Few topics stir such passion among avid readers as “what is the future of the print book?” Will eBooks completely replace print books? When writers are introduced into the debate a number of related topics inevitably sprout up, often around the qualitative superiority of one medium versus the other.
Recently I posted a book review of Be the Monkey, which details an illuminating discussion between Joe Konrath and Barry Eilser. In it, Konrath and Eilser put forth a compelling explanation of the realities of the new digital world, and what that means for print books.
Then about a week or so later I stumbled across the article Is the future written in digital ink? Written by Jane Sullivan for the Sydney Morning Herald, this article paints a somewhat darker picture of what the rising popularity of eBooks means for not only the printed book, but for publishing in general. This article is not an in-depth, 100 page treatise like Be the Monkey, but it manages to capture some of the core trepidations that the partisans of traditional publishing have in respect to digital publishing.
The article raises a number of concerns about the rising influence of eBooks and self publishing, It lists a number of objections, some practical (like new and aspiring authors may well find themselves somehow exploited by companies in the lawlessness of the new digital world) and some sentimental (like author Jonathan Franzen’s description of the printed book as something more or less permanent, representing an unchangeable effort of the writer to get the work just right to be enjoyed by the reader).
I can’t help but feel that the sincerity of the above practical objections come across as a little self serving (being voiced by members of the traditional publishing establishment). I tend to think that Franzen’s thoughts carry more weight with writers. But I wonder if the debate is really as stark as what the publishers are suggesting? I think that they are correct that (as mentioned toward the end of the article) the downward pricing pressure of the eBook is threatening the publishing industry as we know it today. But I also tend to agree with Konrath and Eisler that this is the nature of competition. The industry needs to discard outmoded practices. They need to either embrace and adapt to the new realities, or perish.
I would suggest that most writers, even the most ardent supporters of the eBook revolution, would be appalled at the notion of the demise of print books. I personally doubt that this is going to happen. But I do think that Jonathan Franzen’s comments about the permanence of the printed word bring up an important point. One of the ugliest features of the new world of self publishing is the complete lack of standards. For every high quality novel that is self published, there are dozens of low quality, poorly edited competitors. It would appear to the critic that the self publishing world is not so much selling novels, but rough drafts. Imagine what would happen if we as indie authors would clean up that aspect our world.
What are your thoughts? It’s a deep subject, I know. But I’d love to hear what other readers and writers think.