The Rise of eBooks, ePublishing, and eReaders:
How will Electronic Media Affect the Publishing World?
EBooks are manuscripts that you can buy or download online and read via Kindle, iPad or other electronic devices. Younger generations consider them the new way to read; those with a more traditionalist mindset find them nothing compared to a good-smelling, page-flipping printed book. Some claim they are the way of the future, while others fear that they will kill the paper manuscript, just as iTunes ‘killed’ the CD. Whether or not they will cause the downfall of literature as we know it, eBooks are clearly on the rise. Ken Auletta from thenewyorker.com writes that “while [eBooks] account for only an estimated three to five per cent of the market, their sales increased a hundred and seventy-seven per cent in 2009, and it was projected that they would eventually account for between twenty-five and fifty per cent of all books sold” (Auletta, Publish or Perish). Not only that, but “Amazon, whose eBook sales account for approximately two-thirds of America's total eBook sales . . . has sold 105 eBooks for every 100 printed books” (Seiple, Amazon’s eBook Sales). This rate of growth is incredible, akin to the explosion of interest when the Guttenberg Press was invented in 1440. And while every new phenomenon experiences an eventual plateau in regards to demand, the popularity of eBooks can be expected to increase at a fairly steady rate. Following in the footsteps of the cellular phone and the laptop, the forms in which eBooks are read will evolve, becoming thinner, smaller, more aesthetically pleasing, and more technologically advanced in terms of life, durability, storage space, etc. Libraries are already including eBooks to be available on loan in their collections, colleges are incorporating them into their curriculum, and some publishers have seen the wave of change and created companion services to include ePublishing. Clearly the eBook is growing rapidly in popularity, and as it does so, will traditional publishing methods and houses be forced towards extinction? Or will they instead grow as the easy access to online books pushes readers to explore literature beyond their original scope?
Technology is expanding. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the cell-phone was still in its infancy—now, a mere decade later, an average teenager can complete almost any task on their phone, whether that be surfing the internet, listening to music, or even multitasking across various technological platforms. Cell phones have gotten smaller, faster, and more advanced in every way, all in the space of about ten years. Computers too have become thinner, more powerful, and more capable of completing any and every task its user may desire. And human minds are always looking for something new: that bright, ground-breaking piece of technology that will radically change whatever came before. Steven Johnson describes this desire for advancement as a specific moment: “every genuinely revolutionary technology implants some kind of ‘aha’ moment in your memory—the moment where you flip a switch and something magical happens, something that tells you in an instant that the rules have changed forever” (Johnson, How the eBook Will Change the Way We Read and Write). The newest magical happenstance is the Kindle—not only that, but the very cause for the Kindle: the electronic book. This new technology which allows people to read a book, indeed an entire library, on the screen of a handheld device has turned the light bulb on in full force. As such, the world of reading is about to change. Printing and publishing is already shifting, altered in the face of such a curious evolution in the delivery of literature. This development is not just a change in form; it is a change in function, one that will alter the very core of how we understand publishing. In fact Johnson goes so far as to claim that “the book's migration to the digital realm [will] not be a simple matter of trading ink for pixels, but [will] likely change the way we read, write and sell books in profound ways” (Johnson, How the eBook Will Change the Way We Read and Write). It is impractical to imagine that an advancement as intriguing as the eBook and thus the Kindle would do no more than cause a few ripples in the pond of handheld literature. The waves can already be seen in the rates of growth shown by the eBooks accessible by the Kindle (which is only one platform among many on which they can be accessed). The demand for the Kindle’s electronic books has detonated in a short period of time, toppling all previous statistics in relation to physical books. Amazon, the creator of the Kindle eReader, has “sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010” (Chin, Kindle Books Now Outselling Print Books). Not only has the rate of eBook sales increased dramatically in the past year alone in regards to the Kindle, but the rate of sales in relation to paper books is shocking. CBS Local Media in San Francisco reported that “the online retailer [Amazon] is selling 105 Kindle books for every 100 print books . . . and that doesn’t include the free Kindle books that people are reading” (Tech Report). More electronic books are being consumed than physical books in the last two years, and the trend hasn’t even fully caught on yet—but it will. One cannot say that there is an eReader of some format in every household. Yet we are surely moving in that direction. The statistics reveal that the way in which people read is steadily transitioning from one format to another:
“while digital downloads still only make up about 9% of the total book market. . . Codex Forrester and Gartner Research predict that there will be 18 million e-readers sold in 2011 (basically double the 2010 figures) and that 35% of readers will consume digital books. These trends will continue in the years ahead” (Saenz, What is the Future of Books?).
EBooks are creeping into all aspects of the reading world. The decision has yet to be made whether or not we need to fight back the imminent swarm or welcome it with open arms. As Yvette Chin, author of Kindle Books Now Outselling Print Books, puts it, “the jury is still out about whether Amazon’s latest announcement [about the rates of growth] represents a “tipping point” in the book publishing industry . . . [but] the need to adapt quickly seems pretty clear” (Chin, Kindle Books Now Outselling Print Books). Change is imminent. It is now up to the old crowd and the old kings of literature to determine whether or not that change is good, bad, or merely inevitable. The advancement of writing and its assorted forms will bring forth the “various members of the literati's old guard . . . to meditate on the disappearing art of having a pen-in-hand "conversation" with an old-fashioned, battery-less book” (Redmon, As Kindles Take Over). What their meditations will reveal is questionable. But one must never be afraid of growth as long as that growth does not threaten to utterly topple the foundations as we know them. EBooks and the many outcropping platforms on which we read them might destroy the metaphorical city of Publishing and become the downfall of literature as we know it. However, we might instead be watching the liberating evolution of the reading world.
