Well, we knew it was coming. First, the big box bookstores like Barnes & Noble drove out the independents (See You've Got Mail). Then, the online sellers knocked out the big boxes (watch as B&N closes hundreds of those big boxes) and now, as we learned in the New York Times this morning, the big publishing houses are next.
Amazon is going directly to the authors, cutting out the publishers, even offering advances to sweeten some deals, but also making it easier for authors to put their books into the Kindle digital mainstream, in effect driving out the printers as well. Amazon will still print books, but ebooks will be the major platform.
As an author, I have worked with five different publishers, most of whom were helpful and encouraging, but after publication they were not very communicative. In only one or two cases have the relationships grown into friendship. The frustrations have been several: loss of control over the destiny of the book; little awareness of sales; late and sometimes missing royalties.
Now, Amazon has opened up the inner sanctum of publishing by allowing authors to check sales on line, by connecting us directly to the Nielson BookScan sales data. Publishers are cringing about this release as well as the overall threat to what was once an exclusive domain.
The arguments against cutting out the publishers are clear enough: less quality control over what is published; no in-house publicity from experts in marketing; no clear system of reviews from knowledgeable people who trust established publishing houses and university presses.
But the arguments against what many see as elitist control over what gets read are also strong: publishers deciding themselves what will sell or not; good books never published because they won't make a profit; financial concerns over printing and warehousing costs.
As the direct result of needing research material and flexibility, I recently purchased the least expensive Kindle, specifically to store older books in the public domain at little or no cost. I have also added a few books in copyright as well. I now have the capacity for storing 200,000 books in this thin, readable and very handy little device. My limited collection can grow to the size of a community library.
Like it or not, what Amazon is doing and what Google's scanning enterprise accomplished is a democratic and freeing exercise. Not only that, consider the environmental savings: oxygen-producing trees remain standing; energy saved in production and storage, to name the obvious.
As the romance of the printed book goes the way of the portable Smith Corona we all loved, and the walls of our homes are no longer enriched by shelves of beautiful bindings, we will indeed have lost something very near sacred for many. But consider what we have gained when gifted writers and eager readers are connected directly with one another, more cheaply, much faster and perhaps, even for the better in the long run for the future of our culture.