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.