After all of these statistics of substantial growth and expansion, one might be wondering, alright, what is this thing called an eBook? What is a Kindle? Basically, an eBook is any piece of literature, whether that be journal, novel, textbook, or magazine, that can be read and viewed on a technological device such as a computer or a Kindle. Similar to PDF files, eBooks have taken the physical pages of a paper or hard cover book and transported it into pixels and gigabytes. However, PDFs are limited in terms of quality, copyright, and availability. EBooks are everything that a physical book is, transported onto the electronic media of machinery. Who wants to carry a laptop around with them in order to read a book? Granted, some laptop computers have become so small that they are comparable to the average paperback, but the difference between dropping a paperback book and a mini laptop is about $3000. This very reason is why platforms such as the Kindle and the iPad were created. Both of these eReaders are basically an advanced form of storage device, like a USB or external hard drive. They store information directed to them and allow the user to peruse that information at will. What does this mean in terms of books? For example, the Kindle can store between 2, 4, and 8 gigabytes of information—that’s a lot of books! So instead of having to haul around a wheelbarrow for all of your texts, you can have one, palm-sized piece of equipment that stores them all and allows you to pull one up at will. This revolutionary development has permeated throughout all forms of literature, even to the publishing level. In fact there are companies that provide technology and equipment designed to help publishers adapt to the ever changing technology that has become an insistent and necessary part of their world. Advpubtech.com is one such company—since 1991 they have “developed, enhanced and sold the Falcon . . . software suite. Falcon software is currently installed in over 300 publishing companies worldwide” (Advpubtech.com). Falcon provides total management support for publishing, allowing publishing companies to control such aspects of the publishing process as editorial facets, circulation, orders, and anything online. The Falcon creators also understand what a volatile, ever-changing world the publishing and literature business has become, especially in light of how quickly the media of writing is evolving. As such, Advpubtech.com has a mission statement that is “unlike many service agreements, [in that] our agreement entitles our customers to install the latest version of our products—thus continually increasing the value of the software to our customers . . . the publishing professionals” (Advpubtech.com). Technology is propelling the change of how we read at a phenomenal rate, and that trickles back to the source of literature, even to the very publication of the books we enjoy. Publishers have to be in the know of all the latest updates to publishing means, and thus businesses like advpubtech.com have flourished. However, that is only one facet of the new technology being created by the eBook phenomenon—many more will be seen in the coming years as the eReader advances and the eBook proliferates. Adam Charles asserts that “we’re at a real tipping point with technology in relation to how we consume literature and media in general . . . we’re beginning to see this rebirth happen with how we discover, purchase, and consume literature in every genre” (Charles, eBooks Impact the Publishing Industry). This technology will change everything about reading just as the internet changed everything that could possibly touch it—phones, social networking, music, video, art, education, and travel. And with the continuing technological advancement of the eReader and the eBook, “the wind very much appears in the sails for a generational change in how we buy and consume books, how we experience literature in general” (Charles, eBooks Impact the Publishing Industry). All is change and change affects all—even the way in which we view the written word.
Naturally, the development of eBooks and their platforms has led to an entirely new facet of publishing—ePublishing. Because the book has been recreated in an electronic format, publishers have had to adapt to make their services available to both printed and digital media. Thus, the birth of ePublishing: “independent electronic publishers offer books in a variety of electronic formats for readers to download to their computers, cell phones, eBook readers, or other devices” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing). This new form of publishing necessitates an entirely different set of skills, stages, and requirements in order to fit the boundaries of digital books, creating a complete system reboot among the publishing professionals. Every aspect of the printing journey is changing, even those involving the authors. For one, it is easier for newer writers to be published. In the old regime, potential authors had to research established agents and/or publishing companies to pitch their book concepts at in form of extensive query letters, synopses, and samples. A hopeful writer could spend years searching for the right agent and receive rejection after rejection before landing a catch, if ever, all the while spending countless hours recreating their story, their pitch, and their query package (not to mention spending what sometimes feels like wasted dollars on printing, paper, and postage). With ePublishing some of this endless searching has been eliminated—“you don’t need a literary agent to submit to an independent ePublisher . . . and offbeat books . . . may more easily find a home with an ePublisher” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing). EPublishing has created a new niche for the strange and the unrepresented author, allowing hopefuls to skip over the fruitless years of searching and deliver their materials directly to the vying public. It could be argued that this leap over the endless toil of the writer’s life will drastically cut the ‘character building’ stage of their career. Adding rejections to one’s collection can sometimes be seen with as much satisfaction as collecting heads. However, there are plenty of other toils that the writer must hurdle in order to make the full journey, and it has been proven that ‘poor’ literature can thrive even with the agonizing path of agent-searching. Not only does ePublishing make it easier for authors to deliver their materials to their readers, but it also serves as a trampoline into the printed world. Since publishing remains rooted in print, “many also use digital technology to make some or all of their books available in print. A successful eBook with one of the larger genre ePublishers can be a stepping stone to commercial print publication” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing). EPublishing provides a potentially quicker mode of transportation between the author and the reader as well as creates a platform of opportunity for authors to enter the physical world without the stress and waste of the traditional method. However, as magical as ePublishing may sound to those authors striving to join the ranks of the printed world, the structure is still an emerging concept in the eyes of the established system. As such, ePublishing is often and widely considered to be an illegitimate form of publishing. How much of this is based on either elitist or simply traditional mindsets cannot be measured, but the bias remains; “the perception of eBooks as a “lesser” market is a reality . . . [authors] need to be aware that not everyone will be willing to regard [their] ePublished book as a professional credential” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing). Much of this is based upon the quickness with which books may be taken on by a publisher, a quickness that has become such an attraction to writers. That ‘character building’ serves in its own way as an extra stage of refinement to not only an author’s work but also their skill, maturity, and persistence. As the industry grows and expands, no doubt this prejudice will shrink and evolve with it. At the moment, however, the concerned and disdainful eye is pointed at the electronically published book.
