concept as the wave of the future. Mostly, what I encountered was skepticism, sometimes disbelief, and at times downright hostility. Indeed, the prevailing opinion was that the e-book would never be a credible challenge to the paper book industry. My optimism is, at long last, on the verge of vindication.
My cheerleading was prompted by a very personal agenda, rescuing my books and name from the authorial wrecking ball of time, fading memory, physical disintegration, obscurity and indifference. By re-acquiring the publishing rights to my many novels and short story collections and digitalizing them, I was assuring that they would remain in print and saleable beyond the foreseeable future and be available both as a family legacy and the optimistic and immodest possibility that one day my backlist would have a resurrection and be rediscovered and popularized by future readers. It was strictly an author’s long shot bet.
To pursue such a fantasy required a belief in the victorious triumph of the e-book and its promise of durability and commonplace accessibility. That element of vindication is about to arrive. As for the long shot of my motivation, a resurrection of future interest in my work, I can only cite the famous lines of the immortal Bard in Macbeth: If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me.
From the get go I knew that the e-book concept would not take off until some large enterprising company would come up with a device that would provide ease of operation, clear type transference, portability, and wide availability of content. I was well aware that there was a hard core of readers to whom the paper book was a sacred and much loved object and would be the final holdouts to “reading on screens.”
It must be said at this juncture that the paper book, especially when wrapped in glorious leather bindings, is my special passion, and I have spent years filling my shelves with sets by authors who have given my life heft, meaning, and delight. As antiques, the value of these books will undoubtedly soar in the future and one day pay my heirs for the profligacy of my early e-book forays.
While I’m not ready to say a final bye bye to the modern paper book in all its guises, I am going to enjoy watching the publishing fallout from the early failure to recognize the e-book surge and observe the wrenching displacement about to be caused in the industry by a horse and buggy mentality that will be both costly and emotionally and financially draining.
Two companies, SONY and Amazon, have entered the fray coming up with devices in which readability is no longer an issue and ease of operation is assured for anyone who has the skill to operate an old fashioned land line phone. Both have solved the basic issue of readability. Each offers clear content transference, ease of turning pages, and a wide variety of content choices, from thrillers, to academic journals, to newspapers and magazines.
The reading part is perfect and in every respect as good or better than a printed paper book. In fact, both devices can offer books that can overcome obstacles of weight and maneuverability. The reading screens are clear, fonts can be upsized to fit one’s optical capability, and there is no loss in the ability to “trance out” in complete concentration. I have read scores of books on both devices and, while I am a partisan to the concept, I am now convinced that the e-book revolution is on the verge of a giant breakout.
In my opinion the descent of printed books will begin to accelerate as each step in the further development of these devices takes place. And they will. The speed of acceptance, I believe, will be astonishing. While the numbers are still far from reaching the tipping point, the acceleration points to a coming avalanche of success.
Note that I am not citing the obvious, the ever shortening age for a computer which now starts at the very moment a tiny tot can maneuver his muscle coordination. It is, indeed, a cradle to the grave phenomena. Reading on screens for most people under the age of forty is a way of life, and the BlackBerry addiction is beginning to soar in senior ranks. It won’t take a giant step to get people of all ages to accept the screen as the ultimate reading platform. There are those that are reading long form text on cell phones, including BlackBerrys, but I have not tried them and therefore will leave that evaluation as a reading device to another day.
While the SONY Reader is certainly a worthy and reader friendly device, it is still tethered to the computer companion for selection and purchase and its proprietary software could eventually be a hindrance. The Kindle on the other hand is stand-alone, computer companion free and wireless and, in my opinion, will point the way for others to jump into the e-book fray. I can’t imagine that SONY is not revving up their development to compete head to head with the Kindle.
According to the Jeff Bezos’s letter to his stockholders, the Kindle sold out in five and a half hours and is now awaiting increased production to meet the demand.
The ultimate objective for SONY will be three fold, to increase reading selections, decrease the price point, and eliminate proprietary content software and make its device also compatible with Apple. Kindle, too, will have to move to reduce its price and tweak its accidental page turning design.
