Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The future's bright, the future's digital

Changes have been taking place within the publishing industry this past year or so at an alarming rate, or what seems alarming for a relatively slow moving trade. The industry is notoriously resistant to change, and so to many, these changes have not been easy and the transition far from smooth. The main threats facing the industry, which have been much debated in recent months are of course both e-books and print on demand. Both have been around for some time, with print on demand making great inroads and coming on in leaps and bounds. This is due in part to hard working and professional self publishers such as myself who have worked tirelessly to change perceptions, but also due to economics. While lithographic printing has become more expensive, due to the various costs involved, as the technology has grown and evolved, print on demand has become cheaper. Publishers are then embracing this technology as never before, and beginning to see it as more of a positive than a negative. This can only be a good thing.

The second threat if that is the right word, is e-books. Like print on demand, these too have been available for some time, but unlike print on demand, have been confined mainly to academic texts. This though is changing with the advent of new user friendly e-reader devices, such as the Amazon Kindle and the Sony Reader, recently trialled very successfully I might add, by Waterstones.

What exactly though is an e-book? An e-book is a book that has been digitised so that it can be read on an electronic device instead of a paper copy. This reading device has traditionally been a computer, but can also be one of the new reading devices as mentioned above. Instead of reading the words on a page, you read them on the screen - to advance to the next page, you simply press the next button. The e-readers themselves are shaped very much like books, and weigh about the same.

They offer several advantages over traditional paper books - the most obvious of which is the ability to store up to 100 books on the same device. Think how heavy and awkward it would be if you had to carry around 100 books! This is a real boon for travellers and academics alike, not to mention writers like myself, who need access to lots of different texts at the touch of a button for research purposes. The ability to search quickly and easily within the text is another advantage.

The readers have received a mixed reaction amongst book devotees, with some welcoming them and others seemingly dead against. I fell into this camp myself until I actually saw one in my local Waterstones and had the opportunity to have a play around. They are surprisingly lightweight and very user friendly, with a well lit and lifelike screen that copes well even with bright sunlight. Whether you could use it in the bath is matter for debate - it would not be advisable, since water and electricity do not mix (like i-pods the readers have rechargeable batteries so don't need to be plugged in all the time). Curling up with one of these in bed would not have quite the same feel either, but the readers are here to stay, whether we like it or not, so we had better used to them.

The reaction from authors has also been mixed, with concerns over piracy and copyright. These issues do need to be addressed, but they mask, in my opinion, the underlying cause of this fear. The fear comes not from the technology itself but from it represents - freedom for both author and reader. If e-books catch on then publishers and agents could become obsolete, for instead of relying on them to sell their wares, authors will be able to go direct to the public. There will be nothing to stop them from setting up their own websites (the smart author has already done this anyway), paying a small fee to have their books digitised (Authors OnLine did a splendid job with mine for a very small fee indeed), and a bit more for publicity (easier said than done, depending on who you are). Once these costs are taken off the author gets 100 percent of the royalties. A traditional publisher if you are lucky, pays between 10 and 15 percent, so you work it out.

Publishing companies have good cause to be concerned, for this is a direct threat to their livelihood. They are bound to see their revenues decline, as are agents, as more and more authors begin to cut out the middle men, who have traditionally acted as gatekeepers. The old ways are crumbling to give birth to the new.

The real beneficiaries as always will be the unseen and unheard majority, those who cannot for various reasons get either an agent or a publisher to help sell their wares. There will be (and in reality, already is) nothing to prevent them from setting up their own store fronts in competition with the big boys and girls, who will no longer be able to look down on us from ivory towers, but instead look upon as the equals that we are. This will open up the market as never before, and do wonders to help the self published cause. The future belongs fairly and squarely to us, who embrace this technology with open arms, knowing what it means and the advantages that it offers. Perhaps as author and Sony ambassaor Toby Young says so eloquently in the current edition of Waterstones magazine, that is the real reason why so many are so nervous.

A review of the new Sony e-Reader can be seen here.

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