As with everything, there are pros and cons to be considered when approaching an innovative and new piece of technology. Richard MacManus, the author of 5 Ways That Paper Books are Better Than eBooks, very wisely states that “each format (paper / electronic) has its strengths and weaknesses” (MacManus, 5 Ways). However, which option has more (or better) strengths, and which has more (and worse) weaknesses? At the moment it appears that eBooks and ePublishing could very well take over, but is it really as miraculous as it seems? Chuck Anderson writes that,
“all businesses can benefit from publishing a book or an ebook . . . While it is true that it might be easier to get speaking engagements or media coverage if your book is a printed one, most consumers are turning to digital media for their information . . . it is much easier for someone to download an eBook than it is to carry around a printed book.” (Anderson, eBooks vs. Printed Books).
There are very clear and obvious ups and downs to either platform of technology, whether it be the traditional paperback or the innovative eReader. For now, let us focus on the pros. Firstly, when considering ePublishing and eBooks, there are more profits that go directly to writers. Without an agent, a publishing company, the printing, the marketing, the distribution, and the extras to pay for, individual authors are able to reap the benefits more directly and much more substantially from case to case. In fact some are making a real killing off of the business: John Locke, the “first author to sell more than a million electronic books without a publishing deal . . . enjoys sales figures close to such literary luminaries as Stieg Larsson, James Patterson and Michael Connelly . . . he has achieved it without the help of an agent or publicist” (Barnett, Self Publishing Writer). This sixty year old author saw a niche in the developing world of eBooks and pounced on it, writing murder and agent novels that “[sell] a copy every seven seconds. . . Another self-published e-book sensation, Amanda Hocking, signed a six-figure deal earlier this year with a publisher” (Barnett, Self Publishing Writer). Here we see a tangible example of the ePublishing world serving as that springboard into the printed realm. Amanda Hocking, who may have spent years and years trying to sell her works to agents and publishers across the country, instead sold her own novels directly to the public through electronic publishing. As such, her great popularity led to a deal of substantial monetary reward without the hurdles of the traditional means. Another financial pro of ePublishing is the reduced loss of profit to publishers. The old ways of publishing and distributing new works was and is incredibly inefficient when considering waste and excess. Ken Auletta reports, “traditionally, publishers have sold books to stores . . . Bookstores return about thirty-five per cent of the hardcovers they buy, and publishers write off the cost of producing those books” (Auletta, Publish or Perish). Thirty-five per cent of novels printed and shipped and marketed receive no form of income at all, leaving the publisher out of pocket for their worth. Not every new novel can be a million-dollar market in and of themselves, and so all the other average and even bottom books eat heavily into a publisher’s profit, which in turn eats into the profits that potential authors, seeking a willing publishing company to take a chance on them, could make. Lev Grossman in Books Gone Wild confirms the cycle: “a publisher pays an author a nonreturnable up-front fee for a book. If the book doesn't ‘earn out,’ in the industry parlance, the publisher simply eats the cost” (Grossman, Books Gone Wild). With ePublishing this risk is alleviated—physical books are no longer necessary and the electronic files are only sold as they are needed. Before, publishers were required to print in excess, not only to create hype about the book but also to keep an immediate supply in stock should the novel really do well. Prospective readers do not want to see an out of stock sign on a book they would like to purchase, and many will not return to the idea of purchasing an unavailable novel. Thus the need to overproduce was created. With ePublishing, electronic books can be delivered in an instant, flying at the speed of technology from one computer database to another. There is no need to overproduce physical books on the off chance that they will be sold. No longer do publishers need to waste money on printing, binding, marketing, and shipping (often times in multiple directions) a pile of volumes that will never be bought. This supporting argument for ePublishing leads directly into the next pro—ease of transportation and organization. Not only do publishers no longer need to ship hundreds of thousands of books across the country and even the world, filling up the postal service with boxes and trucks and stuffing store houses full of new products, but readers no longer have to pay shipping for the book they want to read. They can click, ding, and the book is there, downloaded in a few minutes at most and ready to read. EBooks are also substantially easier to carry around on one’s person. This benefit comprises one of the “huge advantages [of eBooks] . . . the ability to carry dozens or hundreds of books in one pocket-sized device . . . or the way any e-book can be large-print with a simple font setting tweak” (Meadows, eBooks vs. Printed Books). Instead of trucking around a backpack with your favorite books in them or being forced to leave them at home, you can instead carry around a small, portable piece of technology that stores your entire library in one, concise location. Being electronic, you can also change the settings that the book is ‘printed’ in—the need to buy a new, extra-large print novel when the eyesight goes bad has been erased. No longer are readers at the mercy of the size and font decided on by the publishers to make a novel more compact, more interesting, more printable. The words that they read are as malleable in view as the amount of books they can now keep with them wherever they go.
