Then there was the quill, Shakespeare, the typewriter, Inspector Poirrot, the 21st century and before we knew it someone invented Amazon and who let the dogs out? The Apocalypse was at hand. The number of the Beast was Amazon and the Big 6 were all dead.
The landscape of publishing has been razed in just five years; once were dinosaurs, a handful of large publishing conglomerates and book chains providing a dwindling choice of books. The gatekeepers were a few powerful uber-agents who were an indispensable part of the food chain. Now a comet called Amazon has hit and the climate is undergoing radical change. Some species are on the endangered list already.
The sale and return model was rubbish anyway. It was the law of diminishing returns that just about sentenced any author who didn’t break out with his second novel to a slow lingering death on the back shelves.
IT’S JUST FREE MARKET ECONOMICS IN ACTION
EBooks now make up 20% of the market, with that figure much higher in genres like SF and thrillers. Romantic and erotic fiction have gone gangbusters on digital, of course. No one wants to buy their vibrator or handcuffs at Walmart.
As sales of printed books plummet and sales of eBooks soar, the assumption is that this trend will continue. But I wonder if this is logical. After all, sales of eBooks are slowing in the US and picking up in the UK where the take up came later. Perhaps they’ll find a level and ease out. TV was supposed to kill the movies and so was video.
The demise of print has been predicted before; remember the paperless office? Yeah, right. Companies now use 40% more paper than in those dark days before Bill Gates. In every government and big corporation anywhere in the world you will find people hard at work designing and printing multicolor spiral bound presentations when their boss is looking and personal birthday flyers and Lost Dog posters when they’re not.
WE HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE AND THE FUTURE IS … WEIRD
There is a now a machine now called the Espresso Book Machine. You put in a digital file and a paperback with a nice cover comes out the other end. It’s pretty useful.
A bookstore in Alberta, Canada recently hosted former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell and ran out of books. So they had their machine run off a few more with a new cover plus two new chapters written exclusively for the event.
Imagine the book signings of the future; fans asking authors not just to sign their book but to write them a different ending.
Right now the Espresso is the size of a canteen refrigerator, but in 20 years it will look likeyour home printer, which means bookstores might be replaced by a kiosk in the mall selling coffee and a cosy; you can browse Amazon or Nook while they’re making your double decaf cap.
I’ll have a Nora Roberts and a bagel to go thanks.
The future is already here because now you can get an app of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land with a critic’s notes, a facsimile of the manuscript as annotated by Ezra Pound, as well as an audio recording of the poem, two by Eliot and one by Red Hughes. All on the same download. We’re not living lives of quiet desperation anymore.
But consumer attitudes are changing. After all, with a book, you got something solid for your money. An eBook is just another file. Soon readers may be paying $1 for the book, $10 for the t-shirt and $30 for the signed souvenir poster of the author eating a cream cheese bagel while he’s typing the individual ending they asked for … all printed off the same machine.
WE ALL LIKE HORSES BUT WE PREFER TO GO BY CAR
In short, books are not dying, but the medium is evolving rapidly. All forms of communication are changing anyway; I never imagined one day writing an article about technological advances in publishing and being able to do this …
Some people say reading a book on a screen is like enjoying wine intravenously. All I can say is don’t knock it till you’ve tried it; drinking wine intravenously, I mean.
But there’s also advantages to hard copy that you can’t replace. People will always want print books. See my post on it here.
ITS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD, JUST JUDGMENT DAY
But reading habits are changing. Some people like print, some don’t. But it’s not about the wrapper, it’s about the candy. Besides, everyone is different; there is a new breed of reader that buys an eBook and if they like it they order the hardback so they can have it on their shelf as a souvenir without ruining it by cracking the spine.
Others like to be known by what’s on their bookshelves. You now have the choice of buying a hardback Jonathan Franzen for the entry while you curl up on the window seat and read Fifty Shades of Grey quietly to yourself on your Kindle. Everyone wins.
But I don’t buy the Apocalypse just yet. Besides, if books were going to disappear the Mayans would have predicted it on their calendar. But I could be wrong. It’s a revolution and in a revolution you never know day to day who’s going to get stood up against a wall and shot; sometimes it’s the Czar and sometimes it’s Trotsky.
The only thing we can be sure will not change is the certainty of change itself. Strap yourself in. I think we’re in for a bumpy ride for quite a while yet.