Are Publishers Losing the Hearts and Minds of Readers?

Here’s a fact that might not surprise you very much: the internet is full of idiots. The idiots come in many flavours, but the kinds of idiots who are annoying me this week are some of the people who write blogs about ebooks.

Let’s kick off this discussion with a few choice quotes from some blog posts I’ve read in the last week or so:

From Delimiter: Publishers in Australia refuse to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th century, let alone the 21st century … The Publishers in Australia are heavily addicted to the large margins that Australian books traditionally generate … Publishers are trying to protect their rivers of gold (book sales) by pricing eBooks in such way that makes them less attractive.

I kid you not – RIVERS OF GOLD, people. That’s what publishers are making from paper books: RIVERS. OF. GOLD.

From BookBee: In either case, Billbo posits that publishers are publishing poor-quality ebooks as a Cee Lo Green-style “f$&ck you” to the medium in general, because they’re frustrated … This is so out there that I hadn’t even considered it to be possible … But, really thinking about it, it may well be true. This is the kind of bloody-minded thing that a control freak manager who has had things go his own way for decades might actually do … Yes – sheer madness. Sadly, some publishers have form in the madness stakes.

That’s right, readers: publishers – particularly control freak publishers – are deliberately introducing errors into ebooks because they don’t like them.

I wonder if either of any of these bloggers has ever met or spoken to a real human being who works for a publishing company? Because I guarantee you that if they had they would learn two things a) the old stereotype of the boozy publisher with deep pockets full of cash died twenty years ago; and b) publishers are anal retentive freaks who hate the idea of errors slipping into the books they publish even more than their readers.

To think otherwise speaks of a genuine ignorance and a completely unfounded hate for traditional publishers. For the most part, people who work for publishing companies are in love with books. They love everything about them, and that’s why they work in an industry that pays them all so badly. Traditional publishers are not saints, but they are not the enemy of the reader.

To be fair, these bloggers aren’t the only voices out there. There are plenty of people on all sides of the new publishing paradigm that are speaking sense. Take the phenomenally successful self-published author Amanda Hocking (who I wrote about late last year), who wrote on her blog last week:

Traditional publishing and indie publishing aren’t all that different, and I don’t think people realize that … I just don’t understand writers animosity against publishers. So much of what I’ve been reading lately has made me out to be Dorothy taking down the Wicked Witch … Publishers have done really great things for a really long time. They aren’t some big bad evil entity trying to kill literature or writers. They are companies, trying to make money in a bad economy with a lot of top-heavy business practices … Traditional publishers are not evil any more than Amazon or Barnes & Noble are evil.

Which brings me back, finally, to the title of this blog post and the central question I want to ask of all of you out there. Do blog posts like the ones at the top of this post convince you that publishers are doing bad things for the future of reading? Because I worry that they do. Every time I read one of these posts it makes my blood boil. Not just because I work for a major publisher and know what goes on there doesn’t compare to the bad press they’re getting, but because Amazon and Apple – major companies with a lot more sway over the future of reading than publishers – seem to be getting a free pass. So, let me know what you think in the comments.

Why Everything You Think About Ebooks is a Filthy Lie

So this is going to be a blog about book technology. And I want to kick it off by talking about the title … The Smell of Books. In the last few years I have read hundreds of pages of blogs and newspapers about ebooks. I’ve also been working in a publishing company, where people love to read books, love to talk about books and love to own books. There is a significant proportion of early adopters out there who love the very idea of ebooks and e-publishing, and criticise ebooks only in the way they might criticise any of their beloved gadgets.

And then there is everyone else.

I’d like to start with three misconceptions you might have about ebooks and why you’re stupid for thinking them.

The Smell of Books

The amount of newsprint that has been wasted on the latest prehistoric pundit slash columnist road testing an ebook reader and decrying it as ‘not the same’ as a paper book is absolutely shameful. Their biggest crime, of course, is talking about the smell.

The experience of reading on an ebook reader (or any kind of electronic reading) is self-evidently not the same as a paper book. Nobody is trying to make it so. The advantages of electronic reading are manifold (you can expect me to expound on these reasons in blogs to come), but they do not include any of the following: being able to hand down a worn electronic copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea to your grandson on his 21st birthday; sitting in a bubble bath reading Wuthering Heights to your girlfriend; or showing off to your friends how many of the Russians you have read.

From My Cold, Dead Hands

Nobody is trying to replace paper books with ebooks. Least of all traditional publishing companies. Most publishing companies are still making 95% or more of their profit from paper books, and most people still want to read dead trees. I cannot envision a point in my lifetime where there will no longer be paper books at all. There is no need to take a stand – you will only overbalance and fall over.

Why Try to Reinvent the Wheel?

Books have been in their current form for a long time. They are beloved objects of beauty. They are perfectly suited to all reading activities. Only two of the previous three statements are true. There are plenty of annoying things about dead tree books. Ever tried to haul a copy of Infinite Jest around over the course of the month or more it takes you to read? Ever got stuck reading Gravity’s Rainbow because you didn’t know what Poisson distribution was? Ever lived in a small town with a tiny library and no bookstore and couldn’t find the latest Dan Brown?

Ebooks have a place in the future of book selling, publishing and reading. It’s time to prepare yourself. Just because you don’t like the idea of them doesn’t mean you might not like them. Just because you don’t like them doesn’t mean they’re not here to stay.

[Image courtesy of smellofbooks.com]