The icing on the cake will come when the devices will solve the power riddle and make the devices backlit for the reading-in-bed set. But then the paper book has not managed to solve that problem nor will it ever.
My own experience with these devices is absolutely, hands down, ecstatic. The thing that worried me the most was that the mechanics of the device would interfere with the absorption of the content. I feared distraction by the technology. I felt the same about the creative aspect when I switched from my electric typewriter to the computer using the old Wordstar program nearly thirty years ago. Actually the computer has greatly enhanced my output and continues to do so.
While you might think my conclusion is self-serving hype, I say with one hand on the figurative bible that the reading experience is better than the paper book. It is, at least to me, easier on the eyes and less burdensome than the paper book in ways still too mysterious to contemplate. Now that I have read scores of books on both devices, I don’t make that statement lightly. Indeed, it has confirmed what I knew all along in my gut. It’s the content, dummy. It’s all about content. For some uncanny reason the journey of content to the brain seems to make a more seamless trip using this new technology.
Be aware, I am discussing reading, only reading, that one-on-one communication system, mind to mind, using the word symbol to convey knowledge and insight through instruction and stories. I am not referring to music or audible conveyance, which ply their own profitable paths through the technological world. Companies already stuff these add-ons into these e-book devices and they certainly will have their allure. Reading, however, is my only game in this discussion.
To be sure, improvements will undoubtedly be made along the lines suggested, but the implications for change go deeper than one can imagine. As the paper text book industry slowly tanks, the backpack manufacturers will decline along with ancillary school supplies. Libraries will shift their focus as places of community assembly encouraging and celebrating literary and instructional content and become a free marketplace for study and ideas. Publishers will continue to be the gateway for content providers, eliminating warehousing and the traditional production chain. Large bookstores could become vast restaurant reading rooms, film and music previewing “theaters,” venues for electronic teaching seminars, and supermarkets for the sales of electronic portable devices.
Now that Amazon has pointed the way, Barnes & Noble and other surviving chains will rush back into the e-book business with a vengeance. Expect them to increase their own content publishing arms as the traditional publishing consignment business goes south and they staff up to compete directly with their traditional paper book suppliers.
Newstands will decline as newspaper and magazines dwindle and impact negatively on candy sales. Lottery ticket sales will go almost exclusively on-line. Greens will, at first, welcome the tree saving impact on newsprint and other forms of paper manufacture, although the looming population explosion and technological breakthroughs will find ever new ways to use wood products for energy and other uses, yet to be discovered.
One might concoct a scenario where language itself will be transformed so that adaptations to all languages will take place electronically in the blink of an eye and books will be instantly translated and words morph into one universal language for all. Indeed, there is no stopping the human imagination when it gets revved up. Futurists are already rocketing into the sublime.
In my scenario these ideas will seem like flights of fancy to the unbelievers. But I am now convinced that the impact of e-books will be revolutionary and create cataclysmic results to the industry as we know it. Of course, it will happen incrementally and the full effect might not be felt for a few years. Old ways go down hard, but when they do go down, and they are, gravity accelerates the destruction.
The law of unintended consequences will surely kick in prompting changes that will boggle the mind as more and more authors, meaning creators of content, an appellation I despise, will surely latch on to the e-book premise I have outlined, crowding the already cluttered information pipeline. But then, everything has a downside. Sorting through the rubbish heap of electronic chatter will create new challenges and ever more clever software filters.
Nevertheless human nature is unchangeable, the thirst for stories and knowledge is never ending and, whatever the doomsayers might attest, reading words created by imaginative and searching minds will never ever go out of style. The delivery of this brain nourishment and entertainment reading material will, in my opinion, accelerate with delivery by electronic means.
Undoubtedly this rosy prognostication will be dismissed by the present number crunchers in the publishing business. Those publishers who can read the signals of the coming storm moving in their direction will find creative ways to survive. But the sucking sound soon to be heard by the conglomerates who will bail when they see their numbers flatten will be a harsh reminder of those who poo pooed the revolution in the music business and stood pat while their world collapsed around them.
In the end, the cliché about building a better mousetrap is an eternal verity. The e-book is, without a doubt, the better mousetrap and is coming on fast. Buckle up your seat belts.