If you’ve been hanging around here, you know I’m a big advocate of e-books and digital publishing. I don’t consider myself an expert in this business, but I read and usually agree with knowledgeable industry observers who advocate for change, radical experimentation and quick adoption of digital technologies, such as Kassia Krozser, Clay Shirky and Richard Nash.
But I’m stepping out onto my own limb with today’s digital publishing headline, and I’m surprising even myself, because it’s not the kind of thing I’d expect me to say. I don’t know if any of my fellow digital progressives will agree with me, but here it is: I’m starting to wonder if the e-book revolution is going to happen at all.
Now, there’s no question that an e-book evolution will happen. In twenty years I expect to see people reading on electronic devices half the time, and on print formats the other half. But that barely counts as radical change. Many other experts seem to think the change will come much more quickly. I have to ask them: if this is a revolution, where the hell is the revolution?
It’s a fact of history that revolutions move quickly, like mercury. In less time than the digital publishing revolution has taken so far, the Bolsheviks managed to sieze the entire government of Russia in 1917. The French sans culottes of 1789 were so into their revolution that they not only overpowered the Bastille in a single thrust but went on to take the entire building apart, brick by brick, with household and garden tools. I’m just not seeing that kind of intensity about e-book readers.
If a revolution moves this slowly, it may not be a revolution at all.
50 percent electronic, 50 percent hard copy in twenty years: that’s my prediction. Certain sectors — college textbooks, academic research, startup literary journals, breaking news reports — will become largely electronic. Other sectors like fiction and popular non-fiction might not. Pleasure reading may remain a mostly physical activity because, well, books are objects that give pleasure. And they really aren’t inconvenient — paperbacks aren’t, anyway. As long I can slip a well-designed paperback novel into my pocket, e-books don’t solve any actual problem that I have.
Many industry observers expect electronic book publishing to follow the velocity of music publishing, which went suddenly digital during the early 2000s, and is probably at least 95%-5% digital today (a big difference from the 50%-50% I’m predicting for e-books in twenty years). It’s become the conventional wisdom that e-books will become as popular as MP3s, but MP3s did solve real problems in a way that e-books don’t. The sensory/physical equation of music listening is really very different from that of reading. An MP3 player disappears when you’re listening to music. But a book does not disappear — not in the digital or the print realm. You look at it. It matters how big it is, what color it is, whether it feels soft or hard, whether it’s fragile, whether it keeps your place. All of these considerations affect your enjoyment when you read a book, in a way that the presence of an MP3 player in your pocket does not. So the comparison to music publishing really does not hold.
The main evidence that there will not be a mass move towards e-books is that it hasn’t happened yet. The Kindle’s been around for a while, but its success has been extremely modest compared to that of the iPod. I still almost never see one on the street, nor a Nook, nor a person reading for pleasure on a smartphone. Maybe the iPad will sweep the world, but I doubt it. Never before in human history have so many panel discussions taken place about a revolution that will probably never occur.
Of course, the e-book evolution that is taking place remains very interesting. The big news this week is that John Sargent of Macmillan is putting himself into the forefront of the e-book pricing discussion in a very open way with a new Macmillan blog, and this is certainly an honorable and admirable step for this CEO to take. Other commentators still dislike Sargent’s approach. We’ll be staying on top of the subject and much more here on Litkicks — even if it is hardly been ten days that shook the world.