(This is a draft or first part of a longer essay. If you have comments, please comment.)
When you think about the history (and possible future) of technology, usually you assume that newer technology replaces older technology. The automobile replaces the horse and carriage (or walking). The telephone replaces the telegraph. The light bulb replaces the gas lamp. The tractor and eventually a universe of farm equipment replaces the plough. The word processor replaces the typewriter. The diesel locomotive replaces the coal-powered locomotive. The jet replaces the prop plane. The cell phone replaces the land line. CD’s and CD players replace vinyl and record players (and cassette tapes as well), in turn replaced by digital music players and headphones. Black and white silent movies (and TV) are replaced by color and stereo audio. The musket is replaced by the AK-47. The canon is replaced by artillery, then missiles. The cathode ray tube television is replaced by LCD’s and LED’s. The dot matrix printer is replaced by the ink jet and the laser printer. Typesetting machines are replaced by computer typesetting. Paper accounting journals are replaced by computers and computer software. Push lawnmowers are replaced by electric and gas-powered mowers. Plastic replaces cash. Indoor toilets replace the outhouse. Digital cameras replace film cameras. Email replaces letters. And this just barely scratches the Gorilla glass.
Most of these changes are decisive, some happening in the last twenty years, some the last hundred years, which is crazy when you think about it. The printing press, manufacturing in the early Industrial Revolution, scientific advances, cultural advances—consider the clock, the map, the invasion of the rest of the World by Europeans, and all that. These were momentous developments in human history. Mt. Everest’s it seemed.
But it’s possibly true that the last hundred years (since the beginning of World War I) spans the most significant technological surge in human history bar none (especially in developed nations, but worldwide really). Some of these advances happen quickly, over a decade, some evolve with remnants of the older technology surviving still (like vinyl, film cameras, push mowers, artillery). But where does the evolution of book technology fit into this maelstrom of shifts? Is the ebook another new technology that will replace the old with a few vestigial remains throbbing politely in the shadows? I don’t really think so, though instead of black and white it would be good to think in color on this question, which allows subtle shading even on crude devices.
If the book is going to be replaced by the ebook, if that does occur, the transition will happen over the next hundred years, not the next decade or even longer that the media would lead you to believe. The recent Economist prediction that the U.S. market would be a one hundred percent ebook culture by 2018 is ludicrous! There is a lot of inexplicable punditry and a history of same on this subject which muddies the waters instead of making them run clear. (It’s almost worse than the political punditry, but not quite.) At a publishing conference in New York a six years ago I came upon a booth signed with a banner “Print is Dead.” Actually I think it was the name of this guy’s blog. Book publishers, bookstores, book distributors, authors, and editors all are living in a different world than they did a decade ago. That much is clear. But newspapers and magazines, contrary to what you hear if you listen to the pundits, have embraced digital content, way beyond what book publishers have done. NYTImes app on the iPad, Seattle Times app on Win8. Of course they’re banking on the notion that aggregators will not swallow them like alligators. The battle is still in play but I don’t really think news feeds will be news a few years down the road when magazine and newspaper publishers start to offer mobile-ready, responsive content, more streaming video, and the television news stations turn out to be the big loser.
Pure speculation of course, pure Punde, I sorry, but book publishers it goes without saying have not in fact been innovative or even beyond peripherally interested in the swirl of new tech for the most part. I think they’ve seen it as an operating expense when it’s obviously an important shift in the media they call home. They’ve herded their authors into Amazon, Nook, and iBooks corrals for the most part, which is fine, but what they’ve failed to do is push the reading platform beyond typographically abhorrent text on Las Vegas billboard devices (all LCD ereaders) or used the same abhorrent typography without the flashing lights (all e-ink ereaders). This is all we get to replace the paperback (an underrated technology)?
A cloud of mosquitoes will now descend upon this text (in the Biblical sense) buzzing “But look at the numbers on ebooks and ereaders in the last five years!” From a minority, mainly Amazon and Apple and their supporters, you might justifiably also hear about the scenic landscapes of Kindle and iBooks. My wife and I both use Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite which has taken over the ebook market for a much smaller market niche much as the iPad is currently the best tablet. My wife loves her Kindle and her iPad. She reads on the Kindle. It’s become her primary reading technology (along with audio books for the commute). She reads a lot and likes the heft and trim of the Paperwhite. I’m mainly a printed book reader, but I use the Paperwhite, except why did Patti Smith’s memoir not have all the photos in the ebook that are in the printed book? I didn’t quite get that although I understand the details. It reminded me though that the fundamental differences in print and ebook are not just a matter of delivery. People want to talk devices. I want to talk devices. Nobody wants to talk about copyright? Right? Again, it’s interesting that the magazine and newspaper publishers have tackled this problem and brought it down to brass tacks, while the book publishing community—are we talking about a hive of reactionaries here?—in spite of long experience with subject, goes hiding in the DRM cave, going deeper, no outlet, instead of trying to really come up with a solution that would satisfy themselves, authors and readers.
Of course, no such solution exists and never will. That’s what happens to bits. The suckers cannot be controlled. OK, publishers haven’t even gotten this far yet? Come on. Get up to hover dudes! Is it so hard to understand? Your product can now be distributed with a new technology, remarkably different from what you’ve used to date. People like to invoke the music analogy, which ultimately is a dead end. The digitization of music has certainly happened in the last twenty years and there’s been a whole landscape change for musicians. This was a decisive change. But like journalists, musicians have adapted. Again you hear the cry of the pundit. Ignore it. There’s a lot of good music out there! Do you disagree with this, pundit? Maybe I should give you a name. Punde. The French pronunciation with an accent grave over the “e” that will allow us to pay homage to groveling consumerism.
So what’s a poor publisher to do? Big five aren’t poor of course. They’re just a part of corporate America. Some of us wish we were there! Not me, I’m retired, but it’s a grand enterprise as important as building cars at least and with larger implications. But I also know people who rant splendidly all the time about corporate America. I get it. But here you have to think in color. There is a spectrum in publishing. The big five are at the top of the heap though even that can be part of an illusion because publishing in 2014 is not just a business, it’s a way of communicating directly, it’s politically loaded, it’s doing pretty well in many respects. Unfortunately, if you get the Bezos vaccine or the Jobs vaccine, you will begin hallucinating and start chanting “Print is Dead.”