How will people look back at the Kindle & Nook era in 100 years?

Let’s start with a little snippet about Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press:

…probably introduced movable type to Europe, and is likely to have developed the earliest European printing press.

He is sometimes said to have started the Printing Revolution, regarded as the most important event of the modern period.

It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

So we have a pretty intimidating frame of reference to compare eReaders and eBooks to – The Gutenberg Press played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution. The Gutenberg Press laid the basis for the knowledge economy and brought learning to the masses.

Here’s a quote talking about the impact of Gutenberg’s Printing Press  –

As early as 1620, the English statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon could write that typographical printing has “changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world” 

The first question that comes up is – Will eReaders and eBooks have similar impact?

eReaders & eBooks are unlikely to have the scale of impact of the Printing Press

The primary reason is that books already exist and they aren’t really very expensive. We aren’t going through a big jump from ‘books only being affordable to the top few percent of the population’ to ‘books being available to a huge percentage of the population’.

That opportunity doesn’t exist because Gutenberg and his Press already took it.

The secondary reason (and this is a really big one too) is that the Internet already exists and it’s already done a lot of what ebooks possibly could have. The barriers are already gone. Information is already spreading wildly and freely.

There might not be a big, huge oppportunity for ebooks to make pivotal impact. Because they arrive after Gutenberg and after the Internet.

Which brings us to our second question – What big positive impact are eReaders and eBooks having?

Are eReaders & eBooks making books more accessible?

Yes. We can definitely point to a few things here –

  1. Anyone can read all public domain books for free now.
  2. Books are available instantly.
  3. Books are slowly becoming cheaper.
  4. People who had limited access to books earlier – now have more access.
  5. More people are able to offer books so the choice available is increasing.

There is, however, a twist.

When absolutely anyone can publish books, and lots of people are, we run into a signal versus noise problem.

Have eReaders & eBooks made it too easy to publish and spread books?

You have to wonder.

  1. If there is no barrier to publishing a book – Is that really a good thing?
  2. If the amount of noise keeps increasing – Is that going to scare people away from books?
  3. If there is no real barrier to the spread of a book – Are there any dangers?
  4. Since the lack of barriers also applies to things like stealing books – Is this going to reduce money earned by authors and publishers to the point that it starts affecting quality?
  5. Are we getting too much of a good thing?

I think the Law of Unintended Consequences is going to do a real number on everyone in books (including readers and authors).

The Law of Unintended Consequences & Books

There are two separate things:

  1. Letting anyone who wants to publish, publish.
  2. Making it easy to publish – even if you shouldn’t be publishing.

These are intertwined and have opposing effects. 

  1. The first is good. It’s about freedom and the democratization of publishing.
  2. The second is bad. It’s about a lack of quality control and about terrible books drowning out the good ones.

Kindle and Nook and eBooks were supposed to allow people to publish. To let deserving authors bypass the Gatekeepers and go straight to readers. To let authors take 90% of the earnings instead of 10%.

The Law of Unintended Consequences says:

  1. In parallel with X deserving authors, we’ll have 10X undeserving authors who will also publish. ‘Undeserving’ is a very loaded term – interpret it as people who haven’t worked on the craft of writing enough to be worth readers’ time.
  2. Authors will get a larger share of earnings. At the same time the amount of earnings will start to plummet.
  3. There will be so much competition and such little defensibility that books as an industry will begin to disappear.

You can’t stop people from having free access to your books. You can’t stop authors and semi-authors and pretend-authors from publishing books. Readers can’t handle the sheer volume of published books. It’s spinning out of control.

eReaders and eBooks might mark the ‘Public Domain’ization of ALL books (new or old)

What has happened is that the minute you release an eBook, or for that matter a printed book, you leave it up to readers to decide what they will pay for it.

Readers don’t fully understand this. Authors don’t understand that readers have the option to pay zero. No one is willing to admit that sooner or later people will choose to buy a $4 cup of coffee and read the latest bestseller for free (as opposed to paying for the bestseller).

As soon as readers get a reason that satisfies their need to ‘not be the bad person’, they will gladly switch over to reading books without paying for them. They just need a reason – ads, price too high, restrictions, anything – and they will gladly switch to a model where they don’t pay or where they pay a ridiculously low amount.

In effect, your book is ‘public domain’ the minute it gets converted into ebook format. You can come up with ways to try to get people to pay for them. However, it’s going to be difficult – particularly as more and more kids trained to get everything (music, movies, games) free online grow up and expect the same from books. What makes books and authors special? Why aren’t books free like everything else?