Now, as lovely as all of these benefits are in relation to ePublishing, one cannot leave out the cons when weighing the two sides. For there are pros and cons to every situation, and without a careful analysis of both good and bad, an informed judgment cannot be made regarding any subject. There are many cons in relation to eBooks and ePublishing that go even beyond the traditionalist prejudice of physical book-lovers. Many of these cons, we will find, are merely the common result of the birth of any new industry. Some will be based on tradition and aesthetic, such as the first downside that comes first to everyone’s mind—the transition from paper to metal. A traditional printed book feels good, smells good, and has an essential beauty to it that a slab of plastic and wires cannot compete with. One cannot have well-worn, favorite eBooks with creases in the spine and finger-wrinkles on the pages. MacManus asserts that “paper books just feel good in your hands - even the best designed eReader is a cold, lifeless steely contraption by comparison” (MacManus, 5 Ways). Another traditional way in which eBooks can’t compare to paper books is in their resale—with eBooks, the phenomenon of used books and secondhand bookstores will fade entirely. Books that are only available as a downloadable file cannot be handed down to another owner for a fraction of the price; you “can't get cheap second-hand copies. . . eBooks won't necessarily be able to match this 'feature' of paper books” (MacManus, 5 Ways). There are certainly some readers who depend upon the previously owned novels to fill their shelves. The antique book will also die. But let’s look at the consequences of eBooks in regards to industry. First, eBooks are still a very small and limited field. Victoria Strauss discusses this downside, explaining,
“for the past couple of years, eBooks have been [the] fastest-growing segment of the book market . . . But even with this explosive growth, eBooks are currently still a small portion of the overall book market. The Association of American publishers pegs eBook sales as of August 2010 at 9% of US trade book sales . . . authors considering ePublishing need to be aware that they’re launching themselves into a limited field” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing).
The enormous growth seen in the eBook industry has indeed been incredible and mind-blowing in its increments. However, percentages can be deceptive—an industry that is only 1% of an entire pie of industries could grow 100% in a month. This rate is undeniably impressive in relation to speed and time, but if you look at the actual percentages, such a rate would merely mean that the industry grew to 2%. On the whole, that is not a very impressive figure. EBooks have grown in massive chunks, but they are coming from a small origin, and they have remained fairly small. This disadvantage will gradually dissipate as the eBook industry continues to grow and becomes older and more advanced, but for now eBooks and all their authors are still swimming in the baby-pool as opposed to the ocean. Second, the ePublishing world is susceptible to rabid instability. This shortcoming too is a symptom of a newborn business, but it must be considered nonetheless. Especially because ePublishing has been hailed as the rising world of literary expansion, there have been many entrepreneurs wanting to get a piece of the cake. How many of them are truly qualified to wield knife and fork in regards to this literary pastry is in question. Strauss asserts, “it’s very easy for would-be ePublishers to set themselves up in business . . . regardless of whether they have any prior experience . . . The result is an enormous number of amateur ePublishers . . . who have limited ability” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing). Because ePublishing is so new, it will be very difficult for prospective authors to determine between the legitimate and the illegitimate publishers of the electronic world. There are very few established ePublishers unless they are in partner with a traditional publisher, and as of yet there are no electronic publishing house giants to look up to as the ideal and the paragon of technique and quality. Another con of eBooks, and one that will not get better and can only be foreseen as getting worse as the industry grows, is the ease with which digital materials can be stolen. Digital theft can already be seen proliferating the music and movie industry. Torrent sites from which hackers and even everyday users can download movies, music videos, documentaries, and any kind of media that someone makes available to snatch are everywhere on the internet—all you need is the right place to look and an internet connection. Music theft is rampant; you don’t have to be a computer genius to locate free sources of music over the internet. Even people with the best intentions can unknowingly steal profits from the original music producer by ‘sharing’ music files with their friends. All that takes is a simple USB drive or a CD burner. And all of this could be on its way to literature. Aaron Saenz relates his fears on the subject with What is the Future of Books: “text files are small and easy to share. You can get an author’s entire lifework in less than half an hour . . . The only thing . . . [stopping] piracy from hitting literature has been . . . preference for physical books . . . [and] that preference is changing” (Saenz, What is the Future of Books?). Books could very well be on their way to joining the ranks of kidnapped and stolen medias, and if this occurs, what will happen to the publishing industry and literature as we know it? An additional drawback to eBooks regards their shelf-life and updates. Computer users today are already frustrated by the constant flow of downloads and updates one must acquire in order to keep their systems running smoothly—and not all of these updates are free. The upgrade for this or that program or even the entire platform on which a computer is run can cost anywhere between $50-$400, often forcing computer users to simply cope with what they have. This coping usually also means that any new materials cannot be obtained. How will this affect eBooks? If the format of eBooks changes every year, every season, every month, how will readers keep up in regards to finances or patience? MacManus quotes, “as Adrian Lafond eloquently noted, ‘If I "buy” an e-book, read it, put it in storage, and try to re-read it in 10 years . . . it's anybody's guess whether there will exist a platform or device . . . for that particular e-book format’” (MacManus, 5 Ways). Paper books will never require an updated download in order to read, no matter how many years pass. But will eReaders require their owners to continually upgrade from one platform to another in order to keep purchasing books? And if so, will these new devices be reverse compatible with the books already purchased, or will new copies need to be acquired and the original investment lost? It is also a common complaint that with any storage device there is the problem that its memory ‘fades’. One can upload information to a USB drive (basically a simplified version of any eReader) and years later, if not continually updated, the information will have the chance of being corrupted, unreadable, or simply gone. The artificial memory of any piece of technology is never as permanent as the written, printed word. Kevin Redmond agrees, stating that “ink fixed on paper, fragile as it is, has a kind of permanence that bytes of data can't claim” (Redmon, As Kindles Take Over). Lastly, eBooks provide a disturbing possibility in regards to the entire future of reading. With the spontaneity indulged by an eReader’s immediacy in regards to purchases and reading, readers will experience a loss of concentration and a growth of impulse. Steven Johnson with the Wall Street Journal Digital Network expands on this idea in his article How the eBook Will Change the Way We Read and Write:
“it will make it easier for us to buy books, but at the same time make it easier to stop reading them . . . an infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales . . . but not necessarily so great for . . . attention. I fear that one of the great joys of book reading -- the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author's ideas -- will be compromised” (Johnson, How the eBook Will Change the Way We Read and Write).
