Monday, June 21, 2010

The future of electronic book publishing is NOW

I'm not going to list all the magazine articles, the blog posts nor the multitudes of online chats, etc. concerning the current situation (some would call it a fight) over print books vs. digital books. It would be repetitive and boring. If you know about this situation (fight) already, then you'll know what I'm talking about. If you don't know, read on.

Basically, it breaks down into a couple of different camps. The print people vs. the digital people. It's a lot more complicated than that, actually, but for simplicity's sake I'll just stick to these two groups.

The print people keep talking about how print books are still doing great business and how print books will never die. Many of these folks tend to be ones who work within the traditional print publishing industry, but a good number are also readers and writers who simply love the good old print book.

The digital people are the ones telling us how print books are dying and electronic books are the wave of the future. Again, this is oversimplifying, but this is a blog post, not a book. Many of the people in this group are writers who have either switched to digital publication or who could not or did not manage to be published in print and have thus opted for digital. However, many of the folks in this group are readers who are tech savvy and love their Kindles or Nooks or other e-reading devices.

As a former newspaper journalist, I feel like I'm in a somewhat unique position in my opinions concerning the books versus ebooks debate. See, I'm no longer a newspaper editor because my job no longer exists, at least at the last couple of places where I used to work. Newspapers aren't quite dead yet, though there are fewer papers than there were just a few years ago and the staffs and the remaining papers have been cut deep into the bone. Many newspapers today have fewer pages than they did just a short few years ago, and often the actual size of those pages have shrunk. Newspapers have fewer advertisers, and the have fewer subscribers.

The future does not look bright for newspaper, but I'd hazard a guess that actual, physical newspapers will probably be around for at least another generation or so, let's say anywhere from a dozen year to a few decades. The papers will probably continue to shrink physically and more newspaper will probably close. The staffs at the newspapers also will probably continue to shrink until there's only one reporter (who also has to shoot photos), one editor and one person working on the website.

Why this happened to newspapers is not too difficult to figure out. Basically, the news became too easy to get. Thank the Internet, and to a lesser extent television. What it really breaks down to is a matter of distribution. Newspapers rode high when they were the only game in town or the biggest game in town. But nowadays, newspapers are just one of many, many games in town. People can get their news from hundreds of different sources, and many do. For many potential readers, there's no reason to pick up a newspaper, let alone subscribe to one, when they get their news for free every time they log on to check their e-mail.

That's newspapers. But I was talking about print books and digital books. Unfortunately, much of what I was hearing in the newspaper business five and ten years ago is the same as I'm hearing from current print book publishers. To quote a recent Publishers Weekly article, "Despite what you may have read, book publishing is not in deep crisis." That sounds familiar. I was hearing it a few years ago. Back when I had a real job.

On the flip side, I don't want to sound like some electronic book publishing evangelist. Digital books have their problems, as an industry and as a product. Lots of readers love print books. Not everyone can afford an e-reader, or wants to spend that kind of money.

What's happening in the book publishing industry is an upheaval. Traditional print book publishers are suddenly facing new technology in which they seem to feel they are in competition. Also, many indie book publishers and writers who want to self publish are turning to digital publishing and ebooks, and this draws plenty of ire from some of the print folks who keep saying over and over that self-published works are inferior to their print product (which is at least somewhat true).

What everyone in this debate seems to forget is that change is inevitable. Electronic books are here to stay. They aren't going away. Whether or not they eventually, completely replace print books is sort of a silly question to ask. Because of course they will. Or nearly will. My guess will be print books will always be around, though eventually they might only be available as expensive collectibles. But I'm talking years, more likely decades, from now. Or maybe not. Who knows? No one does right now.

The second thing everyone in this debate seems to forget is their business sense. The traditional book publishers need to stop fighting the digital revolution and should embrace it. Why? Because it they don't, they're only hurting their own bottom line. Print publishers are going to have to rework their business models over the next few years just to survive, let alone thrive, so they need to hop to it instead of just doing business as usual and hoping ebooks won't hurt their current sales too much.

On the other front in this battle, independent publishers and self-published writers need to realize that it is often true their works taken as a collective whole are somewhat inferior, often not edited well, often without solid cover art and often just not as good to read. Of course there are plenty of folks in this camp who are turning out quality material, but that's not currently the standard. And many of these indie and self publishers need to stop acting so smug, as if they've got the print industry on the run and they're taking over. Digital lovers need to keep in mind the print industry can be used to promote and benefit their works, too. For example, what self-published writer wouldn't accept a contract from a major print publisher? Very few.

To repeat, yes, I've oversimplified all of this. There are some print publishers who are making great strides toward a digital business operation, while there are also digital publishers who are finding a working relationship with their print counterparts. Too bad more publishers and editors and writers aren't doing the same.

The future of book publishing is already here, so it's time we all started acting like grownups, got our business plans together and moved forward instead of bashing one another back and forth in blogs, magazine articles, etc. Only the smart will survive, not the smart asses.

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