Why should I care about e-books? Lessons learned the hard way from the newspaper biz

Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - 1832, twelve volumes in morocco.

Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire - 1832, twelve volumes in morocco.

I had the dubious privilege of working in the newspaper industry in the final heady years before its collapse. It has often worried me that the book industry carries a similar hubris about technology as newspapers did in, say, 2001.

My job as director of online at the time was to usher in “new media” and the internet – and, like a voice in the wilderness, I cried out dutifully.  And, dutifully, the wilderness echoed my words.  But, editors and reporters would either nod beatifically at the ceiling and dream of the endless possibilities of the internet (e.g., “we should install a touch screen monitor with the newspaper on it in every bathroom stall in our city” — ewww!) – and do nothing – or stubble their lips together, call me and my staff a bunch of Overpaid-Spoiled-Tech-Brats who “didn’t know anything about the newspaper industry” – and do nothing.

So, lately, I’ve been getting nervous when I hear people dismissively say, “Oh, people will always want the printed book.  They’ll never want to read books on computers.”  I’m not going to debate herein the truth/untruth of such a statement, but the sentiment really bothers me.

Apparently, I’m not alone: Robert McCrumb contemplates the parallels between the book industry then and the newspaper industry now in his Guardian editorial.

Seriously, folks, the future of books is being decided now, much like it was being decided for newspapers 5-7 years ago. I’m not at all bashing e-books.  I think they’re great in many ways (like being stuck on Atlanta tarmac and downloading John Buchan’s The 39 Steps to your iPhone).  But, there are some extremely important questions involving books and technology these days which – left unheeded – are defaulting in a direction which may not be the world of books we want to live in.  And, most of these are things that you as a citizen/taxpayer/person-who-cares can take action on now.  Let us learn from history, and not be like the newspaper industry and simply Do Nothing.

Some important issues / questions for starters (feel free to add your own):

  • Who will control access to digital books – will libraries merely trade their expensive-to-maintain collections for a subscription to Google books?  Are libraries hastening their own obsolescence by allowing Google access to their collections?
  • Will Amazon’s closed-platform standard for e-books prevail (the Kindle)?
  • Will an author’s share of revenue on e-books be a traditional fixed percentage, or a variable, we’re-not-going-to-tell-you-what-we-received-from-your-work-but-here’s-a-quarter-go-buy-yourself-something-nice percentage of advertising revenue that Google might deign to dole out (as it does with ad revenue to site/blog owners)?
  • Will e-books have ads in them?  If you’re reading a romance book, are you going to see an ad for C14L1S in it?
  • Will any company be able to realistically compete in e-book sales that isn’t a megacorp?  For that matter, will any megacorp even be able to realistically compete with Google?
  • Will authors simply bypass all traditional distributors, publishers, and retailers, producing and promoting their books directly?
  • In a world of digital books and DMCA, what becomes of your ability to pass a book on to a friend, or re-sell it?
  • Will Google be given permanent, court-ordered indemnification against breaking copyright law?
  • Will kids be allowed withing 500 yards of a book published before 1986?

9 thoughts on “Why should I care about e-books? Lessons learned the hard way from the newspaper biz”

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  5. mjcoffey says:

    another genius heard from. duly noted.

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