In his article, Johnson relates his personal encounter with this sense of distraction—how he perused an eBook he had just downloaded only to be directed away by another thought before he had even finished, indulged by the immediacy of the ‘bookstore at his fingertips’. This lack of attention is not just a theory thought up by proponents for the traditional book, but a real possibility concerning all booklovers. Imagine a reader sitting at home browsing the online bookstore. They see a novel they’d like to read, and a few seconds later it sits downloaded onto their eReader. As they read, they spectacularly enjoy the book, and so they take a break to download the rest of the trilogy. A comment or suggestions at the bottom of the page lead them to exploring another author who is like or who inspired the original. Or perhaps a footnote in the book led to a different thread of attention entirely. Either way, the original focus is lost, in some cases entirely shattered. What will happen to the future readers of the world should they develop this lack of focus?
Having considered the short but impressive history of the eBook, its influences on a new form of publishing, and its pros and cons, there exists a further, more disturbing question to be asked: will eBooks and ePublishing save or destroy the publishing world as we know it? Change alters all and can so twist something as to make it completely unrecognizable. Change can lead to great innovation, new heights, and positive growth; it can also destroy that which came before it and leave a charred path in its wake. Which will it be for publishing and books? There are those in the literary industry that hail the end of the publishing world like so many apocalyptic prophets, yet there are other, more positive minds among the foreseers of publishing that think it will not be so. Todd Bigelow, author of Apple iPad: How Will It Affect the Publishing World?, is one of these proponents of the digital movement: “the energy I feel this time comes from a real hope that [the iPad eReader] can help the ailing publishing world” (Bigelow, Apple iPad). Bigelow is one among many who hail the digital book as the savior of literature as we know it. However, first let us look at the other, less hopeful view of the possible future. One of the fears inflaming the vision of the destruction of publishing comes from the dread of traditional methods getting outsourced. We’ve seen it already in the past—take iTunes, for example. Once it became possible to purchase an album of music (or even a single song off of that album if you wished!) directly from one’s computer, physical CD sales dropped. The development of the iPod and the MP3 Player—extremely analogous to the eReaders that we are seeing developed—destroyed the CD player, thus outsourcing CDs in the eyes of the general public. One can still purchase CDs today and the players compatible with them—most laptops and many new cars as well come with a CD player. The CD is not dead. But consider what came before that: “a similar thing happened in the music industry with compact discs replacing vinyl, and mp3s replacing CDs. Now, suddenly, vinyl is making a comeback. Will people be collecting books again in 20 years?” (Tech Report). This thought is the fear of many in publishing. The way society listens to music is fundamentally different from the way it was at the beginning of the 21st century, and even more so from the 20th, the 19th, even the 18th century. The majority of music listeners no longer purchase any form of physical copy and instead prefer the individual download of a song. Vinyl can only be bought from collector holdings online or in specialty shops or, worse yet, yard sales. The CD is slowly following, and now the book is inching in that direction. Another fear is revealed in the current state of other literary platforms—newspapers, for one. With everyone reading their current events and stories online at newspaper websites and blogs, etc., the physical form of the newspaper has been hailed to be dying. Richard MacManus concurs, “the future of paper newspapers is now seriously in question, so it may not be long before the same happens to paper books” (MacManus, 5 Ways). Even Bigelow, with his positive feelings and view towards the future of publishing, admits that he is “old school in that [he loves] the newspaper” (Bigelow, Apple iPad). The general public simply does not take the newspaper anymore. With this age-old traditional publishing form fading away, the scare is on for paper books. However, there is a hope for the future of books in the hands of machinery—newer generations through the years have shown a growing inclination towards technology. More and more young people have the use of a cell phone at an early age, and what’s more, they have the use of a data plan as well. They can surf the web, download and listen to music, play video games, email their friends, check the news or weather, watch movies, and all other manner of things—just from their phone. And eBooks promise to function the same way: “‘a Kindle book runs on the Amazon Kindle . . . but they also run on iPhones, on Android phones, iPads, and I think even Blackberrys,’ said Magid. Once you buy a Kindle book you can also read it on different devices’” (Tech Report). This flexibility of form and function is inspired by the technologically advanced youth who will be primary users of the eBook and the eReader. Where a teenager may have been uninspired to pick up a book before, if available on their iPad, the desire to read could very well increase. In this way the changes towards publishing could save the industry, bringing the technological younger generations back to books.
