Mainstream media admits ebooks to become, uh, mainstream

It’s getting really hard to deny my Cassandra Complex. This sounds an awful lot like what I wrote back in 2000 (yes, nine gorram years ago):

People are already circumventing all this by self-publishing. The self-publishing industry is the only area of paper-book publishing that’s thriving right now. Soon enough, a huge number of authors are finally going to get fed up with the publishing industry and just self-publish electronically. They’ll hire their own freelance editors, and do the marketing themselves. The publication of a finished manuscript will take minutes, rather than months.

Couple this with the rampant speculation that Amazon will start providing Kindle ebooks for other platforms (the Kindle format is based on MobiPocket, so this should actually be pretty easy), and speculation that self-published ebooks read on cell phones as the future of publishing isn’t looking so crazy anymore. Who’s crazy now? (well, yeah, still me, but for completely different reasons)

2 thoughts on “Mainstream media admits ebooks to become, uh, mainstream”

  1. You know, I like to be optimistic about e-books as much as the next guy. But there’s well-founded optimism, and then there’s pie-in-the-sky “because I say so” pipe dreaming. Elgan’s column http://www.teleread.org/2009/02/07/here-comes-the-e-book-revolution/#comment-1010714“ rel=”nofollow”>seems to be more the latter. A lot of the things he predicts just don’t make a lot of sense.

    On the other hand, there’s a fellow named Robert McCrum who polled his publishing industry colleagues on whether they used e-book readers, and wrote http://www.teleread.org/2009/02/09/robert-mccrum-the-age-of-the-e-book-may-have-arrived/“ rel=”nofollow”>a fairly optimistic column based on their responses.

  2. I don’t know. I’d like to be so optimistic about e-books taking off this year and all. But there’s a few problems I see.

    People have been predicting the Rise of the E-Book for ten years now, and it has yet to come true. It has a better chance than ever of coming true, but a good chance doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to happen. And none of the arguments Elgan puts forward really seem to hold much water.

    1) The Economy: So, basically, he’s saying that because the economy’s gone south, people are going to want to buy a $359 book reading gadgetand then twenty to thirty more books so it will pay for itself? Call me crazy, but I thought that in a bad economy, people were more likely to cut out luxury items, like books, altogether, and check them out from the library instead. (Or, to be realistic, download them via peer-to-peer onto non-Kindle devices they already have.)

    2) The Environment: You hear this touted as a big advantage of e-books from time to time, but it doesn’t really hold up that well. For one thing, paper is a cash cropfor every tree cut down to make the proverbial “dead tree” books, two more are planted. The more paper we use, the more trees we (eventually) get. If you want to look at harmful deforestation, look at the slash-and-burn agriculture in South Americawhich doesn’t have much to do with books, tree or e.

    Also, who says that e-books are necessarily more environmentally friendly? What happens when all those Kindles stop working and end up in landfills? What kind of toxic components do they have making them up?

    3) A publishing revolution. Ah yes, the old cut-out-the-middlemen argument, which it seems like someone brings up every five minutes in the “why e-books will win” debate. The problem with authors taking their books direct to the general public is that it only works for authors who have already built a reputation in the old-style publishing industry. If people don’t know who you are, you’ll have to compete with everybody else for their attention.

    And conversely, publishers may be old and stodgy, but they also serve as gatekeepers and filters for taste: if I enjoyed one book Baen published, I might enjoy others too. The book-buying public is used to having that. That’s what the system is built around. It could be replaced, of courseother systems could arise to perform the filtering function for individual consumers (alas, where’s Alexlit when you need it), but it won’t happen overnight.

    It’s not a matter of “quality and care.” It’s a matter of not having to rummage through a mountain-sized slushpile to find something you’d actually want to read.

    4) The rise in aggressive e-book marketing. Well, yes. They’ll darned well have to market “aggressively” if they want to stand out from all the other bookswhich will also be aggressively marketed.

    5) A rise in books written for electronic reading. Um, yeah. Is this likely to be the sort of thing anybody wants to read? This smacks of “if you build it they will come.” Kind of reminds me of Vernor Vinge predicting the rise of hypertext-based fiction in his introduction to his annotated edition of A Fire Upon the Deep. For it to happen, it has to happen not just because the medium supports it. People actually have to want to read it.

    And the structure of the novel generally hasn’t changed much in the few hundred years since it was invented. If the entire industrial revolution wasn’t sufficient to change how novels work, why would a transition to electronic form?

    6) The decline of the newspaper industry. Um, yeah. I’ve already covered several articles debunking this in the last couple of days over on TeleRead. No need to say more about it here.

    Now, if you’re looking for someone who has reason to be cheerful about the future of e-booksreal reasons, not just because-I-think-it-would-be-neat reasons, check out http://www.teleread.org/2009/02/09/robert-mccrum-the-age-of-the-e-book-may-have-arrived/“ rel=”nofollow”>Robert McCrum’s column about the results of surveying publishing-industry folks about how they used e-book readers.

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