The Future of the Written Word
I'm still rescuing some content intended for Fuzzy Logic #10. The following is an article by Allen Kitchen on the future of publishing--specifically the advent of print-on-demand publishers, and e-books. Read on...
The Future of the Written Word
One of the givens in the technical world is that all technologies have a lifespan not unlike that of a living thing. There's the birth in the lab, a painful adolescence as it gains acceptance, an adulthood where it becomes routine and commonplace, then a period of death as other technologies take its place. You can see examples of this everywhere. At one time cities were lit by gas-lights, but it wasn't a decade after the invention of the electric light that the last lamplighters filed for retirement.
Where I'm going with this is that for centuries now, books have been pretty much unchanged. The paper still comes from trees, and the images and words are still ink that is stamped upon the page. The specifics relating to the press may have changed to improve speed and economy, but the basics are still the same. And today like yesterday, there are only a handful of companies that control who and what gets printed and where you can buy a copy of what they say you can read.
Those days are coming to an end now, thanks to computers and networks. Today it is possible to publish your stories yourself without getting the nod from any publishing house. And while the traditional press is not yet on its deathbed, it is beginning to suffer from a nagging cough.
There are two techniques competing for the future of publishing; on-demand and electronic. I'll talk about the former first.
On the "lets make our new product as much like the old one as possible" front, there are companies like Xlibris, a "print-on-demand" outfit that allows anyone to write, illustrate, and publish their stories on paper. This has been likened to a Vanity Press (one which will print your story; for a fee.) But that isn't quite accurate. Xlibris will print a book at no cost to the writer, which is something no vanity press will do. They have other services such as copy-editing and marketing kits for which they charge fees, but they are optional rather than required. The author gets a straight percentage of the sale, but the lion's share of the revenue goes to the company to cover costs.
A writer may not get rich this way, but he won't go broke either.
It all sounds wonderful, but unfortunately for users and on-demand publishers alike the costs of such a service are rather high and unlikely to come down. Paper isn't cheap anymore, and industrial printers capable of creating several complete novels per hour are very pricey indeed. Also, slapping ink onto dead trees simply isn't environmentally friendly, although this method does avoid the mass-printing of 50000 copies of "Stories from the set of Ishtar" that would be destined for the dump. So though on-demand uses only what paper is needed, the fact remains that paper costs bucks.
Therefore, purchasing a simple paperback at Xlibris costs $16, not including shipping. (And you thought Barnes & Noble was high!) Furthermore it usually takes weeks to receive your purchase through the mail. These are big negatives to people who like to read a lot. And the service cannot scale up very easily, meaning that even if a book were to hit it big you'd still be limited by the production speed of the printers. You won't see any on-demand titles on the best-sellers list because no computer printer will outrun a mass-quantity press.
As you can probably guess, I don't think much of on-demand as being the future of publishing. Not when electronic publishing has so much more to offer.
Remember what I said earlier about technologies going through a painful adolescence? Right now electronic publishing is at the 15-year-old stage; rebellious and barely civilized enough to be allowed out in public. There are three primary Electronic Book Formats, all of which are incompatible with each other. Those of you who remember when Beta meant videotape are probably shuddering right now.
Who wants to buy a book and find that it won't work on their player? And what about people who don't even own computers? How is somebody supposed to read their book while sitting on the loo? (Don't tell me you've never done that.) How is the material going to be copy-protected while giving the purchaser something as portable and easy-to-use as a real book? How are people going to buy an electronic book in a bookstore as well as online? All these things are real problems. But thankfully they are all solvable.
What I believe you will find in the next five years is a standardized format of electronic book. All Ebooks will be encrypted before being sent (with the purchaser's key, probably set to the email address) to reduce copying and theft while allowing the reader to easily read his purchase on several machines. This format will probably be created by Microsoft as part of the Windows2001JulyEdition release, or something like that. Already, the Microsoft Reader is the system of choice for Amazon.
I also expect that within a year or two you'll be able to purchase a usable and cheap reader tablet to carry your Ebooks around with you wherever you go. Phillips has a prototype of "Digital Paper" in the labs right now. The usefulness of this to education alone boggles the mind. No more need to carry 12 books in your backpack; they are all in your 12 ounce pad. All this can be done nearterm and at a low cost, say around 140$. Once standards and the portable tablet are available, the floodgates should open wide and readers will be able to swim in a virtual sea of virtual books whether the current publishing superpowers like it or not.
And let's talk about instant gratification while we are at it. While I do purchase books online sometimes, I still get the bulk of my material at bookstores because I can grab my purchase and start reading it right then. Electronic books reach the buyer's hands much faster than print-on-demand books ever will, and do it at a far-lower price. For people like me, that translates into buying more books, something the publishing industry dearly loves. Someone without a computer can get books inserted into their pad at the bookstore just as easily as a techy can from home. And people can easily purchase a copy of the biggest best-seller, since electronic media can scale up for large demand very easily.
All that, and no homeless squirrels.
This is not to say that the future of publishing is all rosy; there are some thorny issues still to be decided. For example, once a writer puts a book out for electronic or on-demand publishing, who owns the publishing rights? Does the publishing warehouse have exclusive rights to print the book for all eternity? Currently traditional publishers purchase the rights to print stories in a market for a fixed period of time. Online though, such a model is meaningless. Also it will be some time before people give up the familiar feel of a paper book in their hands - something that will slow the acceptance of Epublishing and give a small advantage to print-on-demand.
So slowly now, we can expect to see more unknowns on the writing scene. Great stories that 10 years ago would not have had a prayer of being seen by the public can now be published both in paper and in virtual form. Remembering Sturgeon's law (which states that 90% of everything is excrement,) don't expect everything coming down the road to be prose worthy of the gods. It won't be. But good stuff will be out there, both from unknowns and from already established names. Lots of it.
And who knows? Now that the playing field is level and you've got a fair shot at it, you yourself may become the next Anne McCaffery!