The Future. Not quite here yet. • 18 July 2011 • The SnowBlog
The Future. Not quite here yet.
Try a quick Google search and it's fairly obvious that the e-book avalanche that has long been predicted is well underway. As you know, Amazon already make more from e-book sales than from paperbacks. And while the billions of paper books in the world aren't suddenly going to go away, there's no denying that a book that's released today or a decade from now will face a very different commercial landscape than it would have a decade in the past. For a start, the ever-lower barriers to entry in e-books will mean even more titles get published* - potentially a lot more - and there were already more new books in one year than any of us could read in a lifetime. There's also the dwindling of the book chains to consider. Both in the US and the UK there are fewer nationwide book outlets, which means fewer places where customers can view an array of new and recent titles carefully arranged according to quality, sales expectation and those generous 'bungs' known as 'marketing support'. When you walked into Borders, you knew that any book you saw within the first five seconds was destined for greatness (or at least a big marketing push). If you didn't have time to trawl every shelf in the store, you could just peruse the displays, glance at the tables and see what was stacked by the counters. That way you'd see all the blockbusters and the hot new releases without fear that you'd miss anything important. But the world of e-books is like a Borders store that runs to seventy floors and all but a hundred titles are arranged on identical shelves. Differentiating your title from the pack has always been difficult; it's going to become a lot harder.
The other point I wanted to make about the world in the age of e-books is that we haven't really started yet. I've complained before about how a Kindle download of a million-selling title from the New York Times list can be badly typeset, with weird characters that display wrongly on certain devices. Such a thing in the print version is almost inconceivable. And at the bottom end of the market the situation resembles the early days of the web when flashing text, animated rainbows and a hilarious jumble of fonts, colours and backgrounds were the norm. I bought a cheap e-book recently where the hundreds of footnotes had been randomly blended in with the body text so you couldn't tell which was which, everything was in the same unprofessional-looking format (= fully justified with no hyphenation). It was unreadable chaos - but it was on sale through the Amazon store.
Likewise with e-book devices. Many people don't notice bad typesetting once they're caught up in a story, but they will notice awkardly placed buttons for turning the page or (in my case) a process for downloading new books that only works about one time in ten when there's a wifi network to join first.
We're still in the early days of e-book software and e-book devices. They're going to get better. A lot better. They're going to get cool. In five years the good ones will be amazing. And at the bottom end they're also going to get really cheap. They'll get like digital watches, which were exotic luxuries in 1975 and given away with petrol by 1995. Soon, when you take out an over-50s insurance policy, instead of a cheap carriage clock you'll get an e-reader and a thousand 'classic' books on it.
For the time being, complex layouts don't really work in e-books, or large formats, or colours, or high-quality pictures (and actually footnotes and nice typesetting aren't really there either). So for now, coffee table books will be paper, as will textbooks (the kind with pictures and diagrams) and Dorling-Kindersley-style publications. Mass-market paperbacks, on the other hand, have very little to offer the world in their paper incarnation and will be largely gobbled up by e-books. But all the items in that previous list will one day soon be possible and practical electronically. And that's before we push past replicating what a paper textbook can do and introduce some innovation (as I've said before, I'm waiting for the day you can wire up a circuit or do an experiment with a pendulum inside the textbook).
In summary: this is not the world of e-books. This is just the beginning.
*whatever that word means in 2011