The other day I read a fabulous blog post by Jennie Coughlin in which she interviewed author Robert Bidinotto on the stellar success of his indie published novel Hunter. The article was an inspiration, but it also niggled me with some questions.
One of the ideas Bidinotto hypothesizes in his look at eBooks and the future of both traditional and self-publishing is that within a few years mass market paperbacks will disappear to be replaced by eBooks. My instant reaction was “Cool! That’ll be great for indie authors like me!”.
Then I started to think about it ….
In the Middle Ages, my era of deepest affection, books were hand-made. They were copied by hand onto parchment and vellum, painstakingly illuminated by master artists over the course of a lifetime, in some cases, and bound with leather and sinew. Books were a delicacy. Only the Church and the very wealthiest of nobles could afford them. Sure, books were being written, but they were luxury goods. The vast majority of the population was illiterate and didn’t care.
Then came a visionary by the name of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg and his revolutionary invention around 1439 of the movable type printing press. The printing press really is one of the most civilization-changing devices ever invented. Books no longer needed to be copied and constructed by hand. Many copies could be mechanically printed in a relatively short amount of time. The number of books in circulation rose dramatically. With the new availability of books came new authors and larger numbers of readers.
Fast-forward to the dawn of the 21st century. Literacy is a big deal. Former First Lady Laura Bush made it a huge part of her mission while her husband was in office. The vast majority of the population of developed nations reads something every day. Giants of industry, like Amazon.com, are built on books. Libraries abound and bookstores are easy to get to. Not just new bookstores either, but second-hand book stores too. There is a fantastic used book store, The Original Book Swap in Horsham, PA, right around the corner from my apartment. You have to try really hard not to be exposed to books.
Now here comes the eBook revolution. I’m happy as a lark because I can publish my novels without the hassle and interference that has always turned me off of the traditional publishing industry. Bully for me.
And if I had a dime for every time someone has asked me “can I buy your book at the bookstore?” I could buy a Big Mac. That conversation usually goes like this:
“Can I buy your book at the bookstore?” “No, it’s exclusively an eBook.” “So where can I buy it?” “If you have a Kindle you can get it at Amazon.com, if you have a Nook you can get it at Barnes & Noble.com, and if you have an iPad or an iPhone you can get it on iBooks.” “Oh, but what if I don’t have any of those?”
What if indeed!
Here’s the teensy problem I see with the eBook revolution. To read an eBook you have to have an eReader. To have an eReader you have to have money. More money than a library card costs, for example. Yes, the price of eReaders is coming down. Once upon a time CD players cost hundreds of dollars and now I think you could probably pick one up at Wal-Mart for $5. Will the cost of eReaders go this way?
I firmly believe that eBooks will become as prevalent and even more so than paper books within my lifetime. eBooks are cheaper to produce by far. Publishing companies are already having a hard time making ends meet right now. What will the publishing industry look like in ten years? The question is on everyone’s mind. But if eBooks become the dominant means of distributing literature and the number of paper books diminishes, what will that mean for readers and potential readers out there?
What if we find ourselves reverting to a society in which the amount of money you have and your social standing effects whether you are able to read or not? In a world where eBooks rule and paper books are an afterthought, what if only those who can afford to shell out for an eReader are able to buy books? Might we not end up in some sort of Neo-Medieval society where reading is reserved for the elite?
Okay, maybe I’ve just crossed over into some sort of YA dystopian future. But it does have me scratching my head and wondering. Until the cost of eReaders comes down to the point where your Average Joe could pick one up at Wal-Mart for the cost of a Big Mac, eBooks will be second-place. But if companies like Amazon, B&N, and Apple figure out a way to price eReaders super low … well, then I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the traditional publishing industry when it comes crumbling down!
So who is going to be the Gutenberg of the 21st century? Who is going to irreversibly change the way your average person reads forever?