The italicized text below is a response that I wrote to a question that my friend Janet asked me via Facebook this morning. I post it here because I think that it’s a fairly succinct expression of some of the ideas that I’ve been thinking about recently.
That’s a good question, Janet. It seems impossible for me to imagine that the move to digital could be stopped or thwarted or derailed… but one of the things that I said many times when talking at SFU is ‘keep an open mind and be prepared to adapt’ so one has to be ready for whatever.
The technology is just so much more sophisticated, democratic and ubiquitous now than say it was at the end of the 90’s when the first digital readers appeared like clunky plastic mastodons on the digital landscape.
Look at the utility and ubiquitousness of the mobile phone. In south east Asia, China, Japan, Korea. Those are the places that we should be looking to for cues on what’s possible and how to disseminate content, who the audience is and how they access that content in the first place.
You think that people in publishing are scared of digital now? Wait until they realize that the price of their electronic content is going to be around 99 cents and some times much less than that. $9.99 is a dream come true for digital content costing but once Amazon’s death grip on the market is broken and a true ecology of online retailers and content providers starts to allow the consumer to decide price and once publisher’s get savvy enough to start repackaging content in meaningful ways for the new consumer then maybe the industry will cease to have this fear based sense of entitlement – which will kill whoever doesn’t snap out of it – and will realize that they’re actually a service provider to the customer.
Adaptation, improvisation, experimentation: those are the tools that need to be applied to the problem of digital change in book publishing.
Here’s my final heretical thought: serial downloads of content on a micropayment plan. The next Dickens will arrive in digital installments paid for by subscription and unencumbered by DRM to your cell phone a couple times a week. It’ll cost you next to nothing but the sheer number of readers will be staggering. The real money is made by various digital extensions and mutations of the content – by allowing the readership to manipulate and remix the content among other things – and the physical edition that is printed at the end. Remainders will become non existent because the publisher’s knowledge of their customers combined with better printing technologies – POD will become the engine that drives physical books into unexplored markets worldwide – will allow them to print an almost exact number of books to satisfy the market.
The book is not going away, writers and creators using language are not going away. If anything the book is going to achieve a more exalted place in the minds of the public.
But the current landscape of book publishers are not entitled to be there without breaking a sweat. If there’s a lot of dawdling then their competition will blow past them at the speed of light.