E-BOOKS WILL SAVE AND/OR DESTROY THE WORLD!

It just isn’t going to go away, is it? If you’re paying any attention at all to the publishing business, you can’t turn your head without someone sticking another article about e-books in your face, all with dire warnings of approaching doom, or predictions of a glorious future, sometimes both in the same article.

We’re being warned on an almost minute-by-minute basis that if we don’t pay attention to the fundamental questions of digital rights management (DRM) we’ll all go down with the ship the same way the music industry did. The death of the book is now more or less assumed, and the real argument seems to be how long it will take e-books to overtake then utterly destroy the printed-on-paper dinosaurs we’re currently saddled with. How many times in the last week have you been told that the Kindle will revolutionize publishing in the same way that the iPod revolutionized (and not necessarily for the better) the music business? I lost count at a thousand.

And so now here I am, doing the same—or am I?

I guess I have to throw a few things out there, just to show I’ve thought about it at least a little.

I bought an iPod and loved it, and buy music mostly from iTunes now. It’s rare that I buy a CD anymore, or listen to an “album” all the way through. I haven’t had a turntable in years and sold the last of my record collection on eBay maybe eight years ago. I’ve sold off a bunch of CDs too, and the rest are sitting in boxes in a closet as a very space-inefficient way to have a sort of iTunes backup. Eventually I’ll buy a backup hard drive and dump the rest of my extensive CD collection on the secondary market.

That having been said, then, surely I was first in line for a Kindle, or other e-book reader, right?

Wrong.

Here are a few reasons, in no particular order:

Thanks to iTunes, I was able to download songs from my huge collection of CDs into my computer and from there onto my iPod, or onto my own mix CDs. No e-book reader will allow me to transfer into digital form any of the over 700 printed books in my collection that I still have yet to read. The songs on a CD are already in digital form, so all I had to do was transfer them from one place to another. In order to get all my unread books onto an e-book reader, I’d have to scan every page of every book, save the scans as a PDF, and hope that the scans come out legibly and I haven’t missed a page or two along the way.

I’ve had to scan books we don’t have archived at Wizards of the Coast, and trust me, that process takes as long as reading the book. No advantage there. I suppose I could recreate that library by buying all those books again, but that could cost me more than $7000—just to replace books I’ve already bought.

And that’s only after I’ve already invested how much in the device itself?

The cheapest e-book reader, apparently, is the jetBook Lite, which retails for $149, or the price of about eighteen or nineteen mass market paperbacks, but since you’ll still pay probably the same $6.99-$7.99 for each book you download into it, you never really make up that initial $149 investment, leaving you to rationalize that with fuzzy stuff like convenience (is a book that requires batteries really more convenient?) or just the fact that people who like gizmos get $149 worth of pleasure having a gizmo that works kinda like a book.

I know a number of people who have bought e-book readers and most of them claim to love the things. I get it. Most people are reluctant to tell all their friends, “What the hell was I thinking, spending $149 on this thing?” Even if that’s what they’re thinking. And I won’t discount that joy in having a flashy new gizmo.

But the current state of e-book readers is still in its first-adopter phase, and the first-adopters haven’t quite gotten to the point where they start to examine, with that first blush off the rose, the real cost of their reader and the books they’ve downloaded, the real hours spent maintaining it, let alone reading it, and so on. When you leave a $7.99 mass market book on an airplane or in a hotel room, oh well. If you leave your $300 reader and another $300 or more in books behind by mistake, you’re bummin’

The iPod revolutionized the way we listen to and buy music because it was better. So far, I’ve yet to see an e-book reader that’s better than a real book in any but the least important, cosmetic ways.

Lest you think that makes me one of those crusty old fuddy-duddies who refuses to see the writing on the wall, let me stop you there and say that I think that the future of reading will be on some kind of electronic device, and that future is nearer than the fuddy-duddies think, but farther away than the people trying to sell you a $300 reader are telling you.

From what I’ve been able to determine, e-books account for a little more than 1% of the total publishing business, but it’s the fastest growing segment. If people who follow technology adoption trends are to be believed, that kind of technology tends to double every year. If e-books follow that trend, this time next year we’ll see e-books at 2% of the marketplace, then 4%, 8%, and so on until e-books break through the halfway mark somewhere in 2015 to make up 64% of the publishing business. It can’t double again, to be 128% in 2016, so there’s going to have to be a cap, and I think we all know it won’t be 100% (there are still a small number of vinyl records sold, too) but it will be very close.

I think that horizon is a little farther off than 2016, and mainly for the reason that people who tend to buy $300 electronic devices are more apt to spend that $300 on video game consoles, or netbook computers, or 3G phones, which do more than one thing. The idea of a device that only does one thing, actually, is very 20th century thinking. Your mobile device will very quickly become the e-book reader of choice, if it hasn’t already, so you don’t have to carry around anything but that one gizmo that does everything.

In a blog that’s supposed to be about advice for aspiring fantasy authors, what does all this mean? Does it mean the sky really is falling, even if it might take a while to fall the rest of the way? Does it mean that publishing is over, that print is dead, that we should all learn to code video games?

I won’t advise against you learning to code video games. That’s a growth industry, and publishing is not, but if you’re a storyteller, tell stories. If it’s released to the public printed on paper, or as an e-book, if people read it as a hardcover, a mass market, a PDF, or some proprietary reader format—it doesn’t matter. They’re reading.

Authors have always been content providers, though that term has a corporate Newspeak quality to it that makes most of us flinch. All this fussing about trying to sell you a $300 machine that mimics a book tends to ignore the simple fact that e-reader or paper book alike, it all still depends on content. If you think e-readers are pointless, imagine how really pointless they’d be without stories to download into them. If you think they’re the cat’s meow, you’ll still have to admit that they’d be really pointless without stories to download into them.

The marketplace will determine the format of your book, and changes in that marketplace are coming every day as the publishing business struggles through what I’ll call a depression, even if no one else has the guts to say it like it is. If I write or edit a book, I want it to get to the biggest possible paying audience. If I end up finding that audience on an e-reader, I’m okay with that.

I just want people to read.

 

—Philip Athans

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to E-BOOKS WILL SAVE AND/OR DESTROY THE WORLD!

  1. jimspoor says:

    Amen

  2. Pingback: THE FIVE MISCONCEPTIONS « Fantasy Author's Handbook

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