“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams
All books are ebooks and they have been since the 80s as Paul St John Mackintosh pointed out recently on Teleread. He is right, every manuscript is edited and laid out at some point and exists in some form of digital file and then “sent to the printer” and bound. The only difference in the last five years is that people have increasingly been able to choose not to read from the printed file. We now live online, we read the news online, we correspond online, we watch TV online. We are having the same epiphany we had with Fax machines and copiers - why am I printing this on paper when it is on my desktop already. The real change publishers and authors are facing is that a large amount of books like the interoffice memo don’t need to be printed anymore.
We used to send letters but now we send emails. Letters were often long and eloquent because you had to say everything at once and wait days for a response. Now we IM instantly, text constantly, and communicate in truncated words. Def fstr but betr? Eloquence and length moved to blogs and many of us set up Family blogs and as a result our private letters and thoughts began to get an audience outside the family. We began to personally brand ourselves and then Facebook gave us tools to make that easier. Family and friends could respond to our posts faster again like email and IMing. Our daily interactions got shorter again.
Today every one of us can write a novel and make it available to sell as easy as we could set up a family blog. Authors can build their audience as easily as we can build our family and friends on Facebook. Kickstarter asks us for money just like our kids emailing us from college. Private letters and literature are now being poured into the same bucket and along with our news we piggyback the photos from our family vacation. We mix our playlists with Homeland and Real Housewives. And like the letter - once digital we are filtering and distilling it into smaller chunks and consuming it faster. We buy songs not albums, webisodes are 3 - 15 minutes long. We read news as a headline and magazines as an article.
It is only logical to think Books too will increasingly become shorter and episodic, subscribed to like a blog or TV show. We are “liking” authors like Neil Gaiman on Facebook the same as our family, sharing Instagram photos of what we ate with him, even knowing what his friends and neighbors ate. And occasionally - for about the price of a beer - Neil Gaiman will tell us a story just like our Uncle Ed would on Thanksgiving.
We are constantly filtering as a society an immense stream of data daily and only choosing to print what we find indispensable and important. This is significantly shifting demand in an economic model based on printing. Like documents once sent printed on fax machines, we have a significantly diminished demand to print a lot of the books that drive the profits of big publishers. 50 Shades of Gray, Harlequin Romances, business books, content that is consumed and discarded for the next new thing quickly we are finding are tailor made for digital. The real important stuff, the stuff of lasting value, the art, the philosophy, the hard work of research and fact checking and editorial back and forth - this we want to keep as artifact and manifest in an icon on our shelves. The fast and ephemeral, the lowest common denominator with the largest audience, “the latest thing” is what drives the profits and like all our personal communication we no longer have a need to print it. We filter, distill, and share it ourselves while it burns bright but know that once consumed we no longer need to see or own it.
It’s the very stuff we want to “print out to keep” that publishers tend to make the least profit on. Return on investment on Joyce or Salinger takes some time to build, cure, and reach maturity.It tends to have smaller audiences to start but it’s impact is important and its influence on us as a culture and society is immense and important. The problem we are facing now is that the economic model that this content was created in is moving from one where there was a careful and delicate balance of editorial control and power that a publisher had and a need for a retailer to support works of value by attracting an audience in order to facilitate the discovery them. What we are seeing in digital publishing now are the struggles of publishers and retailers trying to compete for a role in an environment that does not naturally want them in that role anymore. Authors attract their own audience. Fellow readers attract their own audience. Communities, Groups, and Forums act as sentient audiences roving the web in search of content to share and consume on their own (and whose byproduct is even more fan generated content).
The digital world is about finding and audience and sharing information instantly from point A to point B. Publishers, Retailers and Distributors are currently just middlemen getting in the way of discovery - and the internet abhors middleman.
The challenge for Publishers, Distributors and Retailers is to find their role in this environment where content and family and news and entertainment all live as one. Form used to tell us what was a book, magazine, newspaper, family photo, email, or Tweet. Now it is all text on the same screen. The words are left to speak for themselves. Where they started doesn’t matter the moment we boot up our device and see their glow.
I think the problem I have with this quote (like many ebook doomsday quotes) is it assumes that the power lies within the book. Rather the power lies within the personal library. It is with our collection of books, one or one thousand, that we cull from the world that which comprises our personal curated world view and Instagram filter to our soul. This library may be physical books on a shelf or it may be a playlist library of links on our desktop or Nook Touch. The medium is inconsequential as long as we can pull the book down from the shelf and access it when we want and in a form that is convenient. ~ eP
- Popular Mechanics, 1949
The first general-purpose electronic computer, the ENIAC, was completed in 1947 and weighed almost 30 tons. The Kindle Fire HD weighs 13-15/16 ounces