You Can’t Play your Library on the Radio

Posted on 01/11/2010


I’ve been contemplating this whole “e-book” thing lately and started thinking about the future.

Let me qualify myself first, so you know where I’m coming from.

I have been in information technology professionally for almost twenty years. I have held positions from technical support (back when the U.S. had all the technical support) to IT management positions.  I keep up with modern technology not because I like to, but because I have to. It’s my job. It’s also my job to predict the future to some extent.  See, we have to look forward to see where businesses and users are moving, so we can be prepared when they make decisions.  I have to be a pretty good prognosticator about technology.  Now, all that being said, my knowledge on the publishing industry is a wee-bit less than that. Well, truthfully, my knowledge is not that great, so I am approaching this from the IT perspective more so than the publishing direction. However, I can make educated assumptions on what will happen on the publishing side, based upon the technology of the day.  Hopefully that all makes sense and when I start putting things down below, you can keep up.

So we have the Kindle.  It is the harbinger. It is the death knell for the publishing industry.  Truthfully, the Kindle is an alpha product, so it’s sort of sucky. I won’t buy one. Hell I won’t buy a beta product in the line.  See, technology sort of has a history of creating devices that do one thing, then combining them with other things, and then separating them out again. (They also have a way of sucking in the beginning, then becoming significantly better later on) So you’ll get a product that can do one thing, but then innovators start  wondering why they can’t also add “x” functionality to the product, and then you get cell-phones with cameras. Then cell-phones with internet connectivity…etc. You get the idea.  Once the next generation of e-readers come out, I will dive in. Sort of waiting for full color ones that can do more first, but I still want e-ink.  They have a new laptop that can switch between a regular screen to an e-ink screen with the flick of a button. Pretty neat stuff, but once again, I’m waiting. If you haven’t seen e-ink in person, you won’t understand until you do. It looks like a piece of paper.

I have looked ahead, and the world will have to eventually go to all ebooks.  I don’t like this, but I will accept it. I am techno-nerd, but I love the smell of a book, the feel of the pages, the weight of the thing.  But it’s an inefficient way to handle data in this day and age, and especially going forward.  Digital is where it’s at. Hey, if you own a Blu-Ray player, I hate to be the one to tell you, but Blu-Ray is a dead technology ALREADY.  Yeah. It’s merely a stopgap until all digital delivery comes. Once that’s here, there will be no reason to print DVDs or Blu-Ray discs…that’s an eventuality, of course, but it will happen.  Everything is and will continue to move toward digital delivery, which is a little scary.  What if we digitize everything and get rid of all physical copies and something wipes everything in the future? Like some massive EMP bomb.  I digress.

With everything going digital, books will too. There will be places to purchase these books, online of course. Maybe at some digital kiosks in real life, but why bother?  You’ll have a device, it’ll be connected to the ether somehow, and you’ll have a place to get your stuff. Whether or not your device is a Barnes and Noble device, device, or Walmart device, will determine where you get your books. Of course, there will be independent devices out there, but you’ll still need to figure out where you’re going to get your books. There will be independent online bookstores (there are already are) and if an industry standard is adopted, that will make it easier to go to different places. Of course, the firmware on most devices should be able to read multiple formats.  But then you get into the MP3, versus, AAC, versus, WMA crapola, which none of us like.  There will probably never be one de facto industry standard, but as long as there is a central one that all other devices can utilize, then we’ll be okay. (Something like MP3’s. An MP3 is not an industry standard, but it’s open and everyone supports it in their devices.) 

You’ll have your device that will probably play movies, read books, listen to music, etc (Sony PSP anyone?)…all that is only somewhat important at this point in the discussion. What is important is the difference between movies, music, video games, and books. I’m going to use the word “Publisher” below to cover a lot of ground, but when I use that term, it could also be interchanged with “Producer”.

Movies: initially shown in a theater, where people have to go to consume them.
The publisher can advertise the movie and has control of it in it’s initial phase. He has certain channels he goes through to get his movie shown in theaters. Then it’s onto DVD, where he has less control, but still some. There is a (currently) physical product here, and making  a movie is typically cost prohibitive (hiring actors, cameras, etc). Could it be done by Joe MovieMaker? Yes. Would anyone pay to see it? Prolly not.

Video Game: you have two types, those for consoles, and those for PCs, and those that are on both platforms. Once, again, you can create a game all you want, but if you don’t have a large publisher pick it up, it prolly won’t be distributed through stores where joe user can buy it off the shelf. (Will video games become digital delivery too? Probably. But making a video game takes a lot of money, skills in programming, and lots of people to code/develop/test) (of course that last statement doesn’t count for smaller games, like Xbox Live, or the MSN games, or Facebook games, etc. Those are a different market share than Gears of War, Halo, Modern Warfare, etc.) Could Joe VGMaker make a game? Maybe, probably not one that would be much better than pong, unless he had a lot of experience. Would anyone buy it? Prolly not.

Music: Music is the first thing to attempt to go truly digital. A few thoughts. Music typically takes more than one person to create, although you could be a one man band and easily create songs.  They might suck, but whatever. The difference with music is this: Even though it could be ALL digital at this time, it still has a “free” version, which is the thing in your car, the thing in your house, the thing everywhere: your radio.  (Although the days of free radio might be numbered…once again, another topic) So, why don’t we have a bunch of total crap playing on the radio? (yeah, yeah. Shut up, contrarians. Sure there is a lot of crap out there, but there’s a system in place to ensure that most of the real crap is filtered)  Well, the radio plays music that is produced by big music companies. (of course radio stations will tell you they don’t accept money to play songs, this has been proven wrong over and over again)  So you have the radio blaring out these songs that music “publishers” market and push out.  If you can get your song onto the radio, and get enough play time, you can have a smash hit on your hands. (Even if it sucks!) Could Joe Musician cut a CD? Yes. Would anyone buy it? Prolly not.

