Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
It’s not uncommon knowledge that the way ebooks have infiltrated the publishing industry has caused nothing short of hysteria. Publishers, not usually noted for their ability to adapt quickly to changing market conditions, cry foul against ebooks and their alleged attempt to destroy the publishing industry as we know it. Who will continue buy real books when there are these cheaper, lighter, hipper versions? What role can the publisher possibly fulfill when an author can bypass traditional methods and publish their book online in mere minutes?
Intimidating questions, yes; but rational, perhaps not. Publishers should be unafraid of this industry upheaval because we’ve seen this before, and everything worked all right. To what do I refer? The paperback revolution.
Paperbacks began to see a rise in popularity in America in the early twentieth century. Several factors contributed to their rise, including the institution of consignment for book retailers, cheap paperback copies being shipped overseas to soldiers during World War II (these soldiers would return to the States with a newfound affinity for the smaller, cheaper editions), and a rise in the number of Americans who became college educated after the GI Bill in 1944.
In 1939, Simon & Schuster opened an imprint, Pocket Books, that would be one of the first imprints dedicated exclusively to mass-market paperback publishing. Retired appazoogler Emily Picillo noted in her excellent summary of the paperback revolution back in November that:
[The paperback revolution] also received a considerable boost from a postwar intellectual zeitgeist that carried on into the 1960s, which made a copy of Jack Kerouac or Hermann Hesse sticking out of your back pocket the ultimate symbol of subcultural cool.
Sound familiar? What’s cooler than toting around an Apple iPad or Kindle Fire? Like paperbacks, ebooks are also more inexpensive than their hardcover counterparts. But also like paperbacks, ebooks are typically of lesser quality. With the ability to self-publish digitally comes the increased opportunity for poor writers to impose their work on the book-buying public; heck, even great writers who skip the traditional publishing process are more susceptible to bad editions (be it from a lack of editing or a lack of technical savvy that’s required to publish an ebook). Last week, Wheaton College English Professor and blogger, Alan Jacobs, shared his experience with digital self-publishing in a post in the Atlantic:
…my experience with digital-only “direct publishing” has given me a renewed appreciation for what traditional publishing houses do for writers. Some of their concerns and priorities may occasionally differ from mine, but they’re not my enemy; and probably not anyone else’s, either. Change produces tension, but let’s not exacerbate the tension by hyperbolic rhetoric.
And paperbacks didn’t cause the extinction of traditional hardcovers: they provided an alternative format for a newly emerging, middle-class demand for inexpensive books in great variety. There were people who still loved their hardcover counterparts and continued to buy them. In fact, many new book buyers that became avid readers because of paperbacks would morph into hardcover collectors themselves years later.
In addition to the similarities between the paperbacks and ebooks, it seems that there is a linear relationship between the increase in ebooks sales and the decline of paperback sales, suggesting an eventual eclipse of the latter. It was reported in April 2011 that in the month of February ebook sales for the first time surpassed the sales of paperbacks. In a September 2011 New York Times article, vice president of publishing services for Bowker, Kelly Gallagher, was quoted as saying,
…as e-books become more affordable and better aligned to the mass-market reader, I would have to say that I don’t think there are encouraging signs that print mass-market books will rise again. When all these things align against a certain format or category, it’s hard to recover.
So you see, publishers, you do still have a purpose when it comes to ebooks. They are simply a new, exciting—sometimes scary—evolution of the good ol’ codex you’re more familiar with. Once we get the technical kinks straightened out, and the pricing war between booksellers, Amazon, libraries, authors, and publishers comes to an end, the book publishing industry might even enjoy a period of comfortable stability: traditional hardcover books will still be needed and desired by certain book buyers, while ebooks will replace the practical function of the mass-market paperback. Personally, I’m looking forward to it!