Tim O'Reilly tweeted a great article from the New York Times on the math of publishing traditional print versus eBooks. If you publish print books, and aren't as aggressive as O'Reilly Media at experimenting with new forms, or looking over your shoulder at Scribd, then you would feel very justified about the entire NYT article. But it ignores the future in a very fundamental way. It assumes the weight of the entire book publishing process from author and editor through paper manufacturing, distribution, and end-retailer needs to be maintained.
I would mourn the loss of book stores as much as the next bibliophile. There are a thousand or so books within easy reach in the apartment. There are amazing bookstores throughout the world in which I find peace and solace from the chaos amongst all that collected human creativity, knowledge, and imagination. Good book stores smell right, and you know a good book store the second you walk into them. Book stores are indeed holy places.
But I remember growing up with Sam the Record Man in Toronto. Three floors of goodness, with the finest collection of jazz, classical, and rock music in Canada. Sam's spawned an entire chain across the country. A&A Records was next door to the flagship Sam's. There were many pilgrimages to the pair of stores through my teen years and early twenties. And like a good book store, Sam's just smelt right. I will always have the memory and my daughters will never know what they're missing, except they don't want to either. They have their own generational memory. The way we consume music has changed. Records were supplanted by cassettes, then CDs. Now many of us live in an iTunes and Amazon MP3 download enabled world. The traditional distribution chain changed. New musicians often self promote for a period of time, producing their own CDs and selling their music through iTunes, before being "discovered" by a label to help them scale. The music now promotes the concert tour revenue stream, rather than the other way around.
This will happen to the book publishing industry. The model will change. People outside the publishing house will re-invent the book and how it's consumed.
- When does someone set up an Internet marketplace for authors, editors, copyeditors, and illustrators to find one another and share the revenues directly? Google has a tool base for online collaboration and are certainly interested in books. With Amazon's latest royalty offering for Kindle, an author can deliver a Kindle edition and could "share" their 70% royalty with editors that made the book better or illustrators that did the cover design. Or maybe the payment system front loads the payments to the supporting "staff" before the author begins to make the lion's share. Indie movies and indie music have been around for a while, when do we end up with a serious indie book industry?
- When does Amazon create the iPhone/Android app and the programme that will allow bookstores to receive a cut of every Kindle edition they sell? I scan the book's in-store barcode with my smartphone, and I get the Kindle edition delivered, and the store gets its cut. Why is this different in concept than Borders on-line store being run on Amazon, or any of the independent book sellers that front through Amazon? It's not the normal book mark-up, but people already browse bookstores and buy on Amazon. This is better than no revenue. (When was the last time you went to a travel agent?)
- If we have an indie eBook publishing industry, does producing limited copies for browseable book stores and gifts become a new publishing industry? Do such copies in bookstores become collectibles because they're more scarce? What publishers (in what countries) will become the de facto efficient producers of one-off or limited run books?
- Public libraries are interesting from an economics perspective. They exist to support and encourage literacy. Their funding model is local government set. The books they buy are often a more robust expensive package (as are their books-on-tape, and their CD prices are often higher to reflect replacement costs). They often provide Internet access but even here on Microsoft's doorstep in Redmond, Washington, the 25 or so PCs are always in full use. I don't think libraries are going to be replaced by eBooks any time soon, but some publishers are already trying to reconfigure to chase strictly the high margin school/library market.
- When is the vanity of coffee table books and browsing the book case when you visit someone's house get replaced by a digital wi-fi connected picture frame rolling the covers of the family's collected eBooks collections? Or when indeed do beautiful photo coffee table books become the download for the picture frame on your living room wall (with the helpful text a bluetooth read on your tablet away). Or does having books themselves become the cultural vanity item?
P.S. Sam's is literally gone now. You can still see a little of the Sam's logo painted on the wall of the back alley. A&A's was taken over by HMV for music and videos. And the Future Shop (like Best Buy for U.S. readers) ironically was there as well. HMV and the FS are expanded and down the street now on better real estate.