In response to the enormous growth and phenomenon of the eBook, it is interesting to see some fascinating locations where the eBook is popping up beyond private ownership. Where the eBook appears outside of the home can very well indicate the general flow of the future, and there are two particular locations that bode for the swift rooting of eBooks: libraries and colleges. These centers of learning, research, and study are two of the many heartlands of books. EBooks are penetrating even among them: “the Kindle Lending Library will allow over 11,000 public libraries in the US to lend copies of digital books to Kindle users for short periods of time” (Saenz, What is the Future of Books?). Now one can even rent eBooks for free. There will, of course, always been the users who prefer to own a book so that they can read it again and again and again, whenever they chose; but some only read books once, and so they would prefer to save their money for other things. These rentable eBooks will increase the usage of digital manuscripts even more than their basic creation already has. Julie Bosman paints a picture of the idyllic electronic library: “imagine the perfect library book. Its pages don’t tear. Its spine is unbreakable. It can be checked out from home. And it can never get lost . . . Nationwide, some 66 percent of public libraries offer free e-books to their patrons” (Bosman, Library eBooks). Already this ideal is spreading across the United States, and as eBooks grow, the percentage of library usage will grow. This integration of digital media into libraries, the last bastions for physical literature, is one of the largest indications of imminent eBook precedence—whether in equal status with the physical book or in dominance. As with everything, though, there are some concerns in relation to library eBooks. Bosman lists these cons, relating that “publishers are nervous that e-book borrowing in libraries will cannibalize e-book retail sales. They also lose out on revenue realized as libraries replace tattered print books or supplement hardcover editions with paperbacks, a common practice” (Bosman, Library eBooks). Of course if a library is allowing the short rental of an eBook for free, there is a percentage of readers who will check the literature out from the library rather than purchase it from an ePublisher for keeps. There will also be no physical standards to maintain for lendable books, destroying the profits publishers make replacing worn out novels that have seen good use in a library. But it’s not just publishers who are nervous about the impending eBook rise in the library world; “e-books have downsides for libraries, too. Many libraries dispose of their unread books through used-book sales, a source of revenue that unread e-books can’t provide” (Bosman, Library eBooks). Again rises the previously mentioned con of the fall of used books sales. With no physical copies to replace, libraries will no longer have physical copies to get rid of, which means no used books to donate to individual, used booksellers, charities or poor societies. Those communities that depend on these pre-owned, pre-read books—thereby lowering their cost and making them available to those of lesser income—will be forced to find their literature by other means…or not at all. Aaron Saenz questions the future of books in light of this lending development, stating “now that public libraries . . . are thoroughly open to digital lending, the death of physical books seems more inevitable than ever” (Saenz, What is the Future of Books?). For some this development has the death sentence written all over it—once even libraries have gone digital, there is no hope for the written word in printed form. According to an April 27th insidehighered.com article by Kevin Kiley, there have been plans to move the University of Denver’s Penrose Library’s contents into storage. The university will only return “about 20 percent of the current collection . . . to the renovated library in the end. Will the publishing industry be able to keep up with the rising use and sales of digital eBooks and the diminishing interests and needs in hard copy texts and paper bound books?” (Hillier, A Changing Medium). If the publishing industry can move quickly enough, they should be able to salvage their position in the world by turning digital. Only the future will tell if they will be able to transition in time, and if the cost will prove too great. EBooks are also beginning to appear in colleges and among vast numbers of students. One of the most frustrating aspects of a college education lies in the textbooks—expensive, sometimes costing upwards of $150 for a single text, quickly outdated, and barely worth a third of their original price once used, collegiate texts can sometimes feel about as worthwhile as buying a new car only to try and sell it a year later. What’s more, these texts can be large and heavy, weighing up to 10 pounds for a single manuscript. Students are getting tired of lugging these large, overly expensive, unwieldy books around with them as they trek from class to class. The costs cut into their budgets and their debts, and the inconvenience cuts into their patience. Now the eBook and the eReader have found another niche into which to make their grand appearance; digital textbooks will create “a more dynamic interaction with students as opposed to . . . a book that can easily be outdated in a year . . . And the prices should come down” (Bigelow, Apple iPad). Some college classes have already adopted multiple eReaders for students to employ during the course of their study, allowing them to purchase newer, more accurate texts at a much lower cost and inconvenience. Multiple ancient texts, of which there is a high need for those taking a liberal arts or classical study approach—can be found for free download online in PDF and eBook form through many distributers. EBooks will find vast numbers of supporters in the collegiate world.
Of course, there are those who believe that the eBook will save the publishing world. And they have good reason to suspect so—for one, they claim that new technology will bring the book back to the preeminence that it once knew. Todd Bigelow, a strong proponent for the eReader the iPad, states that “[the iPad] might help stem the flow of blood from the publishing industry that has been whacked by a loss of advertising and readers” (Bigelow, Apple iPad). Those who are technologically inclined will take advantage of these new and intriguing developments in the medium by which we intake information, and it could be these digital books that will spur that rise in interest. And a rise in interest is just what the publishing world needs. With the many distractions that writers, publishers, and all invested in the literary world must compete with in regards to their customers—video games, movies, music, and anything else that would take valuable time out of someone’s day that they could spend reading—eBooks in their newness and convenience could be the tourniquet that keeps literature as a whole from bleeding out. Also, the eBook has been hailed as the possible savior of not only publishing but the printed book as well. Jeff Donlan, an author from wordpress.com, writes “the book is not dead. More were published last year in the U.S. than ever before . . . I don’t think we’re near the end of its life, as the more frantic futurists predict, but it will have to share the world with the digital book” (Donlan, Self Published). So the physical book is not dead, and the rise of the eBook will only increase the knowledge of the existence of books, which will only increase reading as a whole. People looking to the future with a critical or despairing eye must remember that everything is best in moderation—eBooks can reside in concert with physical books. Donlan continues, “modern publishing technology that has permitted the self-publishing revolution will play a role beside the revolution of digital books. We’ve already had requests for books that exist only as e-books for the Amazon Kindle. A future improvement will allow those same books to be available in print via print-on-demand technology” (Donlan, Self Published). Some people will be introduced to a book or an author via eBooks, and being a true physical book advocate will then purchase the physical book as well. It is important to remember that so many readers, the really dedicated kind, prefer physical books for true pleasure reading, not only to bulk up their library but also because physical books just have that romantic feel and smell to them. EBooks could very well be the thing that pulls physical books and the publishing world from the brink, hand in hand with self-publishing methods such as print-on-demand technology. An example of such is Snowfallpress.com. Snowfall Press is not a publisher, as many houses dedicated to printing an unrepresented author are, but a printing company that allows the author to format, stylize, and create a professional-grade, bound, printed book for sale. The innovative part of this new form of printing is that it is on demand. The author can print as few as one book or as many as needed to accommodate the audience, saving time, money, and minimizing waste. EPublishers will take advantage of this new technology and cater to their readers—should only one of all others wish for a physical copy of an eBook, the publisher will be able to accommodate them. And on the other hand, should hundreds of thousands suddenly decide that they would like to see the eBook in physical form, that too will be attainable. With eBooks and physical books moving forward hand in hand, the future is bright for publishing.
