When I mention the word “book,” what image comes to mind? Is it a screen? Or is it a paper object that you hold in your hands? The society in which we live today is on the cusp of having very different ideas of what a book is (or what a book can be). I dare say that ours is the last generation to experience physical books as children growing up and that those born after us will have a very different experience of books and reading. We talk about the fate of books like it is a distant future; at some point, perhaps at the very end of our lifetimes, we won’t be able to find books. A Fahrenheit 451 kind of nightmare, right?
In reality, the “future” of the book is already here. This aspect of entertainment for us is debatably the fastest shifting industry today, and it is my understanding that the largest players of the publishing houses can’t really predict what is going to happen next. I do know that with the growing popularity and convenience (to both the consumer and the manufacturer) of digital media, traditional business models are not working. And I imagine it’s like walking on thin ice every day in the office.
This past summer, I became engrossed in reading about the business of books and I read an article from the New Yorker that analyzed the lawsuit between Amazon and almost all of the publishing giants—Macmillan, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin—and Apple (who desperately wanted to break into the eBook business). The abstract of the article is available online, which explains how the lawsuit came about: when eBooks went to market, publishers couldn’t cope with selling big titles for cheap prices (this is the way it worked with print bestsellers). Since Amazon could sell the eBooks for only $9.99, the online retailer dominated a shocking majority of the eBook market (80% in 2010, reports USNews).
As a consumer, you should have seen a little red flag pop up (as it did for the Antitrust division of the Justice Department). Shouldn’t publishers want to embrace these lower prices because it’s ultimately better for the consumer? Let’s face it: when was the last time you passed up Barnes and Noble to buy a book for a cheaper price on Amazon? I’m, regrettably, guilty.
I’m getting ahead of myself. The business models and the logistics of the lawsuit are too technical to really get into for this one post (although paidcontent.org did). But I think it would be advantageous to talk about how traditional publishing businesses could, or should, approach shifting technologies. An article from PBS claims that it is more important than ever for these industries to innovate, and that the publishing industry shouldn’t be focusing on books so much as focusing on content. Think multi-media giants. And think content that dictates the medium, not the other way around.
I’ll be honest; I am obsessed with books and book culture, so this issue is more than just a conversational topic to me. I was determined at first not to accept the invasive digital interfaces that provide cheaper, faster, more accessible, and convenient eBooks (I’ll still hesitate from using the word “better”) because I thought it really had the potential to eradicate the rationale of printing books. I can’t imagine a world where I would be unable to pick up a physical book, smell the age of the pages, feel the quality of the paper, and see my progress as my bookmark travels towards the back cover. It’s easy to get nostalgic when it seems that technology is threatening the status quo. But in a way, that’s technology’s job. It took me awhile to realize the possibilities that digital media creates. I think content-driven media will not only force writers and artists to be more attentive to the presentation of their work, but it will also create a cohesion between the message and delivery of that message. This, in turn, will make the experience of reading books more meaningful. At the very least, this is my hope for the future, or the fate, of books.
By: Rachel Blanzy
(Photo by Sam Kelly under a Creative Commons License)