Culture  Adapt or die

How e-books are rendering the future of the publishing industry uncertain

T he idea of an electronic library has been floating around since at least the advent of the first computers. Project Gutenberg (founded in 1971), an online library that publishes texts in the public domain, is a still-operating example of such science-fiction flights of fancy. However, a lot has changed in the thirty years since Project Gutenberg started – when the idea of reading literature on a clunky and prohibitively expensive Apple II might have seemed absurd.

E-books can now be read on any of a number of e-readers (the e, as always, is shorthand for “electronic”): small, lightweight, inexpensive tablet-like devices. E-readers can even be read without the ocular strain of LCD monitors owing to recent advances in electronic ink. They can house huge stores of memory, and thus books, as well as connect wirelessly to the internet through wi-fi and cell phone networks. Though e-books comprise only about four per cent of total book sales right now, they are, as the notoriously avant-garde literary agent Andrew Wylie told the Harvard Review, the four per cent his agency spends 96 per cent of its time talking about.

Publishing, much like the fashion industry, releases its “new arrivals” in spring and fall waves of publication. In the United States, where the top ten publishers represent over 88 per cent of the total book market, companies like Random House, McGraw-Hill, and HarperCollins release hundreds of titles per season knowing that many will fail. Those few that are successful are aggressively marketed, meaning that the books that get the most marketing dollars are the kind that have been preselected as profitable by market research groups. This has been the case ever since books became an industry instead of the hallowed profession of monks, but the digitization of literature has serious potential to destabilize this dynamic.

Publishing electronically is in some ways more attractive for publishers: books can be published almost-instantly everywhere on earth, the method is considerably cheaper, and thanks to social networks, books on niche topics can find their communities instantly, guaranteeing that new books are delivered to the people that want to read them.

However, there remains some controversy over the nature in which royalties for electronic books will be distributed to authors. Wylie, in a recent well-publicized legal wrangle with Random House, moved to publish on Amazon the edited finished works of some of the authors he represents, without compensating the publisher responsible for those works’ original publication. Had he succeeded, he would have secured a higher royalty for his client (or his client’s estate), and a bigger cut for himself, since the profits from the online sales of books he represented would not be shared with the publisher who owned the non-electronic rights. He lost that fight, and Odyssey Editions, the publishing company he started in order to sell those rights, was forced to back down and compensate Random House.

Wylie’s move shows that authors potentially stand a lot to gain if they choose to forsake traditional publishing and cut out the middle man.

The main benefits publishing houses confer on authors are the legitimacy of their name, and the dollars of their marketing muscle. In the case of the former, legitimacy can be ignored for significant savings, and in the case of the latter the difference in ease of the marketing of print versus electronic books is so dramatic that only a certain nostalgia for physical books could sustain commercial interest in them. Given these factors, publishing as it currently exists must either adapt or die.

According Sarah MacLachlan, president of the mid-size, independent Toronto-based House of Anansi Press, there is merit to the traditional publishing model. “I think we [traditional publishers] offer a stamp of legitimacy to what we choose to publish. We say to the public, ‘Out of the 250,000 other manuscripts we received, we choose to publish this one; it’s a good book, read it.’”

Patrick Nielsen Hayden is one of the most lauded science fiction editors of the last 25 years, as well as a prolific blogger. In an interview with ABC News, he said that e-books represent “an optimistic new thing that…open[s] up a bunch of new channels and opportunities.” The only point of interaction so far between e-books and the internet has been the point of sale, from Amazon for instance, to one’s e-reader – but that doesn’t have to be the case.

As Hugh McGuire, Montreal-born founder of online audiobook library Librivox, noted in Forbes Magazine, “What is a book, after all, but a collection of data (text and images), with a defined structure (chapters, headings, captions), meta data (title, author, ISBN), prettied up with some presentation design? In other words, what is a book, but a website that happens to be written on paper and not connected to the web?” According to him, “E-books [so far] are an attempt to make it easier for people to buy and read books without letting e-books become part of the internet.”

If those, like McGuire, who lament the publishing industry’s slow adoption of new standards of publication get their way, then books as we know them could irrevocably change. In light of new technology, the book becomes a point of entry to the internet: the terms within it instantly available for looking-up and cross-referencing, and distractions from the text – like implanted videos and online discussion – ever-present. If, like McGuire, you think the text itself should comprise more than merely text, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as music and television’s digitization hasn’t killed those mediums but in fact increased the efficiency of their sale and distribution, so too will books survive their inevitable digitization.

Publishing stands firmly at a crossroads, the same one that many other industries have stood at before: to embrace new technology at the expense of the current order or to cling to the old ways in spite of technology. If publishers want to stay competitive, their business models will have to radically change and many people will lose their jobs. But this loss comes with much that is to be gained by digital publication.

Considering the nature of capital, it is not likely that publishing will be able to buck the trend for much longer. It might soon be entirely appropriate to write elegies for the book as we knew it.