Devin Coldewey has an intriguing post over on Crunchgear regarding the Google Books project. Google have digitised some books. Just one or two. Like many other people, I find the project useful for finding information and books I’d never come across or lost somewhere. Sometimes I’ll buy the book, sometimes I just need a bit of information and sometimes the preview is enough to persuade me not to part with cash.
On the other hand, Nicholas Negroponte has determined that the book will be dead . Using the Amazon data that e-book sales for the Kindle surpass physical book sales, he reckons that within 5 years, the physical format will no longer be the dominant format. He uses the data from music to justify this and to a certain extent, he is correct. I do see niche publishing, like high end Science, Technical and Medical publishing, going online and perhaps mass market publishing will grow faster online. But to go back to the music analogy, vinyl was going to be replaced by CDs.
Not entirely. For sure vinyl was not the dominant form anymore, it became its own niche but with a loyal fanbase.
I suspect that books will be the same. Publishing is going to change dramatically in the next few years whilst houses try to find various different models. Not all will work for all; each will have to choose and determine their own path. I still think that there will be a vibrant publishing industry but it will be smaller and more specialised. According to the Bookseller some time ago, the average earnings for an author from books were about £4,000 a year. This implies that authors either starved, lived extremely frugally, had partners in supporting jobs or have / had second jobs. A reminder of authors before the massive growth in literacy and I see it happening again. There will, of course, be some authors who can support themselves through writing. Some won’t and will work in other jobs during the day.
So perhaps we come back to Cory Doctorow’s observation that the obscurity is the thing to avoid:
That’s because my biggest threat as an author isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. The majority of ideal readers who fail to buy my book will do so because they never heard of it, not because someone gave them a free electronic copy. (‘Why Publishing Should Send Fruit Baskets to Google’, BoingBoing, 14 Feb 2006)
The less obscure an author, the less chance of the book / oeuvre disappearing.
I have to agree with Coldewey that as e-book / readers become cheaper and more prevalent, then physical books will become more luxurious items. For sure. The mass market will change and it is up to readers and writers to make choices and go with it. So back to a more nineteenth century book culture again.
However the book will not die. It’ll change but treeware will survive in some form.