Once upon a time, the only books that existed were books copied by hand by monks and scribes and sold to the very rich for the equivalent of $5000 or $6000 a book. Then along came the printing press, and all the monks and scribes had to find another way to earn their bread.
Once upon a time the only books that existed were books on paper made by printing presses and sold to the rich and not so rich and not rich at all for enough money to make publishing houses worth hundreds of millions of dollars, enough money to pay high salaries to publishing executives. Then along came the digital book, and many thousands of people in and around publishing had to find another way to earn their bread.
The subtext of the story is the impact of technology on culture and commerce, and the unfailing collapse of any industry that allows itself to be blinded by sloth, short term greed, and general mediocrity of attitudes.
Anyone with an imagination about the future of technology and commerce knows that the printed book on paper is already on its way to obsolescence. The wrangling and beefing and whining about prices and protecting demand for printed books by publishing executives is both amusing and tragic.
It's tragic because when an industry dies because of corporate blindness, people do get hurt. When the automobile put the horse and carriage trade out of business, blacksmiths and carriage makers became irrelevant overnight. But before that happened people were up to their eyeballs in media baloney that the automobile was only a fad.
The same will happen to the entire printed-book industry, editors, publishers, printers, salesmen, publicists, marketeers, whatever. They will be gone or transformed -- to be remembered in anecdotes about the old days.
Which brings us to the Amazon Kindle. Although most people don't know it, you don't need a Kindle to read Kindle books. The current high price of the Kindle device is irrelevant. Amazon is now offering free software for download to any PC, the software allowing Kindle books to be downloaded in seconds to be read at once. Anyone with a laptop that runs Windows can read Kindle books. There are now 400,000 Kindle titles available, everything from high and low class lesbian erotica (Spectrum Diva Books) and erotic romances (Harlequin Blaze) to high and low class Supreme Court decisions and books about string theory in cosmology. In short, nearly everything is now available -- and soon it will ALL be available in digital format.
My personal view is that apart from the ease of access to books, the most important feature of Kindle books is that the type size can be adjusted to anything you like at the click of a button. No more eye strain. No more visits to a bookstore that may be miles from your house. No more waiting for printed books in the mail. No more crowding your living space with thousands of books that you can't throw out because they are part of your life and represent what you once were and what you are now. The Kindle (or your computer hosting Kindle books) can hold thousands of books in no more space than that occupied by a single school notebook.
Anyone who believes this new technology is going away is dreaming. Anyone who believes the print publishing industry has a chance to survive in its present form is dreaming. It's now possible for any small publisher to have free and almost immediate access to the largest bookstore in the world -- Amazon. In a few days, a small publisher can have its entire backlist in Kindle format available at Amazon to readers. Salesmen are bypassed, distributors are bypassed, bookstore buyers are bypassed. What will not change much is marketing and promotion -- new books will still need to be brought to the attention of the public. But the new books will be Kindle or Kindle-like digital books.
The big print publishers need to understand the reality of the 21st century: either you roll with new technology or you get rolled over by it. That's the lesson of the history of technology in commerce.
Requiescat in pace, big print publishing. The run is finished.
Note: Since the publication of this essay on February 14, 2010, a magnificent essay on the same subject by Jason Epstein appeared in the March 11, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books. I had no preview of the Epstein essay. I'm gratified that we both reach essentially the same conclusions about the transformative impact of digital publishing on the publishing industry and on the civilized world in general.