News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Gutenberg moment

The publishing industry appears to be at a Gutenberg moment, a time when a new technology is about to radically change the way the printed word is disseminated. The Internet has already made printed newspapers obsolete as a vehicle for disseminating news. Most dailies in the U.S. are on life support. Their hopes of recovery are not good. Yet print journalists are the primary source for most other news media including TV and the Internet. Who will cover events across the globe once newspapers are gone? How will these reporters be compensated? The answers remain unclear.

Book publishers face a similar upheaval. Digital reading devices like Amazon's Kindle will change the way books are bought and read. For those not familiar with Kindle, it is a tablet-sized device that allows you to download e-books from online sources.

For authors, digital reading devices could actually be a boon. Yes, the price of a book may drop considerably. But a lower cover price and the increased buying convenience could actually boost the total sales of books. Television killed general interest weekly magazines like Look, Life and Saturday Evening Post by stealing away ad dollars from mass marketers like P&G and General Foods. At the time, many predicted the demise of printed magazines. Yet, within a decade, more total magazine pages were being printed by special interest publications that targeted readers with interests in sailing, investing, gardening, etc.

However, there is a cloud that could severely darken the sunny landscape for authors in the digital reading era: piracy. Just how vulnerable writers are to e-book piracy is made clear by an article in Tech Crunch: Stealing Books For The Kindle is Trivially Easy As it currently stands, anyone with more than marginal tech savvy can copy and distribute e-books. (Some may argue that pirated songs have not destroyed the music industry. But how many authors can command $100 a seat for personal appearances?)

Authors and publishers have three alternatives. First, we can ignore digital reading devices and hope they go away. Second, we can refuse to make our books available in a digital format. Or third, we can embrace digital reading devices but insist they be made more secure. None of these is a sure bet. But I'm going with number three.
Even so, a larger issue lurks in the digital reading era.

The entire publishing industry is in for a radical change when someone can press a button, buy a book and start reading it in seconds. The current infrastructure of the book biz is centered on printing books and putting them on shelves. What will the role of a publisher be in this new paradigm? What will happen to booksellers? As in the case of newspapers, no one really has the answers yet. But I can offer an anecdote that may provide some perspective.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the affluent drove cars and the masses rode horses. By the end of the twentieth century, only the wealthy could afford horses while the rest drove cars. As the 21st century began, the affluent shopped online line while the masses bought in stores. By the end of this century, only the rich will afford the luxury of buying from a human.

In short, the current system of printed books will survive. But if the past is a reliable indicator, it's only a matter of time before most book reading goes digital. The economics are too compelling to resist.

I have faith that good writing will thrive in any technology. But we are experiencing a revolution in the way the printed word is spread. As someone who lived through the Cuba's revolution can attest, revolutions are seldom bloodless.

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