Publishing Words: The Future of Books

Innovation and Art

The art community has not always welcomed change. It venerates tradition, and art-enthusiasts of every era are reluctant to deem worthy works that do not conform to time-tested notions of beauty. Despite increasing acceptance of modern and contemporary art, the same resistance to change may exist today. The opera and ballet stubbornly adhere to their traditional performance methods, and that’s how their patrons like it. Sometimes, though—as publishing houses around the country have discovered this year—change cannot be ignored.

What the publishing industry faces right now is a customer base that demands a digital product even as the technology that makes these products possible is still in its early stages of development. Random House has experienced a 200 percent growth in eBook sales this year, and every other company’s sales tell similar tales. The various devices on the market—the Kindle, the Nook, and the Kobo eReader, among others—all do different things. Thanks to each business’s attempt to dominate the market, they are mostly incompatible with each other. For example, the Nook and Apple’s iPad feature color displays for picture books, but for the time being the Kindle does not. How can a publishing house market a book only for those consumers who have one of those two eReader models? How can it spend millions converting the complex layout of a textbook into an electronic format when many of their customers don’t own an eReader at all? In the face of such bleak uncertainty, it is not surprising that the industry has been slow to transition.

Even worse for the publishing houses, the bestseller list is quietly but steadily being infiltrated by self-published works, works that have bypassed the traditional publishing system entirely. Author Amanda Hocking has become famous for uploading her books to digital bookstores after receiving multiple rejections from traditional houses. Today alone she will sell thousands of books directly to readers, without the help of a major publisher. This type of change threatens to render the entire business obsolete, assuming that other aspiring authors feel confident enough to go in alone. Maybe publishing’s heyday is dead and gone, destined to be replaced by online media that goes directly to consumers in an open marketplace.

Or maybe not. Major publishing companies joined together last year to negotiate with the internet giant that has come to dominate an unsettlingly large portion of the book retail market, and is now planning to launch its own publishing division as well. In order to promote its Kindle device, Amazon sold eBooks last year for less than the wholesale prices at which it purchased them, taking a loss that no other company could begin to afford. In response, several companies, led by New York based Macmillan Publishers, stepped in to fight for a new system to prevent such a hostile takeover of the book retail market. Amazon pulled Macmillan’s books from its site temporarily, Macmillan held out, and eventually Amazon caved, end scene. Such drama may be unpleasant for both parties, but at least the old houses won’t let books go the way of CDs or DVDs without a fight.

Along with the Amazon deal, the overwhelming increase in digital sales has already created new possibilities for reaching readers. Publishers can offer extras such as video and audio commentary with their eBooks, and picture books have been given an exciting and entirely new medium with the rise of the iPad. While there are still those who continue to cling to the beauty of the traditionally printed word, literature is not dependent on its physical form. Unlike an opera or ballet, the words of Dickens, Chaucer, and Shakespeare still ring true even on an electronic screen. The essence of the art is inextinguishable, and the rest may turn out to be just details.

­­—Columnist Sofie C. Brooks can be reached at sbrooks@fas.harvard.edu

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