To sum up this discussion of eBooks, eReaders, and ePublishing, we must finally come to a conclusion as to the prospect of literature. What does the future hold? Lev Grossman, author of Books Gone Wild: The Digital Age Reshapes Literature, declares, “publishing isn't dying. But it is evolving . . . [literature is] shaped by [the] world, and we're living through one of the greatest economic and technological transformations since . . . the early 18th century. The novel . . . [is] about to renew itself again” (Grossman, Books Gone Wild). Publishing and the form it takes evolves with the society that it lives in—like finches adapting to their habitat, so does the novel change in appearance with the advancement of the environment. This change can take the appearance of death as surely as the transformation from fall to winter, but spring lies just around the corner. In order to see this lurking rebirth, it is imperative to pin down the ways in which spring will bloom the novel in the coming season. Monique Trottier outlines some of these changes, asserting, “digital sales changed the publishing world, not just in how we write online content, but how we sell online.” (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). The changes to the way we read and consume literature have led to new cycles in publishing. First, publishers now must use online coding instead of printing in order to format their represented novels. Before editors and publishers had to outline and layout books with a physical copy in mind as the final result. Now the entire digital world lies open to them. But this will affect certain choices they must make in regards to that world, such as keyword choices. The keywords entered into a search engine of any kind, whether it be Google or Bing or Amazon, will automatically find the most popular titles associated with that keyword—so a publisher who wants to see a book do well will need to know which words to use in order to bump their sale up to the top. “The keyword choices made for the book . . . determine whether readers will be able to easily find that book . . . Acquiring search engine marketing skills has served many publishers well,” and soon will become the norm, as digital emphasis expands, for publishers as a whole (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). What does this mean for readers and publishers alike? “If people are buying digitally, it means they are also discovering digitally. This changes what keywords publishers choose to use in blog headings, press releases, newsletter articles, tweets, twitter hashtags and on-page optimization,” all of which will completely alter the mindset and advertising methods previously used (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). What might have been appropriate for a poster may not have the same affect across a screen, and one cannot force a new advertisement about a book to immediately be the first post to come up on Google—publishers will have to get clever and learn the ins and outs about the way people search, the way their minds go from one association to another. Another new cycle of publishing is the thumbnail: “digital sales brings us thumbnail versions of the book for display on Amazon and other websites” (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). No more does a flashy cover exist to catch the eye of a wandering reader perusing a book store—in those days a large cover, anywhere between 8.5x11” and 4x6”, could be depended upon to snag a potential purchaser should widespread marketing fail to reach them. Now there is no attractive spine nestled among other books to reach out to readers. Instead, publishers must depend upon a thumbnail size image, perhaps the first couple pages of a book, to hook in a buyer. Publishers will need to learn subtle skills not only in how to form these thumbnails and initial samples of a book but also how to direct authors on which elements to include in those first few pages. Lastly, the lack of need for inventory will completely alter the original cycle of stocking and distributing. Trottier concurs, pointing out that “a subset of sales is inventory management, which is completely changed by digital sales” (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). As mentioned earlier, no longer will publishers be forced to overprint, creating hype about a new novel, and then swallow whatever excess this may lead to in both production and shipping. Now inventory management is as simple as keeping track of how many digital copies have been downloaded from the database, perhaps getting as complicated as having an IT on staff to handle any glitches in ‘delivery’. The physical flaws of printing, the delays of shipping and lost merchandise, the excess of an average or not successful manuscript—all these hurdles have been neutralized. This inventory change will not only condense the current cycles of publishing but simplify them, bringing a brighter, more profitable future to publishing as a whole.
In addition, the evolution of publishing has led to changes not only in the actual process of book production but also to how they are marketed. Thanks to the internet and the growing influence of digital means of communication, social media is now one of the strongest forms of marketing and sales. Companies and businesses across the world use Facebook and Twitter to manage their fanbase, their updates, their announcements, and their events. This phenomenon has not been absent in the development of books: “publisher websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds all contribute to the online conversation about books and authors” (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). How many different status’ or links will there be about an upcoming book or video game that will traverse across friends’ and friends of friends’ pages with the ability to go viral after only a few days, sometimes only a few hours? Human communication and interaction has grown to the speed of the internet and 4G, where before one had to wait to read a review in a paper, see a poster at a bookstore, or hear by word of mouth from someone who had already read the book—such a process can take weeks. Social media will cut that time exponentially, exploding the speed at which new media is distributed at a ferocious rate. Secondly, eBooks have brought with them a new way to be reviewed that will bleed, and indeed already has, into how physical books are critiqued. At the moment, “[eBooks] are mainly reviewed by bloggers and specialized eBook review websites . . . Authors must bear much of the responsibility for marketing and promotion” (Strauss, Electronic Publishing). Personal promotion of a novel will have two reactions—it will increase as well as decrease credibility. A potential reader is more likely to believe a close friend about the quality of a novel than some distant force, and yet an unrelated reader will be more comfortable taking the word of an established professional than some tweet post that claims omg @newauthor this is the best #book evar! Authors will have to adapt and learn which routes will most effectively and credibly publicize their book, whether that be by social media, distribution among their friends and family, or incessant emails and phone calls to journalists and bloggers. However, there is one concern about this new dependence upon social media and the search engine bug. Steven Johnson expresses his concern about the wholeness that comes from a physical novel and the foreseeable fragmentation of digital books: “the unity of the book will disperse into a multitude of pages and paragraphs vying for Google's attention . . . Readers will have the option to purchase a chapter for 99 cents, the same way they now buy an individual song on iTunes” (Johnson, How the eBook