In Andrew Sullivan’s follow-up to his post about print on demand, he links to this excellent quote by Edgar Allen Poe, predicting and advocating self-publishing:
… authors will perceive the immense advantage of giving their own manuscripts directly to the public without the expensive interference of the type-setter, and the often ruinous intervention of the publisher. All that a man of letters need do will be to pay some attention to legibility of manuscript, arrange his pages to suit himself, and stereotype them instantaneously, as arranged. He may intersperse them with his own drawings, or with anything to please his own fancy, … In the new régime the humblest will speak as often and as freely as the most exalted, and will be sure of receiving just that amount of attention which the intrinsic merit of their speeches may deserve.
Lest you get too optimistic about the future of self-publishing, and e-books in particular, here’s an interesting and comprehensive article by an ebook publisher regarding the limitations of ebooks and why they haven’t yet taken hold. The gist of the article is not about ebook technology, but that the publishing industry is keeping the progress of ebooks at bay. Ebook technology is actually getting better and better and has a bright future.
Physicist Michio Kaku wrote in his book Visions about possible scientific developments in the future that will change our way of life. One of these things is the possibility of “disposable computers” – paper that is imbedded with computer chips so you would use a computer no differently than you use paper today.
Using printable, conductive ink based on non-toxic carbon powder, electronic circuits and antennas can be printed directly onto low cost substrates such as paper, cardboard or plastic.
If this technology exists today, it is conceivable that there will be ebooks in the future that are no different than printed book’s today. You’ll have a book of blank paper and be able to upload new text to the blank pages. Unfortunately, that’s a science fiction fantasy of what can be achieved by ebooks, and though it’s quite possible in the future, we have to work with what we have now – the Kindle, Sony E-Reader, and others in a similar vein.
The Problem with Digital Rights Management
Even with technological advances, the article makes the point that what’s holding up the proliferation of ebooks is not ebook technology – as the iPod has proven people are comfortable with digital media players – but the fact that publishers have held up ebook distribution for fear of books being pirated, ala Napster, even though the cost of distributing ebooks is basically nothing. The issue of Digital Rights Management was touched on in the SPR interview with Mark Coker, founder of the ebook portal, Smashwords. The writer of the article says:
Publishers effectively sabotaged the e-book market from day one. The DRM, the pricing, the general treatment as second-class citizens, it all added up to an insurmountable drag on a budding industry. Without some minimum level of buy-in from content owners, there was simply no way to break through to the mainstream, no way to ever sell enough copies of those popular novels to recoup a large up-front fee, and no way to persuade content owners to allow the most desirable best-sellers to be sold in e-book form.
Being an ebook publisher who knows the industry through and through, he’s in a better position to make prognostications about ebooks, but I still do think his projections are a little dour: “Popular attitudes towards e-books haven’t changed much. In fact, they may even be worse than the first time around.” It’s not overly optimistic to think that the Kindle, and Oprah’s endorsement, could significantly change the attitude towards ebooks. Publishing is in for a revolution just like the music industry. Only publishers are terrified of what ebooks will do for sales after witnessing how digital music has cut into the music industry’s profits. All the while, the publishing industry is in disarray due to sagging sales figures, while under their noses is the future of reading and a potential goldmine.
But it seems that publishing’s attitude towards ebooks is the same as its attitude towards innovative writing – they want something that’s similar to something that’s come before, rather than something that’s breaking new ground – as it’s always been in the art world. People are afraid of the new. What makes ebooks and print on demand so exciting is it not only opens up the vehicle for reading and obtaining new books, but it gives writers more room for experimentation. Here’s hoping that the virtually inevitable popularity of ebooks comes sooner rather than later.
One thing that is not mentioned in the article is the environmental component. In 2000, when the writer was working in the ebook field, environmentalism was still a fringe subject. Al Gore had just lost an election – now he’s a Nobel Prize winner. The idea of saving paper through ebook readers is something that can – and should – become a part of the dialog and be another element which contributes to the ebook’s popularity.
Really, check out the article. It’s the best assessment of ebooks, past and future, that you’re likely to read.