The Future of Book Publishing, Part 2: The Perils of an all-digital world

In this second part of The Future of Book Publishing series (read part one, The 10 Steps From Idea to Printed Book here) let’s take a closer look at the future; more specifically digital book publishing. We are at a crossroads in time right now. Whereas before book, magazine and newspaper publishing was a secluded realm of large corporations with massive printing facilities and distribution networks, now the internet and its myriad of connected devices has cut a big hole in that impenetrable wall and made it accessible to anyone with the ability to type. And we’re only getting started. The e-reader, in its many manifestations, has begun to make inroads into our homes and our bags and with it the written word suddenly bypasses the entire printing and publishing process that previously took so much time and money. But what does that mean for the future of book publishing, and more importantly democratic access to information?

The problem begins with content control

It may seem like the publishers have been sleeping at the wheel where the whole ebook phenomenon is concerned. Nothing could be further from the truth. Publishers have not only been aware of ebooks as an emerging technology; in many cases they have been driving it. In spite of appearances cutting out the middle man and getting a book from the author to the reader in a couple of weeks rather than a couple of months is something that would benefit the publisher as well. That is if they could control the content.

The inherent problem with ebooks and digital publishing in general is that the second the work exists in a digital format it is ripe for illegal duplication and distribution. And while music and movies have been fairly easy to duplicate ever since they started appearing on CDs and DVDs, books have, by nature, been well shielded from this problem: Scanning hundreds or even thousands of pages manually is just too much work. Not so with the ebook: Since it is by nature a text document it is very easy to copy and distribute.

To curb this problem before it becomes a problem, publishers, distributors and 3rd parties are all working furiously to come up with the perfect copy protection method. Unfortunately this has led to yet another format war with two main rivals.

ePub vs. Kindle — yet another idiotic format war

You can join the ebook revolution right now by buying your very own e-reader or e-reader app. Just be warned: Whether you choose ePub or Kindle as your preferred technology it may end up like Betamax or HD-DVD. You see, behind the scenes in the ebook universe there is a fierce battle raging — one that is hard to spot on the surface. In the western trenches you have Amazon and it’s Kindle. In the eastern trenches you have the open ePub format supported by the US Nook (Barnes & Noble), Canadian Kobo (Chapters / Indigo), Sony Reader, North American public libraries and most European book publishers.

Based on the description one would think the Kindle was already drowning in mud. But it isn’t because Amazon is too big (in North America at least). Amazon’s market share and enormous sales volume means publishers can’t ignore the Kindle. So even though they may support the ePub format, they will also make a Kindle version of the books to reach the Amazon customers. As a result Amazon has a huge advantage. In truth, if it wasn’t for the growing library of free Public Domain ePub material and the fact that library ebooks can’t be read on the Kindle I don’t think there would be a format war at all — Kindle would already have won.

As it stands North American consumers looking to buy an e-reader currently have to make a choice: Do you want access to Amazon’s seemingly limitless ebooks library and buy exclusively from Amazon or do you want to buy books from another retailer and also have access to Public Domain libraries and ebooks from the library? If you want to go with Amazon, you buy the Kindle. If you want the other option you buy one of the several e-readers on the market and cross your fingers that Amazon won’t kill it. Or you wait. Like with every other format war the only real casualty here is the consumer.

…and then there’s the issue of distribution

The past couple of years have seen the shocking decline of print media. It seems if trends continue the way they are now newspapers, magazines and even books printed on paper might be a thing of the past sooner than we expect. It could be attributed to a natural progression; spoken word becomes hand written scrolls becomes printed paper becomes e-ink; but the forces at play here are much greater and more convoluted. Let’s not dwell on the “why” just now. Instead, let’s look at the “what happens next” part.

The truly great thing about the printed word, and the reason it was so revolutionary, was low cost and easy distribution. You can buy a book for under $10, read it as many times as you like and give it to someone else to read. If the book is lucky it may change hands hundreds of times and be read by all sorts of people. This is the very nature of the book — you can share it and it lasts forever.

