Thursday, November 08, 2007

A Voice of Reason

Admittedly, this "voice" is not mine, at least not originally.

It's Clayton Collins over at the Christian Science Monitor, with an article posted on Alternet. (Pardon the general link to CSM, and follow the "article" link to the actual piece. I couldn't find the article on the CSM site - I wanted to link to the initial source. Though I should say, I did read it on Alternet. I should also say, how good is that CSM site looking? I went and poked around and left, but in that limited time found an article to print out. I'll bookmark that for later.) The article had me at its opening with Caitlin Lyons at the Brattle Book Shop, a place that some believe is the kind of shop on every street corner here in Boston. The good news and bad news is that this is a myth, that this bookstore is a unique and wonderful place full of great used books - and some real garbage that's really fun to peruse outdoors and possibly even, on occasion, buy for $3. Anyone in Boston should schedule a monthly visit, and anyone visiting should put it on the list. You won't find it by accident so plan ahead.

Anyhow, Collins wades into the e-book discussion here with a fairly short, smart article considering the reality of where we are with e-books. This isn't futuristic prediction or luddite whinging, but a straight-forward assessment, and I appreciate that. The e-book is no more a threat, ultimately, than audio books, which certainly have their audience (my mother among them). And this audience is not exclusively audio-reliant - they still buy and read books. So some folks might want to download books to read on some kind of e-reader, but they might still get excited in a bookstore while holding a book, and they might buy it. The real question is, are they going to read more or less, ultimately, with an e-reader of some kind?

I suppose I'd like to think that we in publishing are all on a mission to get people to read the ideas of our authors, but the reality is that corporate publishers are in it to make money. Again, they are creating product. And even people like me must look at the cold hard facts because a company cannot stay afloat on good intentions alone. Even a place like the New Press, amongst other things, relies on big sellers like Studs Terkel books to support more experimental or risky projects. He's doing fine work, culturally and politically, and one must respect that his choice to publish with this press helps the other books on the list.

My point is that the non-profit, mission-drive publishing world should embrace this technology as another way to spread the ideas of their authors, but they must find an economically advantageous way to do this. It's probably necessary to find a way to do it collectively, showing some solidarity and spreading the risk a bit more. Maybe there are models out there. But we can all do it and still have the books we cherish, and I'd like to think, as this article seems to suggest, that they'll be around for awhile even as people start reading digital print more and more.

1 comment:

Joe Wikert said...

With all due respect, I truly believe that a killer e-book device would result in explosive growth in the e-book category, resulting in a revenue base that's several times the size of the audio book market. I'm talking about a device that's as unique and successful as the iPod has been in the music world. The Sony device doesn't count -- it has too many limitations and isn't special.

People buy audio books to listen while they drive, exercise or do something else. People would buy a great e-book device to actually read content, not listen to it while doing something else. Portability, capacity and connectivity will be keys to success. Instead of loading my briefcase up with a couple of books and a stack of magazines for that next flight, I just throw my killer e-book device in it instead. I know that the latest books I bought will be on there and I'll easily be able to grab tomorrow's newspaper and other magazines on the fly via the next hotspot.

Don't assume e-books will always be the simple paper-to-bits conversion you see today! The winners in this space will figure out how to leverage the platform and truly take advantage of the dynamic nature of an e-product. Additional services will be integrated with that e-book you buy, so it won't just be the words on the page from the printed version.

As you can see, I'm extremely bullish on the future of e-content and e-book devices.

Joe Wikert
VP & Executive Publisher,
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.