Last week I took a walk through one of my favorite local bookstores: the Borders in North Provo, now going out of business and converted into a giant yard sale with a roof. The good news is, the store was more full of customers than I’d ever seen it; the bad news is, well, pretty much everything else. Everything was for sale, from the books to the shelves they were sitting on, usually marked with a hand-written sign on a white piece of office paper. It looked like the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey, with hand after hand reaching in to tear off a chunk of meat or snap in half one of the spindly little ribs.
Conspicuously absent from the various displays and discount tables was the Kobo, Borders’ too-little-too-late addition to the ereader market. I’m actually a big fan of the Kobo, or at least its incarnation as an iPad app; having tested them all to see what they could do, I like the Kobo’s set of features so much better than the others. This may be because the Kobo is a refinement of the archetype, drawing on the experiences of the earlier devices like the Kindle and the Nook, or it may simply be that a wider variety was bound to hit my sweet spot sooner or later. Either way, it doesn’t matter, because waiting so long to put out the Kobo was pretty much the reason Borders died. The market changed, the other major retailers changed with it, and Borders got left behind.
The tricky part about gigantic technological revolutions is that even when we know they’re coming, we have no idea exactly what they’re going to do to any given industry. The electronic revolution fundamentally altered the way that we consume music, and it did so very quickly, and the music industry was destroyed, resurrected, and reshaped in the space of a few short years. That same revolution is now happening to publishing, and the great irony of the situation is that watching one revolution really didn’t prepare us to handle the other. Music and books are such fundamentally different things that the same technology impacted them in wildly different ways. Early predictions for the future of ebooks were mixed, covering eveything from ‘this will destroy print publishing’ to ‘this will never work at all.’ Both of those predictions, and most of the predictions in between, have proven to be incorrect.
Let’s start with the area in which books most closely mimic music: audiobooks. The electronic revolution has made audio files ridiculously easy to produce, sell, store, and transport, and the universality of the files themselves meant that we didn’t need any new devices or accoutrements to support the new format—the same mp3 player that holds your Janice Joplin can hold your Charles Dickens, despite the fact that this juxtaposition probably has both of them rolling over in their graves. When my friend sold his first book in the early 2000′s, audio rights were a joke—no publisher bothered fighting for them because audiobooks were expensive and unwieldy and wildly unpopular. When I sold my first book just a couple of years later, audiobooks were cheap and convenient and the rights, therefore, were a hot commodity. It was almost impossible to negotiate them away from a publisher. But the changes to the market didn’t stop there.
The concept of actual electronic publishing was slow to catch on; people talked about it for years without ever really thinking it would happen, because honestly: who wants to spend that much time reading from a computer screen? The move from CDs to mp3s was easy because the fundamental experience of listening to music didn’t change: the sound coming out of the speakers was identical no matter what storage device you plugged into them. Books are a different story because the experience is so inherently tactile. I love the Kindle commercial where a woman tries to explain that the joys of reading a book come primarily from the physical experience of dog-earing a page; that marketing team is fighting the right war, but in a fantastically wrong-headed way. The smell, and the feel, and the heft of a physical book is such a natural part of the way people read that, yes, overcoming that lifetime of experiential conditioning is vital to the process of getting them to switch. The answer came (as mentioned, much more successfully, in the same commercial) with e-ink, and the Kindle’s ability to replicate the visual appearance of a printed page without any of the eye-strain you get from a typical electronic screen. Once we hit this milestone, it was all over: the eventual migration from print to ebook was essentially assured in that moment, we just didn’t know how long it would take, or what would be left standing when it was done.
The early adopters of the ereader were exactly who you would never have expected: authors and editors and corporate booksellers. These are the people who had the most to lose from the potential fallout of the ebook revolution (not counting, I suppose, the printers themselves), because it risked the stability of their industry and therefore their jobs; these were also, however, the people who had the most to gain from the upsides of an electronic reading device: they read CONSTANTLY, in enormous quantities, often on the go or in weird places, and the sheer convenience of being able to carry a library in their back pocket, complete with bookmarks and easy navigation, made all of their jobs easier. When I sold my first book, now about three years ago, one of the first things they did was convert it to ePub format and give a free copy to everyone at the publishing house, because that way the art team, sales team, marketing team, accounting team, and everyone else was able to read it simultaneously instead of waiting for a thick stack of printed pages to make its slow way around the office. A lot of people expected the ereader to be primarily a tech-geek device, and when it failed to take off among the tech-geek crowd they predicted its death. In reality it is a book-geek device, custom-designed for the specific habits and needs and lifestyles of people who read a ton of books, and once it found that audience it exploded in popularity. Last year Amazon sold more ebooks than print books, which should tell you everything you need to know about their future.
Almost every way in which ebooks COULD HAVE destroyed printed publishing turned out to not really happen. Yes, ebooks are cheaper, but this is offset by the unexpected phenomenon of higher sales: people aren’t paying as much per book, but they’re buying way more books and, in the end, spending more actual money on books than they used to. The ability to click a link and buy a book—often at a pretty low price—has made them into an impulse purchase, offering instant gratification to an audience who, in the recent past, might not even have had a bookstore within reasonable driving distance. This is helping to keep major retailers afloat, assuming they jumped on the bandwagon early and started offering these services; those who didn’t, like Borders, are dying. This is also helping to keep publishers afloat—yes, they pay a hefty chunk to the online retailers, but it’s the same hefty chunk they used to be paying to printers, so their business model can, for the most part, handle it. We also have to consider the ongoing preference for physical books by a pretty large portion of the audience; Kindle commercials can mock them all they want, but some people still prefer physical books, and while that small audience may not be enough to support a giant bookseller (Borders, again, being the example), it’s enough to support a lot of indie booksellers. In some cases, the mass-market shift to ebooks and the demise of chain bookstores is actually boosting sales at indies, which is a bizarrely unexpected yet very welcome reversal of a trend that’s been killing indie bookstores for years.
The other big prophecy of ebook-related doom is that the ease of self-publishing and self-promoting an ebook will kill the major publishing houses, because no one will need to go through them anymore; authors can just write a book and click a few buttons and get their work straight to their fans. This is partly true, and there’s a growing number of success stories to prove how easy it can be to self-publish, but the publishers have, for the most part, adapted very well to the new model. The brand name of Tor or Baen or Harper or Random House, etc., is still a valuable commodity, and the visibility these publishers can give to their books still far outstrips, on average, the visibility that a typical author can generate all on his or her lonesome. This may well change: I don’t want to make a solid statement in either direction at this point because I’m not privy to any direct financial information or outlooks. What I will say is that the publishing industry has been able to ride this wave pretty admirably so far, and I imagine they will continue to do so.
The only ones guaranteed to lose in a massive shift to e-publishing is, as I said, the printers themselves, but I’m enough of an environmentalist to not really be bothered by that. If there’s no longer a need to print millions of tons of paper, and then haul it all over the country on giant trucks, so much the better. Besides, if worse comes to worst, and they have to close down all the big printshops and lose their jobs, no worries: they can all just self-publish an ebook and become instant millionaires!
In light of all of this, I decided last month to dip my toe into the waters of ebook publishing. I have a book that my agent and I have been trying to sell, but that’s just a little too quirky to find mainstream acceptance and a print publisher, so we decided to give it a shot as an ebook: if there’s an audience for it, the ebook market will allow them to find it without risking any money or worrying about mass distribution. It’s called A NIGHT OF BLACKER DARKNESS, and because this is my column, I’m shamelessly advertising it here: you can buy it on Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and, yes, even the Kobo.