On the e-revolution

Book publishing is in trouble.

We are, obviously, on the infant’s cusp of the e-revolution, so much of the change is in the future awaiting our arrival rather than lying in the past for critical evaluation and review. Nonetheless, the wave can be seen. For bibliophiles this future will be seen as depressing in the highest, because the printed page and the quiet bookstore may be a thing of the past. But this is an aesthetic concern, with little-to-no regard for the well-being of our race and our international society.

Today we stand, according to Jason Epstein, in his Book Business, “at the edge of a vast transformation, one that promises much opportunity for innovation: much trial, much error, much improvement,” (2). This transformation rises from “new technologies whose cultural influence” will likely be “no less revolutionary than the introduction of movable type,” (3).

Those who lament the birth pangs of this new world—those who love and cling to printed books—are no less the victims of reification than the scholarly elites who, no doubt, wished for Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and the onset of movable type to fail.

“Why, the value of scrolls and parchments will become diluted,” they probably said.

“The populace will be so inundated with options, possibilities, differing opinions and perspectives that they will soon be unable to discern truth from falsehood.”

“The art of writing upon a scroll ensures quality and truth; the ease of movable type will allow any trash to be thrown together, slapped onto pages and distributed with no thought as to the cultural ramifications.”

Better all around, therefore, to leave information in the hands of the elites, the powerful, the principalities and powers, since they are the discerning ones who can safely and accurately control and communicate reality to the general population. These excuses, it must be noted, are precisely what we hear today about the e-revolution. And after the digital publishing age, when the next revolutionary development turns up, the same set of excuses will be heard by the developed powers in e-books.

There have always been among the conservative ranks (no matter what it is they are trying to conserve) to cling to the past, good or bad, without regard for the benefits of what is coming. There has always been the claim to safety and assurance if mankind but allow the managing overclass to rule and to patrol the borders.

Those who resist, even if only in their hearts, the wave of the future in books must take into consideration that the printed page, despite its familiarity and comfort and the ready access we all enjoy, is still a limiting medium. Only those, after all, with access to the bookstore can acquire a book, and that only if you have access to the funds necessary to buy them. This immediately excludes some, mostly of minority ethnicities and nationalities in the developing world, who do not possess the power to get by the gatekeepers.

The e-revolution promises to take information even further from the control of the elites, those gatekeepers, and improve the lives of all involved. In this digital future readers “in Ulan Bator, Samoa, and Nome will have the same access to books as readers in Berkeley and Cambridge.” Indeed, no book “need ever go out of print,” and readers will no more be “frustrated by the mandated turnover requirements of bookstore chains,” (29).

It may not even be so bad for the printed and bound page as many naysayers think. Epstein proposes the mass production of print-on-demand machines that would create a hybrid readership, allowing those who want printed books to do so, very much like pharmaceutical counters; place the prescription order and they tell you it will be ready in a few hours. Such Print-on-demand machines are already available and used in many publishing warehouses, but “less expensive versions” are being developed that could be placed in “public libraries, in schools and universities, and perhaps even in post offices and other convenient places—Kinko’s and Staples, for example: in effect, ATM machines for books.” He goes so far as to predict that these devices will in the future “be common household items, like fax machines today,” (29).

The economic upshot is that the cost of books will drop radically, given that the books no longer need to be printed, packed, shipped, stocked, and marked up by bookstores and thus will “not figure in their price.” The impact of these devices in “thousands of locations” will mean that virtually everyone will have access to “potentially limitless virtual inventories, catalogued, responsibly annotated, and searchable electronically,” (30). Just as the printing press encouraged and expanded the reach of learning, so the new technology “will have an even greater effect, narrowing the notorious gap between the educated rich and the unlettered poor and distributing the benefits” of knowledge all over the earth (31). For the religious, Epstein writes, the emergence of the e-revolution on the scene “just as the publishing industry has fallen into terminal decrepitude is providential, one might even say miraculous.” Indeed, the “timely arrival” of the internet “may replace the watch found in the desert as evidence of a divine maker’s intricate design,.” (32).

