Futurists love to make predictions about the death of a particular form of media (ie. books will be dead, the short story will be dead, science fiction is dead, etc.) but I’d argue that these portrayals are greatly overexaggerated by attention grabbing headlines of news, and despite these predictions, the medium that best suits the message will remain pertinent through technological upheaval.
As Cory Doctorow tells us in his article: “Reports of blogging’s death have been greatly exaggerated:”
Do a search-and-replace on “blog” and you could rewrite the coverage as evidence of the death of television, novels, short stories, poetry, live theatre, musicals, or any of the hundreds of the other media that went from breathless ascendancy to merely another tile in the mosaic.
Now suppose that books wont phase out all of a sudden and consumers still like consuming the dead-tree version of <insert your favorite author here>. What does this future look like?
Image from flickr user libraryman
You’ve got dedicated ebook readers like the Kindle, Nook, and Sony EBook Reader in contention with multipurpose tools like a number of Apple Products, and smartphones. The economics of these two classes of devices are different; here Charles Stross adroitly explains what’s wrong with ebook readers.
Basically, the cost of ebook readers is prohibitively high to begin with, and you are paying the price of a physical copy for a good that in its digital form, can be copied nearly an infinite number of times for a marginal cost of near zero. The scenario with smartphones only looks slightly better, if only for the fact that you buy the device to: talk, download apps, play games, use GPS, use mobile internet, and oh read novels. Realistically though, the nature of these devices do not lend themselves to concentration for prolonged periods of time on a novel that may be hundreds of pages long.
The other problem, let’s look at it this way: I really like a book, and I want to share it with the rest of my friends. With a physical copy, I lend it to you, you read it, and return it to me when you’re done. I cannot share my Kindle ebook with you, not as long as the all pervasive DRM paranoia imposes artifical scarcity on a good that can be copied at zero cost. I can point you at a well written review of said book, get excerpts of the book through Amazon, maybe even find a copy of the book on Google books, and do pretty much do everything short of give you a copy of the actual book. Will we ever get a scenario where ebooks come without DRM? Well, maybe. I’d guess that for something like that to come about, you would need either: really cheap ebooks, ubiquitious ebook readers, or a form of subscription based content that works well for that medium (like serialized fiction, comics, or short stories).
And you know, I wouldn’t mind seeing more textbooks being published as ebooks, albeit at reasonable prices and without DRM. I would love to have a textbook that was full-text searchable. God knows I could save a whole lot of time that way.
Amazon does one thing really well: it takes away the physical limitation of limited shelf space that limits physical stores and offers an almost infinite selection of various books. The Internet compounds the infinite selection effect by fracturing pop culture into a multitude of smaller sub cultures. (For really good reading on this, check out The Long Tail and Tribes.) In a subculture like science fiction, there are a number of fairly unknown writers who’ve built up a following of hundreds, maybe thousands of true fans. These smaller followings allow them to extract a higher rent per reader with things like crowdfunded novels, limited edition prints of short stories, giving away free fiction to promote their in-print novels, and in some cases self publishing. The old model, where publishers are taking a risk on unpublished authors to publish first time novels wont be the only way of doing business. And I’m not talking about amateurs giving away content for free online, in many cases these are published authors who have built up an audience online and are looking for other ways to engage their audience. Here’s NYT bestselling author Cory Doctorow on how authors can be editors, publishers, booksellers, and distributors in addition to writing on the topic of his DIY publishing experiment: “With A Little Help”:
Chain bookstore shelves are filled mostly with the bestsellers that are likely to sell, so they end up marginalizing the midlist authors, and leaving the unknowns to languish in eventuality with the infamous ‘death spiral of publishing.’
Example: nearly twenty five years ago, Barry Hughart wrote the brilliant book: Bridge of Birds. He wrote two follow ups to the first book, but after that his publisher decided that they couldn’t publish these books anymore because they couldn’t figure out how to market a fantasy novel based on Chinese mythology in a genre dominated by epics based on primarily Celtic mythos. It was only two years ago that Subterreanean Press, a speciality publisher of science fiction brought Hughhart’s books back into publication as an omnibus edition. They sold out their entire run.
I think that going forward we’ll see a lot of cases where authors with smaller followings will increasingly turn to new forms of publishing in addition to plain vanilla book publishing, but traditional authors that turn around millions of copies (I’m looking at you Stephen King, Stieg Larsson, and Danielle Steel) will still be going the old tried and true route of traditional publishing. For an prescient look at what the future of book publishing might look like, listen to this talk by marketing guru Seth Godin.
People who still read a lot of print books, what do you think?