Thursday, August 6, 2009

The E-Book Is Winning

The e-book is winning. Its ultimate victory was never in doubt.

This does not mean that the printed book will disappear. It will fade out slowly as a viable mass economic enterprise as this new reading technology takes hold. The basic issues were, and still are, about marketing and its twin sister packaging. The product has always been the same, content delivered by words, sometimes embellished by speech and illustrations.

Trade book publishers, using the familiar technology of print on paper and packaging their product for shelving, utilized every practical inducement device to make their product attractive to the potential consumer. They came up with eye-appealing colorful cover art to make their product stand out in stores, created advertising and publicity campaigns, best seller lists, advanced review copies, and endorsements from prominent authors to hawk their product. It worked for years. It still works, but it is morphing into other forms, some yet to be invented.

The education book market with its vast captured audience used other marketing techniques to get their product before students, utilizing the usual ploys of influence, lobbying and marketing, and following traditional methods to keep their product up to date and viable, using different, but effective marketing techniques. That too, worked for decades and that too, is subject to intense innovation as the new technology catches on.

Public libraries will continue to be impacted with the methods of book lending and the use of their facilities as gathering places for the literate and informed. They will live on, but in ways that will evolve their mission to continue their invaluable service.

But what these books contain within their printed covers, the content, will survive forever. Content is king, no matter how it is delivered. It is the economics of the delivery that is the main issue currently in play.

If you can dispense with expensive and complicated distribution expenses and deliver your product at a fraction of the cost of print publishing and without in any way denigrating your product, then the rules of profit and loss apply. Without costly production costs based on older technologies, pared down distribution systems, and no need for warehousing, the result is obvious. You don’t need an advanced degree in economics to see where the publishing industry is headed.

Because the commercial emergence of so-called “electronic paper” and the devices to support its use are accelerating exponentially, the technology will become more and more user friendly. Kindle and SONY Reader, the pioneers of this new marketing miracle will soon have more and more competition from many sources. Devices will be re-engineered and improved. Prices for these devices will be lowered and in the not too distant future electronic publishing will be the norm, the standard for the delivery of content.

This rather dry and self-apparent explanation seems to dismiss the fact that books are not only content deliverers, they are also sources of inspiration, insight, entertainment, and knowledge, and objects of esthetic devotion. They have been our beloved friends for centuries. The large collection of books in my library are like family and the electronic book poses a soul wrenching challenge, not only to the publishing business as it now exists, but to the psyche of all those who cherish books. Those that come after us will barely notice, if at all, the revolutionary character of the changeover of content distribution.

One cannot argue with reality. In my lifetime I have seen an endless line of products disappear from stores. Remember the ice box, the silk stocking, the girdle, the corset, the washboard, the mechanical lawn mower, horse drawn transportation, steam locomotives, the manual gearshift, the rotary dial telephone, the black and white movie, and on and on. But why belabor the obvious.

The paper book, bless it, will now go through the grueling process of pre-emption.
The good news is that content will never die. It is the circulatory system of the human intellect, the very heart of the one-on-one system of human communication through words. Innovation will provide another way to dispense content and create profit- making opportunities.

When I digitized all my then published novels more than a dozen years ago, I was defending my authorial name and assuring that my books will never go out of print, every author’s nightmare. There was a brief window of opportunity since publishers, during the early days of my novel writing career, had not yet demanded that their authors give up their e-book rights. That window has closed. Publishers now covet electronic rights and Google is now digitizing all out of print books.

The challenge for publishers and authors now is how to find traction on the infinite highway of limitless content. It will not be easy to separate the author from the pack, although clever innovation might one day find a profitable path. So far this magic bullet is illusive.

Marketing and distribution skills will be revamped to tackle the new reality. Authors and their heirs whose out of print books will be able to see the light of day via the Google operation will at the very least have their books available, although it is unlikely they will see much, if any, income. Even if the books are still under copyright, only the tiniest fraction of authors will ever see a dime. The book listings will be infinite.

We are entering a new world of book publishing through electronic books. At this point in history they are still a small part of the total book publishing economic pie. But the avalanche is coming as more and more books are digitized and more and more devices hit the market. The competitive issue now will be tweaking the devices to make them more efficient and user friendly as well as pricing their content.

Publishers are awakening from a long slumber as they are challenged to meet the electronic onslaught. Some will not go willingly into the fray, just as horse drawn coach manufacturers resisted the automobile. Others will figure out ways to compete and innovate, embellish and monetize their skill as the gatekeepers of content.

One thing is certain. Content will not disappear. In fact, it will multiply as more and more content providers enter the vast cloud of the wired world. The challenge will be how to find the model that will allow the publishing business to continue to be viable in this new environment, and how authors will attract and aggregate their readership and be supported by their art.

It will not be an easy task.


Kim Smith said...

You make me very proud to say I am and E published author. I just wonder why so many of us STILL want to be in print as well as ebook. I would rather think as you do that the era of electronic books is about to hit its stride.

I can only hold fast to the reins and hope the horse I am riding knows the way back to the barn!
Thanks for a great post, Warren.

Suko said...

This is a great post, very thoughtful.

J.T. McDaniel said...

As someone whose books are available in both print and electronic form, I'll admit to liking both but preferring print. Ink on paper, for all its potential faults, does have the advantage of "reading hardware" that hasn't become obsolete in a couple millenia. So far the e-editions have come out in plain text, simple html, the old HiEbook (the best reader form so far, but not a very good display), MS Reader, Mobi, Kindle, and ePub. Every one of these has required at least some reformatting, and some required a lot. I suspect eBooks will ultimately take off only when either one format becomes universally accepted, or all reading devices accept all formats. Until that time you are forced to either release the book in up to a dozen different formats, or accept the limitation that your book will sell on Amazon (or some other specific outlet) but nowhere else.