  2 comments for “On the e-revolution

  1. Josh Busser
    October 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    The electronic progress made in publishing does pose another issue not addressed in you post: what will define the audience writers target in the future. This lack of focus could lead to the decline of writing that seeks to address a certain group of persons, and this would be my chief concern. For instance, consider Christian Fiction, a genre which comprises a sizable niche (5% or so) in fiction book sales. Much of the growth in this area is due to the self-publishing and e-book boom – sales have been strong, even through the latest economic downturn,but much of that growth is driven by people migrating from print and the decline of Christian “specialty marks” in printing, forcing many authors to self publish, often at considerable expense (even electronically.) This forces people to come online and purchase their reading materials in alternative electronic formats. If these trends tend to continue, print publishing houses may begin to fold their existing marks, and self publishing could push niche publishers out of business.

    So, how will the technology exacerbate this negative effect on the industry? There is a major disincentive for writers to put their works in digital formats. Margins are lower, there are more options available to the casual reader (making it difficult to pick good works from those not as strongly written), and A-list authors may slowly decide to pull out of a niche and concentrate on writing for a broader audience. Some writers, to be fair, will stay with what they love to write about, but fewer will be able to make a career of it. The short term may still see growth, but the long term prognosis would be fatal to a genre that has allowed many people to celebrate God’s divine grace in stories they can enjoy.

    One final comment regarding access – publishing is something that has provided a barrier to people in developing nations from reading great literature and becoming more informed. But, the path of the current technology is creating “walled gardens” that can also be just as restricting in the first world. Many e-publishers are limiting formats that their works can be published in, and these limitations will hurt, as many readers will either become confused by the jargon of these technologies, or will simply be turned off from electronic reading when they are unable to get “that book” on “this device” in “xyz format.” When people can’t get access in the simplest manner, they tend to become apathetic to the technology, and gravitate towards ease of use (hence the growth of Macs and Apple products in the ‘aughts.) Until we reach a point where the technology comes to a uniform standard and reaches that point of generally accepted ease-of-use, it won’t be as widely accepted as print media (which is a time tested, easy to access standard by comparison.)

    Will there be a balance between the technophile and the bibliophile in terms of getting their reading? Eventually, this will be reached. But there will be casualties in the market, and the tug-of-war between the two forces may have an unpleasant influence on what’s to come for writing as we know it in these early days of the 21st Century.

  2. October 12, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    Josh, I think there is little doubt that reorganization of niche markets will take place. This is already in progress and there is little anyone can do to stop it. I’m not totally clear about your central concern, though. Are you referring to a decline in demographic or genre focus? As in, this book ought to be marketed to women or fantasy lovers? I would be entirely okay with the Christian fiction market, considered as a genre, to go entirely belly up so that Christian writers must compete with mainstream writers. This will force them to be better writers than most of them are, which will in turn make their stories better. Though that is more of a “health” issue for the Christian subculture ghetto.

    I don’t think I agree with your prognosis, however. There is not a disincentive to digital publishing at all. It is not expensive to publish yourself or digitally (or, rather, it is only expensive if you’re looking at these through the mainline publishing categories). Margins are actually higher for self-publishers and e-publishers because authors can keep more of what they earn rather than pennies on the dollar, and moreover need less buyers because they keep more. E-pub margins are only lower if you’re looking at major publishing models for e-book marketing. The sweet spot for e-book pricing is between $1.99 and 4.99, where a traditional publisher putting out an e-book still prices the paper vs. digital versions within a few dollars of each other, making their average e-book price in the 8.99 to 12.99 range, far above the sweet spot. No one in their right mind is going to pay 9 bucks for a book that isn’t even tangible. The traditional publishing model keeps sales down by disincentivising the consumer to purchase e-books when compared with the price of the physical book. In terms of discernment, new avenues of choosing will eventually sort themselves out; one way that seems to be the direction writers are moving is a return to guilds – A-list authors people trust band together and sponsor up-and-coming potentials, giving them a broader audience and a trusted source that recommends new works. Some, like Stephen King, are becoming publishers themselves, finding new talent and helping them. Others, like J. K. Rowling, are going self-publishing themselves, using the internet to get her work directly to the audience.

    I do agree that the tendency of “walled gardens” is problematic, but this is not an accidental feature of e-publishing, but an intentional programming ploy designed (in the same way as DVD regions) to maximize profit on e-technology by forcing a monopoly on certain works. This is patently unfair and no corporation or publisher should be permitted to do it. But again, I don’t think they will become apathetic towards the technology themselves, but the devices that limit their access. There are ways around it, and there are e-formats that are universal, and already public domain books and a lot of others are going up on universal e-formats that will allow people to go around the blocks.

    Interested in your thoughts . . .

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