“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”
― Douglas Adams, author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, and the delectable "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency"
Just consider some of these numbers:
=> 2010: A small % of books sold were ebooks
=> January, 2012: 20-30% of books sold were ebooks, more than half of Amazon's book sales were ebooks
=> ebook readers (essentially, all tablets: iPad, Nook, Kindle, Galaxy, Windows, etc) are predicted to overtake total computer sales by 2020, with over 300 million units out there. And given how predictions in this area have tended to lowball reality, and the many new players coming into this market, the number of portable ebook readers may be much higher than that.
This exponential growth cannot continue, of course, and there are signs that it is flattening out. But this is less a charge that ebooks are fading (as some seem to imply) as much as it is, given their sizable current percentage of the market, that they are essentially rivaling print books and becoming a dominant form of narrative consumption. Once you are nearly 1/3 of the market, you can't continue to grow exponentially in terms of market share - simple mathematics.
But the bottom line is that, in just a few years, the dominant form of narrative consumption has been transformed.
Widespread Tablets + ebooks = ?
The marriage of tablets and ebooks is leading to a phase shift in the format of the "written" narrative: once carved into stone, then penned on scrolls, then printed, now entered and displayed digitally.
Many forces are leading to this shift, but among them the usual reasons for a change in format: convenience of use by the reader and ease of production by the publishing entity. Once entire schools taught scribes how to laboriously copy scrolls. Gutenberg "democratized" reading with the press, and helped usher in the modern age of literacy (although ancient China was there first)
Now, the press/paper model of the (recent) past is being rapidly superseded by the byte. The technology of reading and writing is becoming the digital device. This has amazing implications.
1. The written word becomes even more decentralized
Certainly true in general about content because of the web, this is now going beyond essays and articles to books. Where once there were bookstores, libraries, warehouses, there will be.... nothing.
Small shops are closing, killed off first by large mega-stores like B&N and Borders, and then by Amazon. Amazon is killing the big ones now as well. Borders is gone. B&N is scrambling. Others are cutting deals with the Bearers of the Kindle.
Of course, this is not to imply a total disappearance of books in the next decades. Vinyl made a comeback! But, vinyl is a niche market. CDs and DVDs (like 8-track, cassette tapes, and VHS) are on the way out. Books made of paper are a very recent invention in human history, and likely many scroll-bearers thought them awful. We still have scrolls. We will still have books. But the number of them will decrease dramatically (which will make forests happier). They will become more like luxury items, or collectors versions. Many disagree with such assessments, but I can't help but see that as the reality that is approaching.
Distributed across millions of hard drives (or whatever technology stores bytes down the road) across the world, any book can exist anywhere, trivially. You can be sipping coffee in your garden in Maine, flipping through Goodreads as the dawn breaks, and a friend in Japan recommends a new book from a Palestinian author. You click on the book page, see fifty reviews from people across the world, read a little about the author and her life, click the buy button, and you begin a journey into her world for about $4 (she self-published).
That's not the future. That is the NOW.
2. Libraries are trivially portable
Any reader can carry thousands of books, and have near immediate access to millions, with nothing larger than a tablet (or smartphone). The Library of the World (dwarfing that of Alexandria) is everywhere in every "commoners" pocket (my pocket, for instance). Combined with the numerous resources online like Wikipedia, dictionaries, and the "searchable web" of Google/Bing etc, the Cloud is a fog that is everywhere. In addition to the atmosphere surrounding us, we now have the datasphere, of which books are to be an integral part. This is nothing short of a seismic cultural and intellectual shift.
3. The production and distribution of books is transformed
Once, authors depended on large capital equipment that was not generally accessible without significant resources: printing presses and physical distribution channels. Like the "scribe cultures", last century's publishing world developed an ecosystem to support the synthesis of trees, machines, authors, and readers.
But the ebook revolution suddenly transforms the entire ecosystem. Large capital equipment is still required: but they are now the enormous servers, connecting cables, and endpoint devices creating the computing resources of the Internet. However, like the transportation system, the bulk of those costs has been absorbed by either the public or the private sector, and individual users do not pay, or pay a small set of fees, to gain access to this infrastructure. The system is distributed in its nature.
Books can be created, edited, formatted, and decorated with specialized software for typography, graphics, advertising and sales. More and more, freelance agents and editors offer outsourcing (more fees, but some authors choose that route to retain more control).
Printing presses are becoming less relevant in an ebook world. You can format and upload a book for nothing in minutes, and have it available for sale all over the world. If you desire a hardcopy, POD (print on demand) services allow individual authors the platform to produce physical books.
Book pricing rules are suddenly up in the air. When the costs for a book do not include the paper, printing presses, transportation, storage, and labor associated with those aspects, a $4 book can make money (if a new business model is implemented, and if an audience can be found to buy it). The Walmart strategy for book pricing becomes attractive, and there is a rush of authors and small presses experimenting with it. If you can triple your sales by halving the price, why sell a book for $10? You could make more money and spread the book farther with cheaper prices.
Many authors, even within this first two years of the ebook explosion, are exploring these new and diverse options now available, signing with Amazon as a publisher or self-publishing: thriller writers Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking (1.5 million books sold), Kerry Wilkinson (>250,000 books sold), Darcie Chan (>500,000 books sold) and more than 150 authors who have sold over 50,000 books each, and the list grows longer every month. That there is a metamorphosis in the modern art of writing is there for all to see in black and white, not Fifty Shades of Grey.
What will happen to the "traditional" system of publishing? The truth is that nobody knows. There are a lot of good things in this model: under one roof, one has editors (structural and detailed), typographers, artists, publicists, sales specialists (for physical distribution), and marketing gurus. There is not only a quality filter, there is material refinement. There are many in publishing who have devoted their lives to finding and nurturing good talent. But it is unclear what the new business models will be, and I believe that the next 5-10 years will see a lot of experimentation and change.
Surfing the Wave
Many in publishing (authors, readers, publishers, agents) are becoming increasingly polarized. Many in the industry are feeling disenfranchised. This is unfortunate, because the best way out is not to dig in and fight, but to work together. Things are going to change drastically, and it is in the interests of everyone to not get in the way of that change, but to shape it, embrace it, and sail with the new momentum that it will generate.
The line it is drawn the curse it is cast.
The slow one now will later be fast, as the present now will later be past.
The order is rapidly fadin'.
And the first one now will later be last, for the times they are a-changin'.
- Bob Dylan