Then we come to our old favorites. Books.  Books are going digital delivery, but unlike music, there’s not someone blaring into your car everyday reading a book. Sure you can go to the library, but there’s no filter there, like there is on the radio. There’s just a bunch of books, spines out, staring at you. But once books go ALL digital…how’s a library going to work?  People are going to have to regulate the number of free copies their books have and how many times they can be “checked out” virtually.  It boggles the mind on how they would do that, and I am not going to do much speculating here on it. (Poor Half-Price Books!)

However, from here on out, I will compare books and music extensively. Since books appear to be following music with one HUGE difference.  Books don’t need publishers to publish if they are in digital only format. (Of course music doesn’t either!)

Yeah, you read that correctly: there is no need for publishers if books go all digital. Hell, there’s no need for musicians to have big music industry contracts!  They can create music, throw it up there online, and hope people buy it.  But keep reading.

 I hear you laughing, but read closely. I have more thoughts on the subject. You are probably thinking, “Well, music went all digital and they still use producers and large companies to make music.” 
I give you this: books and music are different. Music has videos, the artists are on TV shows, they are on specials, they play during the Superbowl, they have the radio to blare their music of arguable worth, etc.  Books don’t have any of that. Writers go on tour to promote their books, just like musicians do to promote their music, but writers just have to carry a bag with their books in it and a pen to sign them. Not an entire entourage of roadies, technicians, instruments, etc.  Writers will schedule time with a local bookstore to have a table where people can come get a book signed.  Musicians have to hire pyrotechnics experts and have lawyers agree to deals with national arenas.  You gettin my point?  Publishing is way more important to the music industry because musicians are expected to be overall “entertainers”. While writers are just expected to write a damn book. And even if music is ALL digital, musicians are still required to tour to make any real money.  Writers aren’t.  And if you’re going to tour, your going to need all that money from the big business producer. Writing does not require this, and this is the biggest difference. Writers don’t need anyone to create their product except themselves.

In the future, anyone will be able to “publish” any ebook they want. Hell they can today if they want.  There is no reason to have a publisher when physical books go the way of the do-do bird.  Perhaps.   I am sure there are plenty of people out there who disagree and say we will still need some sort of gatekeeper to make sure that not every thing can get through to the mainstream. There has to be some way to keep the veritable flood of ebooks from overwhelming the average consumer.  I agree. But it doesn’t have to be a publisher. You see, to “publish” music requires the purchase of some sort of musical creation device (whether it be computerized or not) and some measure of skill, some sort of studio, etc. Now, of course you could create music simply from your computer and throw it out on the internet. People do this already today, but they won’t make any money from it. Not any more than Bob Writer from putting together his latest conspiracies into a text document and then “ebook”ing it and “publishing” it up to the internet.

So what is there out there that can and will still police the books lining the virtual shelves on the internet?  Honestly, “Publishing” an ebook is quite simple. Write up a book, create some chapters, work up a cover, put it into an ebook converter program, and VOILA! you have an ebook. Once again, there is no reason to hire a publisher.

Let’s be CRYSTAL clear here, folks.  STEPHEN KING, J.K. ROWLING, STEPHANIE MEYER, JAMES PATTERSON, etc…COULD WRITE UP AN EBOOK AND PUT IT UP ON AMAZON.COM, SKIPPING THE PUBLISHER ALTOGETHER, ONLY PAYING AMAZON THEIR CUT.   These writers have established themselves. Any of them could put a book up on amazon and it would make them a fortune. Unlike traditional publishing, there is NO LIMIT to how many ebooks you can have, and there’s NO COST PROHIBITER for more and more of them.  Hell, you create ONE ebook, and it can be duplicated FOREVER.  It’s CHEAP. For our famous writers above: no more royalty checks! CHECK IT OUT! They sell a million ebooks, for 5 bucks each, give their 35% cut so that math equals (opens calculator…bear with me) 3 million bucks. Hell you won’t need a literary agent either. I love literary agents, but I think they may be a dying breed. Why do you need an agent to publish your book?  All the stuff is here.  Now, of course, if you’re a big name writer, you can prolly negotiate that down, but for people like you and me…well, okay. 

But then, how do you get people to actually buy your book? Why even go on tour? Why bother? Your book is digital only. There’s no reason. So once again, how do you get people to know your book is out there? Good question, not one I have a ready answer for.  However, I do foresee a day, perhaps in the next ten years or so, when some completely new person will publish a book on and something about that person’s book will spark a fire and everyone will want it.  And it will sell. And publishers around the world will freak.  This will happen. Mark my words.  Perhaps sooner than I think.  And when it does, it changes the entire game. It gives the power back to the writer, and takes it away from the publisher. It allows the writer to go in and edit his story on the fly. It allows the writer to fix typos on the fly. It allows the writer to see exactly how many books they are selling LIVE as it happens.  There will be no more “returns” from bookstores.  What the writers sell–they sell.

I still predict there will be publishers making ebooks, and they will be able to market their writers out there, but getting  a new, unpublished author out to the public will require them to advertise on the web, and a lot.  They’re basically going to have to create ads that look like movies, but will be about books.

That’s my prediction about ebooks. I am sure many of you disagree for a number of reasons, and I am sure I have missed many aspects of this, but that’s what the comments section is for, right? So what do you think? Have I hit the mark? Am I full of shit? (You already know the answer to that!)

My reccomendation? Get yourself known before the massive move to ebooks. Get yourself known NOW.

Posted in: Ebooks, Writing