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.

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