You may not have heard, but the publishing industry is not doing all that well at the moment. The market is shrinking in lots of ways. It might bounce back, but it’s likely that there is a general trend towards publishers needing to seek new ways of making money from the written word. If not now then soon. In this climate, ebooks are not something to be feared, yet there is a general tendency, especially among people who don’t understand, don’t use or don’t like ebooks to build them into a monster of mythic proportions. The fact is, however, that ebooks are not changing the industry. The industry is changing itself.
An author asked a friend of mine the other day if the decline of the second format market (that’s cheap paperbacks) was the fault of ebooks. Another friend who passed this blog along to an acquaintance was actually asked “Do you believe in all that stuff?” All that stuff, presumably, means ebooks – as if ebooks were magic pixie fairy dust that would be influenced by our collective belief or non-belief. Don’t they realise that every time you say you don’t believe, an ebook dies?
Seriously, though, ebooks are not something to be feared. They are at worst another potential revenue stream, and at best a whole new way of looking at telling stories. My beliefs on the matter (which make less than no difference to the outcome) fall somewhere between these two. At any rate, the future, whether you like it or not, will very likely include ebooks to some extent.
But for how long? Is the ebook itself already an old way of thinking about writing and selling stories? If so, what will come next? Clay Shirky, author of the excellent Cognitive Surplus wrote a post some time ago about the death of the newspaper industry called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable‘. Much of what he says there about newspapers applies equally to publishing books. Snip:
The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift … It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.
We in the book publishing industry are far further away from demise than the newspaper industry, but it doesn’t take a massive leap of imagination to put us in the same situation. I’ve seen it myself. “Leadership,” Shirky writes, “becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en bloc.” Sound familiar?
All of this isn’t to say that the book is dead. Newspapers and books aren’t the same, and the internet has not had the same effect on books as it has had on newspapers. But that is not to say that the digitisation of publishing – a process which started long before ebooks and will continue after them – is not going to have a profound effect on the way written stories reach readers. The one thing we can be sure of, though, is that the stories themselves will still be there. You might not believe in ebooks, but you can believe in that.