In the 1970’s, when recordable cassettes came out, many in the music industry – never the brightest bulbs in the big media bunch – worried that albums were dead because everyone would simply tape their friends’ albums. That didn’t happen, even when CD’s emerged, allowing you to make commercial-quality mix tapes.
The VTR’s of old, which were luxury devices at best, gave way in 1979 to the Betamax, then VHS, and the television networks worried it would be the end of television, since no one would pay for it. But television is now on Hulu and Netflix and iTunes and lasted long enough for us to figure out TiVo. Television is now written around TiVo. Do you think Lost or Battlestar Galactica would have lasted more than half a season in the pre-TiVo world?
Then came Napster, which was going to destroy the recording industry, allowing Sony to perform criminal hacking of your hard drive. (Incidentally, that makes Sony execs slightly lower than BP executives on the evolutionary ladder. Maybe someday, they will surpass genital wart or toenail fungus, but I’m not holding my breath.) Never mind that cheap commercial broadband and the CD burner had been around in viable form since 1994.
And yet iTunes and Amazon and Rhapsody continue to grow.
So now some are worried that ebooks mean authors will no longer make money because the Kindle and the iPad will magically make content free.
For starters, the Kindle and the iPad are merely pad computers. They’ve been around for a decade or so, but Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony found a dedicated use for them and made them something Microsoft could never quite get them to be: useful. Apple, in turn, saw that the time had come for a genuine pad computer, for which we now know the iPhone was merely a tiny prototype. If anything, Apple is exploiting the iPad to make it easier to charge for content. Why?
People will pay for content if you don’t make them jump through twenty hoops to get at it. This is why virtually all DRM schemes not based in the cloud are doomed to failure. Apple’s original solution was to make stripping the DRM labor-intensive. Think I’m going to share my backups of all my Tom Waits albums with you? Get your own, cheapskate!
So how’s this apply to ebooks? Simple. Google is building a bookstore. Apple has a bookstore. We already know about Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble. And print is not dead, merely in flux.
But, of course, there is no shortage of luddites with every tech revolution, crying that the sky is falling. Usually, it’s someone frustrated that they already weren’t earning what they wanted from publishing (not the hardest thing to do when gauging buyers’ tastes is little more than a crap shoot anyway) or doesn’t quite understand the technology very well. (Hey, I like books, too! No battery life issues, loss of content, etc.) But the fact is no one wants to watch lousy television. (For our purposes, lousy is a purely subjective term. Reality television is all lousy, but I still watch for the quality train wrecks it provides.) No one wants to hear bad music, at least in the long run. (Why The Beatles and the Stones endure, but nowhere near as many remember Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.) Make good content easy to pay for, and people will pay for it.
It all comes down to writing a good book. The ones that grab more people will sell more copies.
And let’s be honest here. Writing careers are purely luck. You can have all kinds of luck early on, then crash and burn, or spend twenty years becoming an overnight success. I’ve seen both.