The Legacy of eReaders and eBooks might be the conversion of books to works of charity

Think back to the ‘value perception of books’ in 2007. Now consider what the current value perception of books is. It’s changed a lot.

Can you imagine someone walking into a bookstore in 2007 and asking for the latest bestseller to be $3 or even $1? Yet, that is routinely what people are now asking for ebooks to be priced at. These are the same people who have all the power – they can just download the book for free.

eReaders and eBooks are building up two legacies –

  1. Anyone can get a book without paying the author of the book anything.
  2. Anyone can publish and dilute the average quality of books.

Both of these play into each other. More books = more competition = lower prices. Lower prices = lower quality = less differentiation. The net result is that eReaders and eBooks might end up doing a lot more bad than good.

Perhaps it isn’t the best thing in the world to remove all barriers and let people do whatever they want. Pay whatever they want. Publish whatever they want.

My prediction is that people will look back at the Kindle & Nook era in 100 years as the ‘dark age of books’. That what happens in books in the next 10 to 30 years due to eReaders and eBooks and human nature being left unchecked is going to be very damaging for books. This is no Guternberg’s Press. This is more like a storm that uproots the very foundation of a business model that, despite its faults, has some redeeming qualities. A storm that leaves behind a world where books are everyone’s property and the incentive and resources for crafting great books are diminished significantly.

10 thoughts on “How will people look back at the Kindle & Nook era in 100 years?”

  1. I think to a large extent you may be right. But consider your $4 cup of coffee for a moment. Many diners offer breakfast specials where the coffee is free with your meal, yet people will still go to Starbucks and spend ~$5 for a cup of Joe that’s consistently good. And up until relatively recently, in the grand scheme of things, paying Starbucks prices for a cup of coffee was practically unthinkable! So, too, I think it will be with books.

    Sure, there’s going to be plenty of free or $.15 offerings available, but even people who are accustomed to getting something for (practically) nothing will pay for quality. The question is, where will people go to get that quality? As you rightly point out, the signal to noise ratio is key. Keeping with the coffee analogy, if Coffee Shop X has thousands of different flavors and only 10 of those are worth a crap, statistically speaking people who stop by casually are going to get something that stinks and never return. They’ll probably have a few regulars who know what’s worth paying for if they keep a consistent menu. Change the menu around and they’re likely to lose those people too.

    Amazon, at least right now, arguably had a leg up in the signal to noise ratio with regards to books due to their ratings system. In fact, I didn’t even know B&N had a ratings system for books until I looked just prior to writing this paragraph. When I want to know what other people think of a book, Amazon is the name that comes to mind for me. That is hugely important, and something that I don’t think they play up nearly enough.

    The company that will be the most likely to succeed in the new marketplace for books is going to have to do for books what Starbucks has done for coffee: deliver a consistent product that’s easy to find at a price that people can justify. They will also have to remember that, ultimately, the cup that the coffee is served in is nothing more than a vessel. As long as it doesn’t leak it is serving its purpose. Some people prefer to bring a cup from home and get a small discount on their beverage of choice. Others are happy with the cheapo paper cup the store provides. I think in a few years that will most likely be the case for eReaders, as well. The major value will not be in the vessel — the eReader — but in the content.

    1. Agreed 100% with the content being the real value and not the vessel.
      With the first part too.

      Amazon has reviews – hwoever, it’s using books as the free cup of coffee. Without thinking about what it does to books themselves.

      1. Right now they are, which I why I don’t think that, in the long run, Amazon will be the company to capitalize on the new marketplace for books. As I said, I think it’s going to ultimately be a quality issue. A crap cup of coffee, even for free, is still crap. The company that can figure out how to narrow down the offerings to only the best stuff (and recognizes that the vessel isn’t really the product) will be the company that dominates the marketplace in the long haul. And that’s going to mean DRM free, ePub or some other fairly universal format, so that you can use the vessel (eReader) of your choice.

  2. This was perfect timing as it’s the way that my thoughts had been going today. I’m not willing to pay as much for an ebook as I would pay for a physical book, because when we buy ebooks, we don’t really own the book.

    If I buy a book from a bookstore, I can read it. I can then give it to anyone I like with no restrictions. Once I buy that physical copy, I can do what I like with it. I can loan that one book to however many people I want.

    With ebooks, I was told that I was not buying the book. I was only buying a license to read the book. I cannot read it and then pass it on to someone else. That isn’t legal. So if I want someone else to have it, I have to buy the ebook as a gift. If I want a third person to read it, I have to buy the ebook again. Even at a low price, wanting others to read ebooks can get real expensive real fast.

