I grew up with three major networks on television and PBS. UHF channels were like cable…that is, until cable came around.
I grew up reading books — I love books! Lately, though, most fiction and non-fiction I’ve purchased has been electronic, read on my iPhone with the Kindle app and Stanza.
Later today, Apple will announce a tablet that many say will revolutionize e-books. I think that’s a bit much (it sounds like it will still be backlit, not electronic ink, which is easier on the eyes while reading), but it’s become clear with the Kindle, the Nook, and Apple’s new device: people are at least willing to consider e-books.
Digital Book World is happening as you read this. (Follow the #dbw hashtag on Twitter for a barrage of updates from the conference.) It’s not a little gathering in Sioux Falls — it’s an impressive gathering in New York City.
Electronic books aren’t just for novels and business books, either. Terry McGraw, of McGraw-Hill let it slip that textbooks will soon be available on iPhones and the Apple tablet.
With all the e-book hype, there are those who aren’t fans.
Many readers still insist that books are the only way to read.
Some publishers and agents wonder, “Where do we fit into all this?”
Many writers wonder that, too.
For decades (and perhaps longer), publishing has been able to get by on, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” While slow, publishing always basked in the time it took to get things on the shelves. A fan of slow things, myself, there are even reasons to like slow in publishing: you rarely see typos in novels.
But even that’s changed. Many publishers sound more like enthusiastic MBAs instead of people who love books. Publishing houses don’t support writers like they once did. Editors frequently change in the middle of the time it takes to get a book on the shelves, leaving the author with somebody not as enthusiastic about their story.
At the 2009 South by Southwest Festival’s “New Think for Old Publishers” panel, publishers out to show they were with the times proved they weren’t, and ended up asking the audience what they should do.
Change can be hard to deal with; fortunately, many publishers are finally adapting.
Realizing that many people who read want e-books, they’re going to where the money is moving. Don’t believe me?
Amazon.com CEO, Jeff Bezos, said that where Amazon offers a physical book and a Kindle version, the Kindle [electronic] version accounts for 48% of sales (December, 2009).
That’s up from 35% in May of 2009.
Granted, you won’t see buildings like this constructed to house e-books, but it’s clear they are finally becoming a viable way to publish.
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I really do love books. One of my favorite things I own is a signed copy of Carl Sandburg’s The Sandburg Range. (I grew up in northern Illinois and went to Carl Sandburg Jr, High…Sandburg was kind of force fed, even if you weren’t a fan. Growing up with my mother reading Rootabaga Stories to me, I was always a fan.)
We are obviously inspired by books. I think a society that builds magnificent buildings to honor books is a society filled with hope. When I look at beautiful libraries, I appreciate them for the craft and hard work that went into writing and publishing every book contained within. I love the architecture. But what I love most is what’s inside the buildings and between the covers: information!
I don’t care how I get information, although I’ll admit that an evening reading physical books in the living room with my wife is one of my favorite things in life.
I’ve found I can still have a small glass of wine or scotch, still have the ambiance of the evening, and still enjoy quiet time reading with my wife even when I’m reading an e-book in the living room. (And I love being able to read with the lights out in bed while my wife falls asleep so she doesn’t have to deal with the light from my bedside lamp.)
When I look at the bookcase in our living room, I see the future of publishing. (And it’s a future where books still exist; it’s a future where books are, perhaps, even more cherished than in recent decades.)
The bookcase in our living room is where we keep the special books: my wife’s Sherlock Holmes books and her Peanuts comic strips reprints. It’s where my two favorite signed books sit: the signed Sandburg Range and The Sport of Falconry. My favorite novel is on that shelf (scroll down if you click the link), and I never grow tired of reading the travel descriptions in The Gentleman’s Companion. There’s also an electric outlet in the built-in shelf. It’s where we charge the iPhones that hold even more books than the shelves. Granted, those books are e-books, but physical or electronic, information is information.
I don’t think books are going anywhere. Publishers like Subterranean Press have been publishing limited edition runs of books people reach deep into their wallets for.
I don’t think anybody is going to pay hundreds for an e-book (and you can’t autograph an e-book), but some publishers are already dealing in collectible books.
I think the future of publishing is a place where hardcore readers will devour content on e-book readers and hardcore fans will still buy special-edition novels and put them on shelves. People will consume digital content, and people will still frequent old bookstores, garage sales, and antique shops, looking for out-of-print books. Authors will be able to keep their out-of-print books in circulation as e-books, and agents and publishers will still serve an important purpose, even though some people will have great success doing it all on their own with independent editors and cover artists.
The future of publishing is going to look different, but I think it will also look very familiar.
Call me an optimist, but sometimes the more that things change, the more they stay the same…
Interesting thoughts and I believe you are correct. Still, I have yet to use a digital device for reading and I wonder how the figures would look if Amazon did their survery in, say, March, well after the holday season. Although I agree digital is “the wave of the future”, I also wonder if those particular figures weren’t a bit skewed with all the seasonal gift-buying.
Nice blog and a great picture!
Mark Felps says
Mary, they’re also skewed by the major price difference between e-books and printed media. In Amazon’s top ten you’ll find five free books, and no books more expensive than $10.00.
Frankly, trusting Bezos’s figures is somewhat akin to asking P.T. Barnum for hard figures on how often people view the freakshow. Bezos has a serious financial stake involved in the success of e-books.
