E-book: Man—or monster?

My friend Susanna Fraser discusses ebooks in a couple of posts (scroll down) and sees them as the wave of the future. Writer Jim Hines is a little more skeptical.
I honestly don’t know what role ebooks will play in the future of publishing, whether they’ll become the norm or remain a niche. And I wouldn’t trust my conclusions anyway, because I’m biased: Although I do read e-books, I spend most of my day staring at a computer screen and I’ve no great urge to do it when I read for pleasure. Reading, for me, is a break from the screen.
So I won’t discuss the future, but I will look at the past: Specifically the early 1990s, when e-books were going to be available any day now (they were a little off on that) and they would indeed transform the industry, according to various columns in writers’ magazines and Ben Bova’s delightful publishing satire, Cyberbooks.
•Ebooks will cost just pennies apiece. Digital readers will cost little more than a pocket calculator. We may even see a rebirth of reading because even poor people can afford to buy books.
•Publisher’s costs will be slashed so much that good books that are too risky to print will become viable to publish. Great works that would never have seen the light of day will be able to find an audience.
•Formatting issues weren’t even considered. Cyberbooks seemed to assume (IIRC) that fifty years down the line, the original cyber-readers would be just as usable for new books as they’d been five decades earlier.
All of which shows the challenge of predicting the future (and why I’m not about to try it here). Most obviously, while e-books are certainly cheaper than hardbacks, they’re very far from the pennies-a-day utopian vision. As publishers pointed out in the recent flap over Amazon prices, they pay a lot of the same costs—copy-editing, PR, typesetting, illustration—whether they print in hard copy or not (I’ve heard counter-arguments that their prices are still a blatant rip-off, but I don’t have the knowledge to weigh the two sides).
And even if they were cheap, e-book readers certainly aren’t. They’re pricey suckers and I seriously doubt having books available on Kindle or the Nook is going to create new readers among the poor.
The competing platforms and proprietary formats is something nobody at the time envisioned either. Whether anything now available will work on new books in fifty years, who knows? Though it would certainly be remarkable if it did: Many files from even 30 year old computers are unreadable today.
As for opening the gates to new writers … I’d like to think this isn’t totally out of line. As noted, publishing hasn’t become so cheap that signing a niche avant-garde author is risk-free, and risk is not something (from most of what I’ve read) that corporate suits are keen on, even if the risk is smaller. It’s a bottom-line world these days.
On the other hand, e-publishing is allowing lots more people to step into the ring and release magazines and books. And with information available on the web, it’s much easier to find them. And while the cost of an individual book may be little different, an e-publisher (I would imagine) can save a lot on start-up costs.
That can’t but be a good thing: The more markets, the more buyers, the more variety in the field. So maybe books that wouldn’t have made it in the publishing market of 1990 are coming out now (I don’t know how to prove that, though).
It’s a nice thought.

5 Comments

Filed under Reading, Writing

5 responses to “E-book: Man—or monster?

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