Part of the problem I have with the argument over ebooks vs. print is the absolutism that runs through it. You get more reasoned, even-handed arguments over abortion and gun control.
One of the reasons I distrust pretty much every prediction about the future of publishing is that ebooks gained their traction during a really bad recession. As a result, everyone seems to assume either the growth in ebooks will continue on a steady slope, or it’s just a fad. Here’s a fact no one seems to consider: Every technology that experiences sudden explosive growth plateaus and settles into more realistic growth rates. Go all the way back to the telegraph, which no longer even exists. The telegraph as we know it was invented in the 1830’s, with Morse building the first viable system in the US shortly thereafter. By the Civil War, a mere twenty-five years later, you could dot and dash a message to even the most remote parts of the US and Canada and even England. The railroads, the telephone, automobiles, the computer, television, cable, cell phones, and the Internet all experienced this growth.
Furthermore, every media format with the exception of print has gone through the same thing. So why not print?
Movies required first a projector, then a television, and now a computer file. Without some powered means of illumination and movement, you don’t get a movie. Same with recorded music. Start with hand-cranked wax cylinders, move to wax disks, the glass 78 rpm record, the vinyl LP and its 45 single companion, cassettes, CD’s, and now MP3’s and the like. Whether it’s a handcrank or your smart phone’s battery, music is dependent on a power source.
Books are not. Which, if you’ve read this space for a while, is not a deterrent to ebooks, but it should temper the idea that no one will buy printed books in the future. Not only do I not have to plug in a printed book, but the book will remain on my shelf until I remove it, unchanged from the day I brought it home.
So, what do I think books will look like in the future?
- The biggest advantage to ebooks is that you can read them on your smartphone. He who goes the app-based route will win that race vs. device driven formats. Sorry, Apple, but I want to read the new Micheal Connelly whenever, wherever.
- What’s killed self-publishing up until the Age of Kindle and iPad has been a piss-poor print-on-demand model. Trade paperbacks, which are the best print format for on-demand printing, cost too much and Ingram, which owns the biggest POD printer, Lightning Source, may be guilty of anti-trust measures. Indies tend to depend on Baker & Taylor and independent book distributors. Ingram, the 800-pound gorilla in book distribution, doesn’t play nice with others. Then there’s iUniverse, which makes more money off authors than off readers. Their books are overpriced compared to the average traditional press’s books. Never mind PublishAmerica and Authorhouse, which refuse to admit they’re printers, not publishers. (Sorry, but publishers pay the author and do not charge for editing. No exceptions. Ever. Ever. Ever.)
- That said, I do not believe the only place you will be able to buy books in the future will be Walmart and Kroger. I believe you will buy most of your bestsellers and celebrity “books” there. Who will sell the most books? The independents, believe it or not. The Espresso machine that does on-site print on demand will become a must-have for those selling print books. Authors will not want to pin themselves to a single brick-and-mortar location, which will spell doom for the chains, already in trouble. Indies, on the other hand, will do what they do best: specialize. You will see science fiction bookstores and mystery bookstores and even shops specializing in paranoid wingnut politcal screeds. (Those will not get a dime of my money, but knock yourselves out. Glenn Beck needs that gold scheme money. Keith Olbermann just needs attention.)
- The indies that will survive or thrive will have an ebook component to their business. How?
- The epublisher will rise. Right now, it’s good to self-publish electronically. Done right – good editing, good covers, good promotion – which is now easier than ever, one can make some good money self-publishing. But as this model grows further, it will be a return to the bad old days of POD self-publishing, wherein there’s a lot of garbage out there. An epublisher will be able to cut deals with indie stores, Amazon, and so on. Print authors will be able to offer electronic editions of their print books. More importantly, books will still need to be edited, formatted, given cover art, and so on. New authors generally suck at this. Plus, a writer will need to have someone who can help them stand out above the crowd.
- Established authors will become their own publishers. The smart established author will go it alone once they’ve built their brand, hiring their own editor, artist, and publicist and leveraging their existing relationships with bookstores. If you can offer a print version by emailing your book to Partners in Crime in New York or any other indie you may know, the Big Six become sort of extraneous.
- Will it be a brave new world? Sure. It may even become what the 1990’s were to computer nerds. (Hey, that gave me a decent day job career.) But getting there will be ugly. It’s like everything else. We are between booms in this country and in most of the world. Does anyone deny that, right now, it’s pretty ugly? That applies to everything.
- James Bond will return.