This guest post is a perfect follow up to my post yesterday about bemoaning the fate of books versus getting exciting about the opportunities the future presents. As always, it gives me great pleasure to welcome back one of my all time favorite guest bloggers. (Who has a new book out, Fault Line, in a week that you have to buy - and that you can read an excerpt of here.) - MJR
Dead Trees is a Dead Model by Barry Eisler
Tonight I sat down to write a piece on how authors, literary agents, publishers, and booksellers need to change their business strategies to adapt to the advent of ebooks. I wasn't going to spend much time arguing that ebooks will displace paper ones because the displacement seems not just inevitable to me, but immediate, as well. But then I came across a review of Amazon's latest Kindle in the New York Times. The article's author, NYT technology columnist David Pogue, loves the new version, but nonetheless concludes that paper books are going to be fine:
“The point everyone is missing is that in Technoland, nothing ever replaces anything. E-book readers won't replace books. The iPhone won't replace e-book readers. Everything just splinters. They will all thrive, serving their respective audiences”
I don't think so. So before I go into how everyone in the industry should adapt to the changes wrought by ebooks, I guess I need to describe the nature of those changes.
Let's start with Mr. Pogue's argument that "nothing ever replaces anything." Maybe it's just semantics, but when the VHS rental market "splintered" to include DVDs, Blockbuster got hammered. Are people still using VHS? Some, no doubt. Is anyone making real money in that market? Not anymore. And when broadband gets fast enough and storage cheap enough, will people still want to bother with DVDs purchased at Wal-Mart? Maybe a few, but it won't be a mass market anymore. One might also argue that music downloads have "splintered" the music market, but the description would do nothing to restore lost profits among labels and retailers alike. In fact, I read Mr. Pogue's article on the NYT website, having canceled my subscription to the paper edition years ago. It's true in one sense that the Times delivery system has splintered into paper and digital, but that hardly means either is thriving. In fact, the Internet has hollowed out the Times' subscription, advertising, and classified ad revenue streams. That the Times still sells dead trees in the midst of such a hollowing is irrelevant.
Rail companies once made the mistake of thinking they were in the railroad business. They weren't: they were in the transportation business, and the advent of the interstate highway system, which amounted to free "tracks" for long distance trucking, crushed rail transport (just as the airplane and the car devastated rail company passenger profits). Publishers who believe that a paper book and a story are the same thing, and that what consumers want isn't stories, but rather the paper books that are currently used to deliver them, will be making the same mistake the rail companies made, with the same results.
Still not convinced? It's true the advent of gunpowder hasn't eliminated the bow and arrow -- after all, my daughter took archery at summer camp. But does the continued existence of the bow and arrow matter? And yes, the advent of the automobile merely "splintered" the transportation industry, because, after all, you can still catch a horse and buggy ride around Central Park. I could go on, but suffice it to say that arguments about what it means for an industry to "splinter," or the relevance of a certain means of delivery not being extirpated by another, are essentially academic. What matters is how severely an industry's profits will be diminished if it fails to adapt. And while I agree that paper books will survive in the era of electronic books, they'll do so only as a niche growing in the compost the current publishing industry will leave behind. This is hardly "thriving."
Only someone nourished from birth on traditional books could confuse an inculcated preference for paper with an actual dead tree advantage. I can't remember where I came across this thought experiment, but for me it settles the argument: if you'd never heard of paper books, and had grown up instead only with a Kindle or Sony Reader or equivalent, and someone today pitched you on the marvelous new technology of paper books, you'd think the person pitching you was daft. But they're so heavy! you'd say. I don't want to lug five of those things in a suitcase on vacation; I'd rather travel with my whole weightless library. Wait, I have to go to the store to buy these things, or order and wait for the mail, rather than downloading anywhere in an instant? And what, no hyperlinks? No built-in dictionary? I can't adjust the font size so I don't need my reading glasses? Sorry, not interested.
Remember, it wasn't so long ago that people were arguing Amazon would never succeed; after all, customers needed to physically browse and touch and heft books en route to buying them. The successor to that argument is that ebooks will remain a niche because people enjoy the sensory experience of touching and holding and smelling actual paper. That's not analysis; it's whistling past the graveyard.
The only thing keeping paper books going as a mass market today is inertia. But as older generations die out and younger ones come online, and as generations in the middle try ebooks and realize their advantages, the demise of paper books will continue to accelerate. That's an important point: the marginalization of paper books won't continue at its current rate. It'll pick up speed until it hits a tipping point, and then -- poof! -- the only paper books published will be coffee table books and other niche forms that serve a unique (and relatively small) market.
How soon? Look at the reviews Amazon's latest Kindle is getting. Listen to people who use one. Read M.J. Rose's smart observations on this blog. And look at the way publishers are trying to maintain their traditional market: they're using increasingly cheap paper, essentially trying to compete on price against a medium with zero costs of paper, ink, warehousing, and distribution. The fact that paper publishers are even trying to wage this battle on the electronic medium's terms is evidence of how soon and how badly they're going to lose it.
So: if you're an author, a literary agent, a publisher, or a bookseller, what do you do? All that and more in Part 2, available soon exclusively here on the Internets.