Will Change the Way We Read and Write). While this fragmentation does indeed sound frightening, leading to a lack of concentration and sales as readers purchase a single intro and then lose attention or interest in the continuation of the book, it is difficult to judge the future reactions of readers. But there is hope yet in the new day that is dawning, especially for these future readers. EBooks are attracting new readers among the technologically inclined. Those who before read very little to not at all because they couldn’t pick up a book via their phone or computer will now have the means to read in a format that suits them. Pamela Seiple noted this change in her article Amazon’s eBook Sales Now Exceed Printed Book Sales—“consumers are increasingly moving toward digital consumption, using devices such as the Kindle, the NOOK, and other digital book readers for viewing content . . . whether it’s checking email or accessing websites on a smartphone or reading eBooks on a Kindle” (Seiple, Amazon’s eBook Sales). And the mindset that created these technologically savvy people will not allow them to pass by the opportunity to take advantage of eBooks. Their only reasons not to read have been abolished with the eBook—literature can now follow them around wherever they go, can be accessed wherever they are on whatever technology they have with them, and is forgiving for the multitasker who wants to stop and check their email or tweet about the latest chapter without switching platforms. Not only are eBooks attracting new readers, but the evolution of publishing is changing the way in which customers are sought; “traditionally publishers saw themselves in a [Business to Business] role . . . Digital sales put publishers in a [Business to Consumer] role” (Trottier, How Digital Sales Changed the Publishing World). The outreach is more direct, cutting out the middle man and allowing readers to communicate with and be courted straightforwardly by the publisher or author. The distribution speed and speed of satisfaction in books will jump significantly as all it takes to have a book in one’s ‘hands’ is a single click of the mouse. Even when considering the iPad alone among many types of eReaders, the number of new customers that will be directly attained by this evolution of publishing is astounding. Steve Jobs reported that “‘forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year’” (Auletta, Publish or Perish). In response to this, Carolyn Reidy, the president and CEO of Simon & Schuster said that the iPad will “‘put digital books in front of one hundred and twenty-five million people’” (Auletta, Publish or Perish). That number is based on one eReader! Imagine how many people will have access to books given the many platforms on which they can access them—iPads, Kindles, Nooks, Smart Phones, Laptops, Notebooks…the list continues. On the whole the eBook, eReader, and ePublishing uprising has already and will continue to increase reading interest by reaching out to the technologically inclined: “Russ Grandinetti, the Amazon vice-president, says the Kindle has boosted book sales over all. ‘On average,’ he says, Kindle users ‘buy 3.1 times as many books as they did twelve months ago’”(Auletta, Publish or Perish). The future of books and their appreciation looks bright. But will the economy of books force readers to put on their sunglasses?
While we can expect that the future of the novel will be, once it has finished changing, as bright and vibrant as ever, concern still lies over the fluctuating economy of books. Lev Grossman points out that “literary reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002, the first such increase in 26 years. So that's not the problem. What is? The economy, obviously. Plenty of businesses are hurting” (Grossman, Books Gone Wild). People are reading just as much as they ever were—especially in light of the new technology allowing them to do so in quicker, more immediate ways. But eBook prices across the board are a source of intense debate and concern. Ken Auletta reaffirms that publishers are not concerned with the amount of reading being done by their public; “publishers’ real concern is that the low price of digital books will destroy bookstores, which are their primary customers” (Auletta, Publish or Perish). There is no such thing as an eBook bookstore, and there never will be with the precedent set at having the bookstore in the palm of your hand. Not only will this portable bookstore cause great strain for the book sellers of today’s industry, but the standard price of eBooks will cause even greater strain on publishers as a whole. At the moment eBooks are anywhere between $0.99 and $9.99—a huge discount from the usual hardcover, physical book that starts at over $20 and can rack up to $35. And once consumers grow accustomed to the low prices, raising them could cause an already unstable bubble to pop. Publishers may be unable to bring the price of the book back to its original state, and there is no way that they will be able to rescue the bookstore unless eBooks and printed books stabilize at an equal footing. Even then, the bookstore will shrink in priority and will have to adjust to the new regime at hand, as will publishers. It is inevitable—
“‘Bezos has declared that . . . bookstores are dead.’ There are now an estimated three million Kindles in use, and Amazon lists more than four hundred and fifty thousand e-books. If the same book is available in paper and paperless form, Amazon says, forty per cent of its customers order the electronic version” (Auletta, Publish or Perish).
Even with the print-on-demand technology, only a small majority will take advantage of this facility. Thus bookstores will continue to shrink; the bankruptcy and disappearance of the book-retailer Borders is a clear example of this movement. Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, and other such massive, more stable stores will manage to remain in the coming years, but the independent bookstore and the smaller divisions will shrink until they no longer exist. The numbers are already in; “according to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent booksellers has declined from 3,250 to 1,400 since 1999; independents now represent just ten per cent of store sales” (Auletta, Publish or Perish). Not all change is painless, and the next few years that witness this literary revolution will be very hard on some aspects of the old industry, but the change will continue along its stated course. Much good has already been proven and foreseen to come from it, but there will be transitions agonizing and transitions less so.
In conclusion, eBooks, eReaders, and ePublishing will substantially increase the rate of reading and literacy but will cause the publishing world to so radically alter that survival will be touch and go for all means of physical publishing. This digital revolution could be the end for bookstores across the nation, but the fear that literature and the book are dead is misplaced. The novel is evolving, changing, revitalizing. Bookstores will fail, publishers will have to learn new tricks, the industry will flip over as if shaken by an earthquake…but readers will increase, authors will grow, and at the end of this revolution the world of publishing and all that surrounds it will be stronger, more innovative, and more attuned to the eyes that view their materials and the minds that lie behind them. We may not recognize the book when this transition is finished; it may have an entirely new shape, perhaps even an entirely new name. But it will be there, nonetheless. Though it be digital or physical, metal or paper, the book will always be a significant outpouring of human thought, and therefore will never die.
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