The news a couple weeks ago about the release of Sony’s new ebook reader has aroused only a touch of speculation. Instead of focusing, like I did, on how the technology will transform publishing (if it has any effect at all), most of the articles I’ve found on the topic tend to center on how publishing companies will be able to use the technology to cut costs:
E-paper could save newspapers a bundle on printing and distribution. In 10 years 12 percent of newspapers could be published on e-paper, says Harald Ritter, technology chief for Ifra, the publisher’s group; eventually they’ll all follow suit, just as the recording industry dropped vinyl. “In 20 to 30 years we will see newspaper publishers abandon print for economic reasons,” says Roger Fidler, director of the Center for Cyber Information at Kent State University.
Wow! Newspapers will save a bundle? Gosh! Let me be the first in line to buy a $400 reader so newspapers can save a bundle! A better question is this: what will a newspaper be when it no longer involves paper? Will the 2034 equivalent of a “newspaper” even exist? Why should it? The reason they exist now is because they are a cheap way to distribute news. Surely with technology like e-books, we can come up with an even cheaper way.
Of course, newspapers aren’t really my thing. I write books. In fact, I’ve just written one, and all this talk of e-books has gotten me to thinking about how I might want to distribute it. Do I really need a publisher? As I pointed out before, the main purpose of publishers is to help authors defray the cost of printing. Once printing is out of the picture, the cost of “publishing” is trivial. Why couldn’t I, for example, distribute my book from an online store? You send me $3, I e-mail you the file, ready for downloading to your e-book reader.
But how would anyone hear about it? How would I get the word out? I could do the same thing “real” publishers do: hire a publicist. Or I could try to do publicity on my own, sending out press releases and offers to do radio interviews. I’d even have a “hook,” since I’m trying out a novel form of book distribution.
I could try other methods: Maybe distribute the first three or four chapters for free, then ask for money once I get readers “hooked.” I could distribute the whole thing free and ask for payment on the honor system. I could try any number of means to get my book out there, and I suspect that’s exactly what most authors will be doing as soon as we see a widespread distribution of e-book readers. Meanwhile, publishers, instead of counting how much money they’ve saved, will be trying to figure out why they exist at all.