Submarine, July 2012
I will say the following: I don’t believe that paper books are doomed. I don’t think that they will soon disappear, stomped by the steamroller that are e-books. I’m not a Luddite, on the contrary. For newspapers and magazines, I believe it will be the exact opposite: they will disappear. In the upcoming years (not many) most of them will disappear, and only a handful of them will remain for very old people. The rest of the population will remember them nostalgically from time to time, like the books, and the youngest will not remember them at all, like the books. The reason is simple: the unit of information in newspapers and magazines, the smallest independent element of communication, is the article. Newspapers and magazines are collections of preselected articles printed in packets of paper sheets. Most of these packets which are circulating out there cost money. These are the ones which will disappear first.
Why? Here’s why: in the past years, humanity has found a way better way to read articles: the Internet. One magazine has a limited number of articles, thirty? Fifty? A newspaper, maybe a hundred? The Internet has all the articles in the world, more articles than you could ever have time to read in you entire life, even if you did nothing else than read articles. And it is available from devices of every type and shape. And it is almost free. And every day that goes by, it grows. It is not only better – it is orders of magnitude better, that’s why the old way of reading articles will slowly decline, like the telegraph and vinyl record did, when better ways of doing the same work appeared.
For books, however, the same doesn’t apply. Because in a book, the unit isn’t a subset of the text, it isn’t “one chapter”. It is the whole book. Each book is a self-existent unit, that’s why it keeps its value better as a product. Internet or no Internet, a book is a book.
I personally read most of my books on the Amazon Kindle, and I have determined that it’s a better way to read. Books are relatively cheap, I download them instantaneously whenever I want, they let me underline excerpts I want to remember, easily and quickly, and of course, I can read them on whichever device I have on hand, be it a mobile phone, an iPad, even on a computer screen. Every time I open the book on any device, it remembers where I was left, even if I had stopped reading it on an other device.
I now find that I read a lot more on the Kindle than before – almost twice as many books. (Not just me – documented statistics exist that prove that this is true for most people). I have come to the conclusion that e-books are a better way to read books than with paper books.
But not an “order of magnitude” better.
Beware: the paper book is a fine technology. They are relatively small and portable, very legible, they don’t require charging and they clearly surpass e-books in at least one field: they allow you to browse through the text easier and quicker by means of “skimming”. In my opinion, they are now inferior to e-books as means of reading, but not by a large amount. Let’s say 20% inferior. The technology in e-books will of course continuously evolve, while paper books, which use approximately the same technology as 600 years ago, will stay behind. But they will not disappear as quickly as newspapers and magazines, because they are not so inferior to what came to replace them. They still have life left.
The most important innovation introduced by e-books, however, doesn’t concern the finished product but rather the process of its production. It is in this field that the most major changes are happening right now. Like in a lot of domains in the past, technology abolishes many intermediaries: today, an author can write a book on his own, turn it into an e-book on his own, and sell it directly to the readers on his own. He doesn’t need a publisher to approve it, to print it and to publicize it, he doesn’t even need a bookshop to sell it for him. With a website, a PayPal account and a bit of free marketing on social media, he can become a real author without asking the right and without being approved by anyone.
This change is of utmost importance. The consequences in these early stages have yet to be fully understood. Bookshops are closing, publishers are facing difficulties, the monopole of Amazon is getting bigger, but at the same time, success stories of self-publishing are individual exceptions. It’s logical: it’s a very big transition and it will take some time. There still aren’t any very good tools for aspiring writers to make their books with the right form, and the distribution channels aren’t very simple. The model I’m describing is feasible, totally realistic, but not as simple as it looks. But it is a matter of time before it gets easier, more general. Authors will soon be able to offer their books to readers with the same simplicity as writing a blog post. Until now, we were concentrating on the negative consequences of the phenomenon, closed bookshops and lost jobs in the publishing industry, but we don’t see the more important, positive ones, which will come soon: the democratization of writing.
As the years pass, humanity reads more and more, and the need for a good written language is getting bigger. The fact that we will now be reading on screens rather than on paper isn’t important: the fact that we will be reading more and more is, because this means more demand, which leads to more opportunities for creative individuals who have words inside them, but, until now, had an uncountable amount of obstacles in front of them, which prevented them from showing these words to the public. J.K. Rowling said she went to 12 (or 9, depending on the source) publishers with the manuscript of Harry Potter and was rejected. Imagine how many Harry Potter stuck to the sixth, seventh or ninth refusal, never went further and never got published. Slowly, this changes. The change may maybe look painful at times, but it is obvious that it is optimistic in the medium term, but wonderful in the long term.
And I don’t say this only as a writer. Most importantly, I say this as a reader.