That said, I think textbooks are going to be killer applications on the various reading devices. I personally think that the “e-book revolution” is going to be bad for those who would like to make a living off writing, but I also think it’s inevitable. The tiny fraction of people who read fiction on a regular basis just isn’t enough to support the overhead of a massive publishing industry, unfortunately.
I’d prefer we spend our time and money teaching reading and encouraging fiction as entertainment, but I’m part of a tiny minority.
(Also, if someone wants to change my mind by buying me an iTablet, I’d be okay with that.)
Christopher Gronlund says
Even the May figure–just over 1/3 of sales where there’s a physical book and a Kindle version being the Kindle version–is impressive. I don’t know what time in December the 48% figure came out, but it’s still worth noting. If it was announced before the holidays, I’m guessing the sales are definitely worth noting. I don’t have anything to back this up, but I’d guess that most of the 48% figure came from people buying e-books for themselves.
One of the drawbacks of e-books: you don’t buy them, wrap them, and give them as gifts.
Another drawback I’ve experienced as a writer are the formats. While there are several leading formats for e-books, there are so many formats and no one format that’s the format (like MP3, with music).
I can format for epub and Kindle readers, but now Barnes and Noble has the Nook, and I have no idea how — or if — I can format for that reader. I’m not a fan of proprietary formats, but at the same time, without the Kindle, I’m not sure we’d be where we are with the acceptance of digital publishing.
Thanks for reading and replying, Mary.
Christopher Gronlund says
I’ll willingly admit that the Bezos figures may be skewed. But I’m guessing that the ratio of growth is similar, and probably not too far off. Even 25% of sales being Kindle sales would be substantial.
I think digital publishing benefits unknown writers like myself. I think it will one day benefit bestselling novelists who may break away and do it themselves. I think mid-list writers are hurt most by e-books, but some mid-list writers may find a new way to gain a larger following with digital publishing.
For all the hype of digital publishing, I think most writers — if given the choice between having their work appear as an e-book or a physical book, they’d take the physical book. I still want to crack open a book I’ve written. But if digital publishing puts my story in the hands of more people than books, that’s what I’m after.
I think you’re right: textbooks are going to be something else. When I was a biology major, hauling around science textbooks was a workout. Even when I changed my major to English, hauling books around campus was an effort. To have all those textbooks on a device that is smaller than your average small textbook will be big. Being able to bookmark and make notes in the book and go straight to them will be great. And, hopefully, textbooks will finally be cheaper.
I also hope as digital textbooks become the norm that students just might consider downloading a novel or two.
You bring up the biggest issue that writers face, regardless of whether they are publishing digital or physical books: readership.
Whether real or perceived, so many people have convinced themselves that there’s not even enough time during the day to do the things they have to do, let alone plopping down with a book.
Television is an easier way to take in stories. Videogames can be a meditative break. Social networking is great, but many people would rather take care of their Facebook farm than read a book. While kids are a huge market for books, they eventually grow up and find other distractions; so many stop reading.
I’ve come to realize that the likely reality for me is working a day job in order to pay the bills, and doing all I can to share the stories I’d write regardless of an audience, because I enjoy writing. The likelihood of telling stories becoming full time work for me is even less likely than it would have been a couple decades ago.
The fiction I’ve put online has been seen by more people than the non-existent novels of mine not sitting on shelves.
For me, it’s worth looking into digital publishing.
Mark Felps says
I suspect it will be easier to get an audience via the e-book revolution, and harder to make a career. The theory of the “long tail” is great, and has been shown to help starting media producers find an audience, but one of the things we’ve learned about it is that without a sufficient mass of buyers, the actual money received by the creators is smaller than it would have been if they’d been discovered through the traditional model.
In music and video it should work well, because those mediums are very widely consumed, taking a huge portion of the entertainment dollar. With fiction, we’re talking about roughly the same number of entertainment dollars being spread out across hundreds of thousands of new writers who no longer have to get over any sort of quality bar to get their work out in front of people. In short, everyone gets readers and even less writers make enough money to focus on their writing.
I just want to say that I think all of this is basically inevitable, by the way. No point in fighting the change, because it’s here, but I have a very difficult time getting excited about a change that seems likely to make it even more difficult for writers to quit their day jobs.
The only real upside I see, from my perspective, is that it just might spawn a new golden age of magazine publishing, and re-create the already dead market for short stories.
Christopher Gronlund says
I totally agree with that first line, Mark.
It will be easier to get readers, and harder to make a living. We saw it with comics. Right before the black and white self-publishing revolution, a black and white independent book put out with decent art could pull in a respectable supplemental income. Maybe even support a person living a very frugal life.
When I decided to self publish, everybody was doing it. Our numbers were nothing like the numbers of books I’d been a part of; they were nothing like the numbers you sold. Even still, I found out what I thought were low numbers were actually good given how many books were published.
I definitely think we’ll see that with e-books. It really is inevitable. A lot of poorly produced work is already out there, and much more is on its way.
But just like the people who still made it during the comic books self-publishing craze of the 90s, I think some people will make a name for themselves with e-books.
We may never hear of them; they may only have 5,000 fans buying their e-books for a few bucks, which comes out to more than what the average author of a physical book makes.
I don’t know if I’d say I’m excited by the future of digital publishing, but I’m definitely interested in seeing what happens.
I’m much more excited about this summer’s writing conference in Austin than I am about e-books.
I definitely hope to hold a physical book or two that I’ve written in my hands before e-books become the norm.