Future Tense: The Ebook Also Rises

Maximum PC Staff

What’s interesting about the shift from an industrial age to a technological age is that we keep inventing new media:  movies, records, radio, television, the internet, and now ebooks—and one of the things that’s most interesting about the invention of a new medium is watching it reinvent itself as it penetrates the culture.

In the study of mass communication, we see that a new medium always starts out building on the formats of preexisting media.  A couple quick examples:

As movies grew up, especially in the first decade of sound, they went to novels and broadway plays for source material.  (They still do.  In fact, now they go to comics and TV shows too for ‘inspiration.’)

As radio spread, radio stations went to records and concerts for material to broadcast.  Radio networks also went to vaudeville for performers and made stars out of Jack Benny, Fred Allen, George Burns, and others.  (This is what killed vaudeville.  You could stay home and listen to live performances.)  Eventually radio started doing drama, mysteries, soap operas, game shows, and sitcoms.

When television began, it modeled itself after radio.  Many early television programs were radio programs first.  My Favorite Wife, The Jack Benny Show, Burns and Allen, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  The first science fiction show on television was Tales Of Tomorrow using scripts from the radio show X-1 which used stories from Galaxy Magazine as its source material.  Later, as budgets improved, television began to encroach on the realm of the motion picture.

Both radio and movies had to adapt to deal with the competition—or die like vaudeville.  Eventually, radio became disc jockeys, talk radio, all-news, and 24/7 religious channels.  Movies became widescreen epics, played with 3D, eventually grew up and got grittier, started telling stories that TV wouldn’t, and did things that television budgets couldn’t equal.

When the internet came along, at first it was just a medium for moving text around—books first, then pictures, finally video.  Each time the bandwidth expanded, so did the capabilities of the medium, and each time it happened, the internet cannibalized preexisting formats.  And each time, those formats had to adapt.  Or die.

(That lesson has been lost on the music industry as well as the film industry—survival will not be guaranteed by lawsuit.  There was once a company called Lotus with a spreadsheet called 1-2-3.  They sued every other spreadsheet publisher on look-and-feel issues.  Eventually they sued themselves out of existence.  They wasted their resources on lawsuits instead of innovation.  The music industry and the movie industry needs to see the internet as an opportunity, not a threat.)

And that brings me—finally—to the ebook reader.  The Kindle is the most popular, the Nook is rising fast.  Everybody else is an also-ran.  The Kindle uses e-ink and can be read in bright sunlight.  It has a longer battery life.  The Nook has a color touch-screen.  The Kindle is backed by Amazon and has a library of 810,000 books available.  The Nook comes from Barnes & Noble, its library is expanding fast, and it may be the thing that keeps Barnes & Noble afloat while Borders’ struggles with bankruptcy.

Regardless of which ebook reader you end up with, the ebook has stopped being a curiosity or a novelty and become a serious player in the publishing industry.  An ebook reader lets you carry around a whole library in one convenient package.  You can carry around the latest bestsellers, old favorites, dictionaries, manuals, textbooks, all kinds of convenient references, and a lot of books that are no longer available in print editions.  You can also download your own files to it too.  On my Kindle, I have manuals for the courses I teach, the text of a speech I will be giving later this year, some poetry, the manual for my camera, and test downloads of stories before I publish them on Amazon so I can check formatting.  (Shameless self-promotion—some of my stories are now available for the Kindle.  More to come later.)

Because much of the past has now entered public domain, it’s also possible to download for free, or for less than a buck, whole collections:  Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Shakespeare, and all the other classics.  You can have philosophical texts and even the important works of Darwin and Newton and Aristotle.  For scholars, this is marvelous—you couldn’t afford the cost or the space to duplicate a library of this magnitude, but for less than a few bucks you can have whole collections.  (Project Gutenberg is a great resource here too.)

But here’s the point.  The ebook industry is now beginning reinvent itself.

Ebook readers are also a great way to distribute magazines and newspapers.  Comics and mangas too.  This could very well prove to be the way to save newspapers and magazines from fiscal disaster.  You can also download blogs, short stories, and RSS feeds.  This gives bloggers and small zines wider distribution for much lower cost and an increased chance at earning greater income.  Ebooks began by providing access to existing material, but now the medium is creating opportunities for new markets too.

Dickens published his novels a chapter a week and sold each chapter for a penny.  They were the equivalent of prime-time soap operas with whole families gathered around the fireplace while mother (or the eldest child) read each week's chapter aloud.  SF magazines used to serialize novels and I wonder if it might not be profitable for major authors to serialize new works for ebook distribution now?

It's obvious that e-readers have established themselves as an economically viable form of publishing, it was obvious last year, but this year the business periodicals are finally starting to notice.  It’s a niche that’s only going to grow.

But—the reader itself is the smallest part of the equation.  You don’t need to buy a Kindle.  You can download a Kindle app for your desktop machine, your laptop, your netbook, your smartphone, or your tablet.  Whatever you download for any of those devices, it’ll sync up with all the others.  So it’s not the Kindle that’s critical—it’s the Kindle app as an access to the Kindle store.  The Kindle isn’t a product as much as it is a delivery channel.  It is a medium in its own right.

It seems likely to me that the ebook reader as a standalone product may be a short-term phenomenon.  It could be wiped out by widespread adoption of tablets.  I expect next generation tablets to be cheaper, lighter, and more powerful.  While the tablet hasn’t penetrated very far into the marketplace yet, it is inevitable, and when you have a tablet with a Kindle app on it, you probably won’t bother carrying your Kindle with you.

There are a couple of other points worth considering here.  Ebooks represent a shift from a culture of scarcity to a culture of abundance.  In the past, publishing required a great deal of time and energy and resources for production.  Books and magazines and newspapers needed a whole industry of typesetters, editors, designers, and ultimately publishers who would decide if a book was worthy of that effort.  But ebooks can be published by anyone who can figure out how to use a computer.

The result is that the librarian is being removed from the library.  In the past, a great library was the result of librarians functioning as guardians of culture, tending and caring, selecting and recommending works that maintained and nurtured a cultural heritage.

Today, with the growing phenomenon of self-publishing, especially in ebook form, anyone can walk into that same library and shove his book onto the shelf between Sartre and Shakespeare, between Dickens and Disch, between Heinlein and Hugo, and claim the credibility of publication.  (Don’t believe me?  Browse the Amazon Kindle store for a while.)

On the other hand, the ebook also makes it possible for working writers to put their backlist back into circulation to earn additional income.  Most major publishers are no longer interested in publishing midlist or backlist titles, so this is a valuable venue for established writers.

So far, the ebook as a medium has been about the past.  It’s been about books and magazines.  But just as movies, radio, and television evolved into new forms over time, the ebook will also become something more than just a way to read books.  It will become its own specific and unique way of creating and sharing experience.

There’s a lot of experimentation going on.  I won’t even try to predict the specifics, but I think the ebook—as a medium—could be a game-changer.

What do you think?

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