Sunday, December 28, 2008

The E-Book Vindication

The recent front page story in the New York Times confirming that the e-book concept has finally caught on and is surging, has prompted many of my friends, colleagues and readers to e-mail me expressing kudos and congratulations for my so-called perceptive insight, expressed a dozen years ago, that electronic books will one day dominate the publishing world.

Yes, I have been flacking that concept for a little more than half a generation, ever since I re-acquired my entire published library of 30 novels and short stories and digitized them in every known format. In that time, I have been excoriated by my foolhardiness, castigated for daring to predict the ultimate demise of the paper book, and being cast as a pain in the butt by the publishing establishment.

In that time I have watched the body count of like-minded advocates, as they lay strewn along the highway of commerce like insect infested logs. As the numerous essays in my long catalogue of blogs will attest, I have been hammering this drum relentlessly despite the cacophony of naysayers whose vision was inhibited by nostalgia and stubborn resistance to the notion that, in the end, content would trump its delivery system.

What was wanting in this scenario was a more reader comfortable device that would be competitive to the long dominance of the paper book. With the Kindle and the SONY Reader, and more gadget makers joining the fray, the sun has at last risen on the concept and it will remain in the sky forever.

Some publishers still cling to the notion that sales of e-books are still a fraction of total book volume and continue to resist the conversion to digital, which brings to mind the image of the fiddling Emperor Nero ignoring the destruction of Rome. They are, as they say, dead men walking.

As a long time lover of the paper book and a practitioner in the supply of fictional content, I had little doubt that the swift emergence of digital technology would, one day, supplant the paper book. In fact, I used to predict that by the middle of the 21st Century the paper book would be a relic, a collectible antique, as dead as the record and tape industries.

I am now revising my estimate by twenty five years. At its present speed of acceptance, I predict that the paper book’s demise will be at the tipping point by 2025. With other book lovers, I will mourn its passing in advance. Being right has its satisfactions. It has its downside as well. Yes, I will miss the tactical feel of the paper book and its unique effluvia of ink and cellulose. I will miss the views of my old friends who will no longer be stacked like retired soldiers on my bookshelves, which even now groan with the weight of years of collecting.

The ramifications of this revolution will be profound in many ways. The impact on brick and mortar stores will follow the well-trodden path of retailers in the Tower Records mode. The visual displays of book covers in these stores will be sorely missed, as will the joys of browsing the stacks and sampling at leisure the content of the displayed books.

Although the digital devices like the Kindle cleverly offer sample chapters before making a purchase and are an excellent form of browsing, they come up short against the physical act of browsing allowed by the bookstores. Nevertheless, this form of browsing electronically will prevail. While the initial investment of upwards of three hundred dollars to buy these devices seems pricey, the cost of the content is lower by more than half and on the Kindle, never exceeds ten dollars and, for classics, much less.

Major publishers will seriously have to revise their business plans and pricing. While they will garner extraordinary savings by severely reducing warehousing and productions costs, they will encounter marketing obstacles because of the severe reduction of newspaper space and the proliferation of the Internet and television channels. This means that there will be no giant all encompassing conduit for advertising their wares. This will not be merely an obstacle in the book business but a severe rethinking for all products seeking to attract ears and eyeballs.

On the other hand, there are many who believe that the marketing of books among battalions of readers is far more dependent on word of mouth than on advertising and publicity. They may be right. While there is no scientific measuring stick to prove the point, I am inclined to believe that there is a mysterious content recommending virus that passes from inspired reader to inspired reader that may be the reason some books get read more than others.

Publishers generally will, if they choose to stay in the business, become primarily the gateway to content and will have to concentrate on developing more innovative ways to market their wares through digital channels if they want to stay financially viable.

The entire system of textbooks will be totally revised to accommodate the electronic publishing revolution. The day of the backpack will disappear. Libraries, too, will revise their programs in ways that will result in a radical change of services. The breathtaking plan of Google to digitize every book ever published is certainly a broad clue to the future that is fast engulfing us. But while these changes are obvious, the rules of unintended consequences will kick in and further embellish the profound changes in store for us.

Indeed, even I have discovered an unintended consequence in the use of these devices. I have, for example, bought and read more books since acquiring the devices than I have ever read before. They seem easier to read and faster, but this could be my imagination.

From the point of view of economics, a dedicated reader like myself who can purchase as much as 50 books a year, both fiction and non-fiction, the cost of the device becomes a minor expense and the convenience and immediacy of the purchase cannot be matched. Indeed, the Kindle download takes less than ten seconds for most books, there is no hassle or lines at the cash register and one does not have to use a connection to a computer to search the Kindle store. The SONY reader still requires a computer connection to its store to make a selection, although a new model has been promised that will eliminate that inconvenience. Also, the SONY is not yet connected to the Apple platform, but I assume that, too, will one day be corrected. The exclusivity of these devices will change as well as more and more competitors join the fray.

Futurists will, of course, have additional ideas on how digitization will affect the publishing business, but these few prognostications are pretty obvious and absorbing its meaning will be the challenge of every one involved in the business evolution of publishing. Pervading these predictions is the prevailing opinion and hard research that young people are reading less and less, and this will have grave implications for the future of content, however it is delivered.

Despite the surveys, I do not share the gloom and doom that predicts the further diminishment of the reading public, especially among the young, who have sold their souls to computer games and the visual arts.

