Back in the early 1980s, when I first heard about compact discs, I swore that I would never give up my beloved vinyl records. (–sigh– Kids, ask your parents if you don’t understand what I’m talking about.) I had a good-sized collection of LPs that included what were called “audiophile” pressings — Original Master Recordings and records pressed in Japan. I LOVED my records. Then, in 1985, I got to play with a friend’s CD player. The discs were small and shiny and you could do just about anything to them and they didn’t get tics or pops or anything else that ruined the play quality. I bought a player that December. I held on to my turntable for a while (Yeah, kids, ask your parents about that, too) and I still listened to those records I hadn’t yet replaced on CD. But I don’t think I’ve listened to a record since 1991.
I got back into photography in a serious way about six years ago, when digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras were just beginning to become affordable. But I loved the color I got from Fuji Velvia film, and I felt that there was something inherently wrong about taking a digital image and then manipulating it after the fact on one’s computer. Then we found out that we’d be spending the year in Australia, and I just couldn’t see dragging rolls and rolls of film over there and then dragging a ton of photos back with me. Digital was so much easier, and the images really did look quite amazing and, well, it was nice being able to shoot and shoot and shoot without worrying about the price of film and developing. That was 2005. I haven’t used my film camera since.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the release of a new version of Amazon’s Kindle reader, as well as the introduction of Barnes and Noble’s Nook. In addition to these two, there are many other e-reader makes and models on the market, and there are also e-reader apps for phones and MP3 players. I can tell you right now that I have no intention of ever, ever buying an e-reader. I read real books and always will.
The truth is, we’ll all be reading books on e-readers eventually. It’s inevitable. I say this as someone who loves books. I love them as a reader, as a writer, as a collector. But books are an endangered species. I don’t think they’ll vanish from mainstream stores the way vinyl records have, at least not in my lifetime. But I do think that e-readers will become be so ubiquitous that they will become the norm and books the novelty. I find the idea of this depressing. There is no bigger thrill for me as a writer than receiving that box from my publisher containing copies of my newest release. Getting an e-file with a jpeg attached won’t be the same. As a collector, I look at the boxed, bound leather volumes I have of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, at the first edition hardcovers of Ender’s Game and the three volumes of The Fionavar Tapestry, and I wonder how electronic copies of these books could possibly be considered suitable replacements. As a reader, I dread the idea of having to use a screen for this, too. I spend all day in front of a computer. I have a screen on my phone, on my MP3 player. I don’t want reading a book to have anything to do with a screen.
But let’s look at the flip side of this. Books, I hate to say, are an environmental nightmare. It’s not just the trees — we can recycle paper, and it’s not as though we’ll need wood pulp for newspapers much longer…. No, the real ecological and economic costs of books lie in shipping and storage. Books weigh a lot, and they have to transported from binder to distributor to store. Stock has to be stored in warehouses that have at least some minimal controls on temperature and humidity. All of that costs money, and all of it results in the burning of fossil fuels. The physical aspect of the publishing business model is unsustainable. Actually, it’s very similar to what happened in the music industry. When I was in college, I had a couple of peach crates that were filled with records. Now I have a device that fits in my breast pocket and that is capable of holding every song on every record in those crates, plus about two thousand songs more. Someday, I’ll have an e-reader that will hold the contents of every book on every shelf in my office, and then some.
In fact, leaving out the Edison phonograph cylinder (which are very cool to see — my sister has an original) the record-CD-MP3 progression is VERY similar to the publishing industry’s journey from bound hardcover, to mass market paperback, to e-reader. Yes, the publishing industry has been much slower to evolve (paperbacks, the CDs of publishing, first appeared in the 17th century and really became popular in the 19th), which is part of the reason I believe books will be around for years to come and won’t vanish the way vinyl did. But the progression is happening right before our eyes, and it’s not going to stop.
What does it mean for us as writers? I don’t know yet. None of us does. One of the reasons these are such difficult times in publishing, and for writers in particular, is that the future of the medium itself is in flux. Publishers are unsure of where their industry is headed, and that makes them reluctant to spend money. Not a good thing for writers. But by the same token, the new e-technology might lead to a number of developments that could help writers in the long run. E-books will eventually be cheaper than bound books, so they will sell more easily. And since the physical costs of producing an e-book are minimal, authors and agents might eventually win more favorable royalty rate structures. Lower prices, higher sales, higher royalty percentages — this should mean more money for writers. And if the publishers won’t cooperate with efforts to reform royalty structures, e-book formats will also make it easier for authors to self-publish, to market our wares directly to consumers, without having to go through publishing houses.
I believe that mass market paperbacks will be the first format to die out. That probably sounds counterintuitive, but that’s what I see happening. Before the recession hit, making the expense of hardcovers prohibitive, paperback sales were the biggest drag on the industry. Hardcovers, which are printed in smaller numbers, were still sought after by collectors; trade paperbacks were seen as a better quality product. But mass-market paperbacks were seen as cheaply made and too expensive for what they were. That will continue I think. Like vinyl records, hardcover books will always appeal to a few serious bibliophiles; e-books will appeal to young readers and the techie set. Trade paperbacks will have an audience in academia. Mass market paperbacks will vanish. My opinion, based on nothing, really.
On the other hand, piracy might become more of a problem. Stealing a thousand paperbacks from a bookstore is hard; pirating a thousand e-books from illegal sites online is easy. Our understanding of copyright protection is going to change dramatically in coming years. More uncertainty.
It’s a bit early to begin mourning the death of the book. Newspapers might not survive the decade, but books will still be around for a long time to come. Still, we are witnessing a long, slow revolution. I’m frightened by it, but also fascinated. And as an author I’m determined to catch the wave if it comes sooner than I expect. I won’t let something as small as the end of publishing as we know it get in the way of my career….
David B. Coe