When book == ebook

[This is part two; You might want to read part one. The entire thing will be posted in one long-ass post on Saturday.]

So I talked about music and movies in the digital age yesterday… which brings us to book publishing.

In some ways, publishing’s similar to the movie industry. As John Scalzi pointed out (rather amusingly), there’s more to a good book than just the author’s imagination. In other ways though, it’s content distribution model suddenly become a lot more like the music industry. And that’s a problem for authors.

The e-reader boom has only just started – but they’re definitely here and getting more market share. While I don’t think print is dead yet – Tobias Buckell (I think – I can’t find the actual link right now) pointed out how our economic privilege skews our viewpoint – we are suddenly in a place where the ebook is, for more and more people, the exact same thing as buying the book. So we’ve got the problems of the movie industry (a finished novel is not a solo effort, let alone promoting it) with the now near-perfect distribution substitution of the music industry.

But the last time I checked, (most) authors don’t do concerts. It’s really hard to do an IMAX book. And unlike music, most people rarely re-read books the same way that they listen to music again and again. So trying to adapt either the movie or music models of digital distribution is problematic at best.

This implies some really big things about the future of the publishing industry. It’s quite possible that the model as it currently stands is unworkable. [1] But that doesn’t mean that one model or the other is inherently “dead” or better.

What’s at question is this: Is the value added by typesetters, proofreaders, editors, agents, marketers, slush readers and retailers really worth what they’re paid for it? I don’t know the answer to that question either – it seems like that’s something that would work really well in a free market kind of situation. Maybe that’s the role that publishing houses need to emphasize – that they provide a context and market for these kinds of associations to happen. [2]

Of course, many economic entities (both publishing houses and retailers like Amazon) are trying to lock in profits by forcing the new technologies to conform to the old business model. That’s where all the DRM and format incompatibility come into play (Wanna read ePub on your Kindle? Tough. Wanna read a Kindle document on your nook? Tough.). There’s no technological reason things should stay that way, and the popularity of jailbreaking iPhones and hacking Wiis strongly indicates that consumers won’t put up with it any longer than absolutely necessary. In this limited respect, information does want to be free, or at least platform-independent.

But one thing is for sure: As much as I hate to say it, giving away all of your work online isn’t a sure way for authors to succeed in a meaningful way any more.

Why? That’s tomorrow.

[1] I don’t know – we’ll touch on this in part 3
[2] My understanding is that while publishers do this now, it’s not a market-driven thing, which is why authors have little to no control over marketing, covers, and the like. I reserve the right to be wrong.

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