Join the E-Revolution

By Vic DiGenti

“Would you read books on an electronic device,” I asked a friend recently.

She said no, by the way, but the question arose because I’ve been thinking a lot about e-books ever since last year’s FWA Conference when I heard literary agent Lori Perkins make the bold prediction that “within fifteen years up to ninety percent of all books published will be e-books.”

That came as a shock to an old library rat and inveterate book lover. I chalked it up to hyperbole. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt Lori might be on to something. So I started asking my fellow book lovers how they felt about exchanging “real” books, that is books we can hold in our hands and feel the weight and texture of the paper, for e-books. I wasn’t surprised when most of them said they couldn’t imagine such a thing. Books are too important to our cultural and educational life, they told me. Books are a part of the American fabric. And what about all those book stores and libraries? One person said he couldn’t start the day without reading his local newspaper, and he would keep doing that until they pried the paper from his cold, dead fingers. Or, I countered, the newspaper went out of business.

I continued to ponder the question (to watch me ponder is not a pretty sight) and as I thought about the current state of the publishing industry, of the amazing changes technology has made in our lifetime, I had to reassess my opinion. I’m sure our forefathers at the turn of the 19th century couldn’t imagine some mechanical contraption taking their beloved horse and buggies away. Or how swiftly the telegraph would give way to the telephone. In more contemporary times we only have to look at how pagers disappeared after cell phones became ubiquitous.

But wait, you might say. We’re not talking about a product like a pager or buggy, but an entire industry. I won’t mention that automobiles made the buggy industry extinct, but you make a good point—up to a point. Let’s take a look at the long-suffering publishing industry. In its heyday publishers were viewed as beneficial caretakers of talented authors. Editors acquired unknown geniuses and nurtured them over a period of years and multiple books until they became household names. The more successful publishers grew not because of their business acumen or their knowledge of what readers wanted, but because they were able to corral a few blockbuster authors.

An era of consolidation began in the sixties with respected independents being gobbled up by larger and larger houses, until today we have five or six super conglomerates responsible for 80 percent of all books published. The big boys had more money to pour into outrageous advances (of course, if one was offered to me, I would more likely characterize it as justified than outrageous) and absorb their miscalculations, since very few of those books earned back its advance.

Publishers were able to live with the mess they’d created, the incredible inefficiencies of their business model, until the bottom fell out of the U. S. economy. When the economic tsunami washed over Wall Street, flooded the banks, and put thousands of homes into foreclosure, the publishers felt the sting along with everyone else. Lagging sales led to higher returns. Publishing houses laid off staff, cut salaries and perks, and many retailers shut their doors.

Those of us who struggled to break into the wonderful world of publishing now found ourselves in an industry struggling to remain relevant and viable. While death notices have yet to be officially posted, the industry is ripe for revolutionary change.

If I still haven’t convinced you, think about the dramatic change the music industry has undergone in the past decade. Remember those round, flat objects known as record albums? While audiophiles still hunt for them in Good Will bins, most of the music buying public now purchases their music through the Internet with digital downloads. Like the publishing industry, the music industry had been shaky for some time. When the iPod came along, it meant the end to the old business model of selling music. Imagine the savings to the record company when they could sell each track for 99-cents and not have to press records or CDs, manufacture record jackets or hire sales reps to call on the major chains. Sure, they still manufacture CDs and you’ll find them in the stores, but today more people are running around with those little buds plugged into their ears, listening to hundreds of songs they loaded into their electronic devices.

If the book business is to survive, and it will in some form or another, it will be saved by an iPod for books. At this point, Amazon’s Kindle is the closest thing we have, but the price point doesn’t make it that attractive to most people. You can bet with competition from the Sony Reader, the Stanza application for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and the many other reading platforms that will emerge, things will change rapidly. Prices will come down, and more and more people will load their e-reader with dozens of books. And just like with the music revolution, young people will lead the way. They’re already pre-disposed toward new technologies without the hang-ups many of us older readers have for our books.

No one knows what the future holds for publishers, but as authors we have to be aware that Darwinian survival brings evolutionary change. Are we going to ride the wave of the coming e-revolution or be swept under and lost in the rip tide of change? Just asking.

This article first appeared in The Florida Writer, the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association. My column, The First Million Words, has appeared in the magazine since 2006.

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