Monday, September 28, 2015

Paper Books vs. Ebooks

Books or ebooks? I consider this among the most remarkably poorly posed arguments in the publishing world today. In general, I tend to see this as a winner/loser argument, with the loser being relegated to obscurity.

Say it ain't so!

Well, it ain't so despite the history of the music industry. In the music industry, one format has come along to usually displace the next. Sheet music was replaced by music rolls, which was replaced by 76's, which were replaced with LP and 45's and cassettes and 8 tracks, which were replaced by CDs, which were replaced by MP3s, which were replaced by streaming. Wow, what a mouthful of inconsistent story.

You see, right there in the middle, LPs and cassettes thrived next to each other. Serious listeners preferred LPs while portable listeners preferred tape. Rather than displace each other, they complemented each other. Each filled its own niche. Not only that, but record players came with a selector allowing you to change speeds, so that you could also play 45's and 78's on them. The record players were backward compatible.

When CDs came along, they first savaged the LP market, then they went on to savage the cassette market. CDs for the win.

So, which market do we have? I believe that we are living in the LP/cassette market. Rather than one medium winning and the other losing, each is best suited to a different environment. Each comes with substantial strengths and weaknesses.

The book is a fabulous package. You may not think so, but it's a technological marvel developed over the past millennium and barely changed. The user experience remains primarily the same no matter how old the book, yet each aspect is the child of years of development, from paper and ink, to the fonts used and the methods of binding. These products are perfected for reading.

Not only are books perfected for reading, they hold advantages over ebooks. First, they're cheap compared to electronic devices. In any environment that could threaten a device, the book is likewise threatened, but far cheaper to replace. Even if damage, the book still works. It never needs charging. Its technology does not age it out in five or ten years. It is simple to lend, but not so easy to get back. The backlist is epic. To their detriment, they take up space, which means that the more you like books, the more that you need to store. Fortunately, libraries solve some of these problems, as well as used book stores.

Ebooks are like cassettes in that they are not as technologically good or aesthetically perfect, but what they lack in perfection they make up in portability and convenience. Ebooks can be read on existing hardware that a person might have, such as a cell phone or table. They never take up space. They can be bought at will while traveling. Ebooks are convenient. However, unless you're using a dedicated reading the device, the overall experience is not as pleasant. Backlit screens don't work as well as digital paper, and digital paper doesn't work as well as actual paper, except when they do. Lit screens work in environments where light is less available. Add to that the huge list of independent authors cutting out the middle man, able to sell at bargain, especially in genre fiction and underserved niches, makes reading electronically very attractive. On the other hand, selling off those ebooks isn't as easy and lending them can be cumbersome.

So, which will win? As long as the reader wins, I don't care. This is a market where the readers know their needs and pick their wins. One medium isn't going to kill the other. Books aren't holy. Ebooks aren't the devil, nor are they the messiah of anybody. They're a medium.

As to the second argument of epublishing: will this shift kill the big five publishers? I doubt it. As I've indicated above, I think that we're looking at complementary markets. This is not a revolution that will topple the goliaths. The last few years have been hard to analyze as the economy has been so difficult. In my mind, the downturn of the printed book had just as much to do with the Great Recession as the rise of ebooks. Not surprisingly, now that the worst of the recession is behind us, physical books are seeing a resurgence. As with any new market, such as ebooks, the opening yields stunning growth, but growth eventually stabilizes, yielding smaller growth and contraction cycles.