The mockery target of the day is print media. Every couple of weeks, there’s a story somewhere about, “Major bookseller Boundaries declares bankruptcy,” “Farms & Pebble in financial hot water” or, my personal favorite, “Print is dead.” In the age of the Internet, it seems like everyone has dismissed the idea of something as old-fashioned as a book completely pointless.
Let me get this straight right off the bat: I read. A lot. As in I-just-bought-my-fourth-bookshelf a lot. Sci-fi, classics, theology, fantasy and pretty much anything ever classified as “weird.” You name it, I’ve read it, and if I haven’t, let me know so I can start it now. I also have an e-reader (a Nook) and take it with me everywhere I go. Give me five minutes of nothing happening, and I’ll be buried in an e-book in no time.
Do I think books are dead? No. Do I think they’re dying? No. Do I think they’re on the way out? Absolutely not.
For a medium that’s remained relatively unchanged since Gutenberg rolled out his printing press in the 15th century, the Information Age has opened up a whole new host of possibilities for books, even if they’re not in their traditional dead-tree-pulp form. E-readers have turned getting your hands on a new book into a three-minute process, e-books have dropped the cost of printing a book to essentially nothing, and the Internet offers the ability to build communities around books, authors and genres that put old-fashioned book clubs to shame.
In a nutshell: books won’t change. The way we interact with them, however, will.
Think about it. Say you’re watching the Daily Show, and the guy across from Jon Stewart starts talking about his new book. With an e-reader, you can be reading a copy of that book before the interview is over. Or say a new book in a series comes out five years after the last one. You can’t remember the plot, the characters’ names are all running together, and everyone you do remember is killed off in the first chapter. It might make your high school English teacher roll in her grave, but a quick trip to the series’ Wikipedia page will get you caught up in 10 minutes.
The book isn’t dead. Far from it. Readers just have more options than ever before to interact with their favorites.
Perhaps more importantly, authors have more ways of interacting with their readers. From blogs to social media to self-publishing, authors suddenly have way more interaction with their fans than their picture on the back cover.
Take publishing. The associated costs made self-publishing in the past if not impossible, then at least unreasonably expensive for an author to undertake on his or her own. Authors had to go to publishers that took the lion’s share of sales in exchange for the capital required to print and advertise their books.
Look at those costs today. The cost of printing a book on the Kindle or Nook is essentially nil. If you’re willing to do a bit of work yourself, you can handle the entire process of publishing digitally on your own. Granted, authors will still lose some portion to costs from the seller, but they can essentially go from receiving royalties from publishers to having complete control over their own costs and earnings.
And as far as advertising goes, grassroots advertising campaigns have never been easier. Between author’s personal blogs, national blogs like Gawker Media’s sci-fi blog io9 and word of mouth through social media, an author can easily reach an audience that would have required a major publisher and massive capital investment in the past. I follow a half-dozen of my favorite authors’ blogs, and I always know when they have a book coming out, what it’s about, what kind of special deals they’ve got going on and what the author’s up to in general.
Personally, I look at books like I look at music and movies. Despite the rantings of the MPAA and RIAA, the rise of the Information Age didn’t kill the film or music industries. Some studios and labels found ways to adapt and thrive, others didn’t. Most music and movies are now consumed entirely digitally, indie endeavors (particularly in music) have much more exposure and bands and studios can interact directly with their fans.
I look at books the same way. The sellers and publishers that adapt to technology will thrive, and the ones that don’t, won’t. People who would never have had the chance to write before can now break into the market fairly easily. Between Amazon, eBay and e-readers, books are easier to find and access than ever before. While I hope the dead-tree book doesn’t go the way of the dodo, even if it does, books and reading aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.