I have great faith in the ultimate future of literature and the value and importance of storytelling and acquiring knowledge through the artful use of words, now migrating from paper to electronic screens. So far, I have not seen a replacement for the human imagination, the so-called theater of the mind, which embellishes and enriches the word and spins its yarns in ways that cannot be replicated by any man-made visual contrivance.


Drew Goodman said...

While I agree with you that the day of the ebook has come, I am not yet ready to throw the paper and ink book at the roadside of technology. I think that now, and for years to come, the ebook, as its acceptance continues to grow, will enhance the paper and ink format. Many of us who embrace technological advances of digital platforms still enjoy having a physical book to hold, browse and read. While not every book purchased as an ebook will have an equivalent number of physical books sold, they still hold a significant place in society. Why?

First, not everyone can afford an ebook reader. Until costs are brought to a level that afford a majority of readers the ability to purchase one, they will not become the dominant format. Yes, the cost of an ebook is lower than that of a physical book, but how long will Amazon be able to maintain those prices- as they are selling those books below their own costs in order to convert Kindle followers. This means that authors and publishers are going to need to accept a sea change in the way the business works and the way that they are remunerated.

Also, how many times have you loaned an ebook to a friend to read? With DRM, that is impossible to do. The sharing of books (among friends or from libraries) has actually helped the book business. Word of mouth from those who have borrowed books helps to drive actual sales. Unless there is a way to share ebooks, sales for any one author may become more difficult, as word of mouth campaigns have in many instances been more effective in book sales than publishers marketing campaigns.

While ebooks will continue to grow in popularity, and the physical book will sees bumps in the road that slow its forward progress, I wouldn't write paper and ink books off just yet, or in 15 years or in 50.

Besides, as history has taught us, something else always comes along to subvert and replace the newest technology. Where has the LP record gone? To the cassette tape and then to the CD. Where has the CD gone? To the Digital Music Player (ipod, mp3 player, etc.). What will replace these? Who knows, but something will. And the same will happen to the ebook and the ebook reader. And, just like replacing my VHS movie collection with DVD's, I will have to buy the newest technology to read my ebooks. But, with my paper and ink books, there is no new technology to invest in every few years (the Kindle will be upgraded, or fail, or just plain wear out). My physical books will need no upgrade to be read, to be enjoyed, to be held. I can read them without a battery.

I'm not denying the day of the ebook has come, I just think that your pronouncement of the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated.

Warren Adler said...

I thought your response was an excellent rebuttal. Remember the history of the automobile. At first it was very pricey. People were ridiculed. Get a horse, some cried. When is the last time you saw a horse and buggy on a highway. Hence my prediction.

Katherine said...

As Drew points out with his example of how currently one cannot lend an ebook, every time a new technology becomes popular, we lose as much as we gain. With the advent of CDs, we lost album art (by and large). With both CDs and the widespread acceptance of MP3s, we lost audio quality. The digital medium improved some aspects of the audio, such as getting rid of fuzz and pops, but introduced other ones, like clipping. The same will be true of ebooks. People have already started to point out what we're about to lose, even as they promote what we're starting to gain.

For texts and other reference works, I'm completely sold on ebooks. I still remember that part of our readying-for-school ritual in late August was buying new bags, because by the end of the previous school year our old bags would be ruined by the weight of the books that had been stuffed in them.

For fiction, I'm not completely sold yet. I want cover art. I want book design. I don't want to have to worry about the batteries running down when I'm stuck on the streetcar in a traffic jam. I don't want to panic every time I drop the reader the way I already drop my internet tablet and my cell phone (and I will drop it, many times, probably on the stone flooring I have in my office). I also worry about what will happen to books where the author has used the book format to enhance the storytelling -- from Tristram Shandy to Generation X to Griffin & Sabine, there have been a lot of books written to be published as books.

Finally, what about books which are not text-heavy, often large-format, and require colour to be effective? A lot of popular books fit into this category: in the room I'm writing this in, I can see graphic novels, coffee-table books and knitting pattern collections that would require something a lot bigger than a Kindle or Sony Reader to be usable.

Ebooks are suitable for books that suit the ebook format. Ebooks are not suitable for all books. This doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Kim Smith said...

As a new ebook author, I just wanted to pop in and say thank you for your support of the digital media. Now that I am in the midst of the ebook world, I can say there is a definite division between the ones who are open to new technology and those who are not. I hope as readers evolve and grow, this division will close and some day ebooks will be as popular as print versions. They already are priced very competitively.

Kim Smith said...

lol ps...about readers- that is ELECTRONIC DEVICES that will evolve and grow, not PEOPLE!

~Red Tin Heart~ said...

Wishing you a very happy New Year. I hope we never lose printed books or newspapers.
xoxo Nita

dianejwright said...

True. True. Back in the day, Americans guffawed at "those nutty Japanese kids" whose thumbs were flying across their phones' keypads as they texted a storm. Last year, Los Angeles passed a law against texting while driving because the practice had become so prevalent (and dangerous, apparently). Time marches on and habits do change.

I've decided to offer my novel exclusively as a download. I keep the profits of my work and my readers are happy. They take my book on the train, into dull meetings, and to bed and no one is the wiser. People are reading again! Hurrah!

Anonymous said...

I am a newly published author and I am now adding ebooks to my website. They can be read freely and commented upon.

I would rather hold my dream in my hand; it is colorful and screams out loud of the hard work, thought,and creativity that takes discipline and months to achieve.

On the other hand ebooks are short and too easy to write. Call me old fashion but I am more fulfilled when my work ethic kicks in and I write into the wee hours caught up in the gift that that has been bestowed upon me.