But what happens when the book goes digital? Yes, the book – or file — itself will remain cheap, but accessing the book is no longer as easy. To read a printed book all you need is a light source. To read an ebook you require a device on which to display the book and electricity. It’s a whole new level of technological sophistication, and one that is not readily available to the majority of people living on this planet.

It has been said that the internet is the true democratization of information. But it has also cut a big chasm in society between those that have access and those that don’t. And with the ebook that chasm will grow larger.

Is the ebook a threat to the democratization of information?

Right now I can go to a book store, buy a book on any topic I please, put it in an envelope and send it to a friend anywhere in the world. The recipient, even if she lives in a place with no artificial light, no power and no computerized devices of any sort, can read the book and retrieve the information therein. If the book were not available in print but only in a digital format, my friend would never be able to read it.

“But that’s not going to be a problem” you might say. “The publishers will still print books for less technologically advanced regions, and in time the technology will become ubiquitous.” That last part may be true, in 50 — 100 years, but the first part not so much. Consider this: You are a publisher of books. One day you realize you can cut costs by 80% and increase your earnings at the same time by cutting the print department all together and just push everything out digitally. Why on earth would you not do this? That day is coming my friends.

The key question here is who cares about who reads the book? An author always wants her work to reach as many eyes as possible, but for the publisher it’s all about profit. In other words, a publisher may easily argue that if moving to ebooks and scrapping print means a loss in readership it is more or less irrelevant if the bottom line keeps moving up. Of course this will vary depending on the publisher and its mandate, but it’s a fairly obvious conclusion and one that will sound solid for shareholders and investors.

The problem is the second a book is released in digital-only, the reader base is reduced substantially, not just in numbers but also socio-economically and geographically. So even though it may be good for the bottom line, and it pushes the evolution of the printed word forward, in the process it is leaving a lot of people in the digital dust. In the end it becomes a question for the author: Do I care who reads my book? And if so, do I care if my book will be available for people who can’t access a digital version?

Ebooks for the wealthy, print-to-order for the rest?

Let’s perform a simple thought experiment here (we philosophers love thought experiments): Let’s assume that 10 years from now all major publishers have abandoned print altogether in place of ebooks and that smaller publishers are being edged out of the market due to ever increasing printing overhead costs. We are now in a satiation where if you don’t have the means to acquire a device that can read an ebook and you are not connected to the internet, you will have a hard time accessing new written materials.

In this imagined world a new type of service would likely emerge: That of licenced print-to-order businesses. You’ll already find the prototype of this industry at universities around the world. There either the university itself or the students have set up Copy Co-ops that reproduce compendiums of out-of-print books and selected articles that have been licenced to them. Without this service much of the required reading materials would be inaccessible to the students either due to availability or price. In this imagined world a larger version of the Copy Co-op would likely emerge from which the non-connected, non-e-reader carrying populace could order and get printed hardcopies of their chosen books.

The question here is how expensive will this be, will it even be allowed by publishers and also just importantly what happens to censorship. We already know several countries, including the United States of America, censor the availability and distribution of books that are deemed undesirable, be it for religious, ethical or political reasons (Catcher In The Rye is but one mindboggling example). In this imagined world such censorship would likely become more prevalent as the Copy Co-ops could be punished by having their licences revoked if they reproduced “undesirable” materials. I shudder at the thought.

Ebooks — status quo

What’s outlined above is speculation on my part. But the questions posed, and the scenarios outlined are important aspects of this discussion and shed a different light on the discussion. True, ebooks are revolutionizing the publishing and distribution process and making the written word accessible in new and exciting ways. But they also carry with them serious problems that are being overlooked or brushed under the carpet by publishers and fans alike. It is in times of rapid change we have to take a step back and look at the wider ramifications of our actions so we can see not only the shiny new future but also what happens in the shadowlands.

10 Steps from Idea to Printed Book

3 thoughts on “The Future of Book Publishing, Part 2: The Perils of an all-digital world

  1. What about Governments who want to control the media? If everything is digital would not that make their job easier? Censorship could happen with one push of a button. And in a disaster, all electronic records would be wiped out. And what happens to all the paper books? Destruction? Keep paper books, or better yet, print them on ecologically friendly materials.

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