    I started downloading books from Project Gutenberg years ago. I didn’t like trying to read them on the computer screen, so I would print them out and then read them. Last summer, someone said, “Get a kindle.” I realized that it would quickly pay for itself just in the money saved on ink and paper. I don’t do anything different with the kindle than I did with the printed copies of the PG books. I read them and then delete them from the kindle.

    Free books have been available online since at least 2003 (when I got my first computer). I had 4,000+ books on my hard drive long before I got the kindle. So e-readers just give us another way to read the books that have existed in electronic form for many years.

    “Anyone can read all public domain books for free now.” Anyone could have read all public domain books for free long before the e-reader.

    It has always been possible to read bestsellers for free. That’s what public libraries are for.

    And it’s quite possible that the end result will take us back to the world where we bought physical copies of books.

  3. You shook me up a little bit. I search carefully for those free books, occasionally throwing caution to the wind and going .99 for something that looks good. That’s my limit…but wait. I spend $3-4 on coffee all the time. I like reading way more than I like convenient coffee. Time to rethink priorities.

  4. Take a step back from Gutenberg. There have always been storytellers. Storytelling is inherent in humanity. The division of storytelling into “stories” and “how-to” is a relatively modern phenomenon, at least where the masses are concerned.

    There will always be storytellers, people with a burning need to pass along their version of reality to their fellows. The book is/was just a vessel. The story and the storyteller are the real deal. Storytellers will have to learn how to spread their message in new ways.

    Where information is concerned, the book was a stopgap measure. You correctly identify the internet as the true game changer in that regard. The power of video and hybrid/multi-media instructional and informational resources to teach, inform, and enlighten, far surpass the printed illustrated page, particularly when coupled with immediate transmission to vast audiences with the capability of giving instant feedback.

    It’s probably not clear from the foregoing that I agree with your evaluation of the impact of ereaders and ebooks on the craft of storytelling in text format and on the creation and dissemination of non-fiction text, as well. I do agree 100% with your evaluation.

  5. The advent of ereaders may also mark the end of booksignings by authors and doing book tours. The readers and the authors get a chance to meet each other face to face (for better or worse) and may get a chance at the authors read aloud from their books.

    I’ve been in lines to get Ray Bradbury, Orson Scott Card, etc’s signatures and gotten to see them up close and personal. It was actually a pleasure to see them in person and even a chance to say a few words of how much pleasure I got from reading their books.

    How will an author sign an ebook? Would a digital signature count?

    Another unexpected consequence…

  6. The curse, “May you live in interesting times,” comes to mind for this era of writing. It is an interesting time to be a writer and a reader.

    One aspect of this that I like to point out is the parallel with the music industry. It’s become easier and easier over the past ten to 15 years to produce your own music. Who buys CDs anymore? Fewer and fewer of us. We purchase music one song at a time and download it to our computer or MP3 player. This would have been crazy talk in the early eighties.

    Thousands of bands, singers, and other artists perform around the country — many more throughout the world — as they have for decades, playing in nightclubs and elsewhere, trying to earn a living. Now, however, they can also produce music for consumption over the internet. If they are good, they will develop a following.

    Now, despite the fact that many more people in the world feel they have a commercially viable talent for writing than for performing music, the sky is not falling for writers or the publishing industry. More people are talking about books and writing now than before, simply because of the advent of ereaders. The marketplace is changing, yes, but it’s also becoming bigger.

    Don’t bemoan the loss of the gatekeepers for traditional publishing. Rejoice in the wealth of choices everyone has now. How do you choose what music to listen to? If you only like what plays on the radio, the big music producers are still there, gatekeeping for you. If you like to listen to the recommendation of friends and experiment, there are a plethora of independent artists out there now to listen to.

    Books and writing will be the same. If you only like mainstream writers and popular genres, the traditional publishers will continue to give you the James Pattersons and Danielle Steeles of the world. If you like to listen to the recommendation of friends and experiment, you now have the opportunity to do that as well.

    1. As Lawrence Lessig likes to point out, John Philip Sousa said in a submission to the U.S. Congress in 1906 that records would prove to be the ruin of the artistic development of music. The changes in the music industry over the last 12-15 years due to file sharing etc. can be viewd as having “re-democratized” creation and production of music by decorporatizing (if you care to view the situation from the perspective of the radical fringe) a system that evolved to favour the middlemen over the creators unless the creators number among the huge stars.

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