Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Publishing Industry Should Be Afraid, Very Afraid

In 1999, Sean Fanning created a little Internet sharing program called Napster.  Napster allowed users to share their music files (stored in mp3 format), thus eliminating the need to purchase entire CDs of music from the record companies.  Millions of dollars in revenue for the music companies were lost.  Until this time, record companies made huge profits selling music in a physical format, whether it be vinyl, CD, or cassette tape.  It was difficult and unwieldy to copy music effectively, so piracy wasn't a serious financial threat to the music industry.  But after Napster, music became as easy to share as clicking a button.  You could own thousands of songs for free.  As many in the market know, it is tough to compete with free.  The record companies then freaked out, sued Napster and shut it down, and went after music fans by suing them for copyright infringement.

iTunes attempted to make buying music cheap and easy, thus reducing the incentive to steal music.  The profits earned by the record companies have never quite recovered.  Yes, people still buy CDs, but many more buy music at a greatly reduced price online through iTunes.  The problem for the record companies is that the times have changed, and their old business model of selling physical media has become obsolete.

The movie industry now fears the same kind of problems.  Getting pirated movies online is more difficult than getting music because the file sizes are much larger and the process of working with different video codecs and standards confuses the average person.  As bandwidth increases and the process becomes more simple, movie piracy will increase.  This is especially so after more televisions are connected to home computers, which is the next step in the evolution of home media.

The last holdout in all of this is the publishing industry.  Thanks to the convenience, clarity and ease of use of the printed book, the publishing industry has been safe so far.  People generally don't like reading novels and other print on their laptops.  You can't curl up in your bed with your laptop because of the bulk of it.  And the eyes tend to get sore staring at LCD screens for too long.  Then came the Kindle.  While the early iterations were okay, the newer e-reader devices are greatly improved.  They are light, the text looks clear and isn't hard on the eyes, and the readers themselves are inexpensive and light.  e-books sold through Amazon are also cheaper than their paperback cousins.  If the mass adoption of e-readers continues, things are going to change for the publishing industry in the same way they have for the music industry.

Up until now, the publishing industry, like the music industry, has served as the gatekeeper of popular taste.  If it didn't invest in you, then you weren't heard.  The cost of publishing a novel or music album on a mass scale is immense, in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  The average person simply couldn't afford to self-publish on that kind of scale.

But with the dawn of youtube, facebook, and other means of communicating with others at a near zero cost, this is changing.  Now you can have a music video go viral on youtube, sell your album online, and make some money by selling your work online.  The same goes with the publishing industry.  You can now self-publish a novel, sell it online, and have it digitally delivered to millions of readers at almost no cost.  This could mean a great explosion of creativity and self-expression.  I for one, welcome it.

Now you have to choose between tablet computers like the iPad, which is relatively heavy to hold, and the e-reader, such as the Kindle, which is light but only has black and white text.  As time goes on, tablet computers will become so light and easy on the eyes you won't mind reading with them and accessing the Internet and doing the other things you might otherwise do on your laptop.

The problem for the publishing industry is that authors cannot make money on side item, value-added products like musicians can.  Lady Gaga can sell concert t-shirts, clothing, and other items.  She can tour.  But many authors don't have the same kind of "star power" that rock stars do.  Many authors may find themselves writing without an expectation of payment.  This means less career authors, which is unfortunate.

A related phenomena is happening to newspapers.  As online advertising doesn't command the same kind of expense as print advertising, newspapers are finding themselves broke.  This means no money for important journalists to get paid, which is bad for everyone.  The future looks uncertain for the journalism field.  We may find ourselves becoming a nation of bloggers but no full time journalists.

You may be saying, "I love my books, no one is going to replace them with an electronic device".  Perhaps you are right.  It is going to be some time before paper books are totally replaced.  However, as e-readers improve, the convenience and quality of owning these devices is hard to resist.  They are light, take up almost no space (you can hold thousands of books on one device), cheaper than paper books, better for the environment due to the reduced use of trees and truck fuel used to ship them across the country, plus they permit an interactive experience.  Paper books are static, but e-readers allow you to see moving objects, listen to sound, and engage in multimedia.  The entire experience is more interactive.

I will miss paper books when they are no longer around.  I fear the growing use of "cloud" computing, where Amazon owns the content and you have to pay a subscriber fee to access it.  I fear the growing use of digital copyright restriction, which oftentimes means you don't own the electronic copy of the media you bought.  This means the company can "take back" your digital property at any time.  It also means limits on sharing your media with others.  With paper books, you can lend a book as you see fit, you can give it away, and view it wherever you want.

In the end, some people will be smart enough to get around these types of restrictions by using their own means of hacking.  It is done with smartphones all the time--it is called jailbreaking.  Perhaps people in the future will jailbreak their books.  It will be a sad day when we have to hack our books just to read them, or to share them, but no doubt it will be the last vestige of yet another industry trying to hold onto an obsolete business model.

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