The Second Eclectic

Technology changes how we relate to God and each other

The Collapse of the eReader, part 1

Apocalyptics are saying, “Print is Dead.” Nostalgics are saying, “Long live the book.”

A lot has been written about eReading device like the Kindle. I want to focus on two specific dimensions of eReaders. Many seem mystified by the disruption of eBooks, but a little straight-forward analysis will point us in the right direction. First, I want to explore a little bit how eReaders collapse the publishing process into a push-button device. Second, I want to compare and contrast the eReader and the book as an object with a set of features. As we do, we’ll gain a clearer understanding of what eReading devices mean for publishers and their books.

First. Don’t be misled by the words “eReader” and “eBook.” That tells you want they are intended for. But that’s not what they are. What they are, and what they are intended for are two very different things.

An eReader is a computer, not a book. It’s a computer made for a single purpose: to help an author communicate directly with a reader. In this sense, eReaders are no different from blogs. They collapse the whole publishing process between the author and the reader. The whole publishing process is automatic. This includes agents, acquiring editors, copyeditors, marketers, salespeople, distributors, bookstores, and bookshelves. EReaders would be better called “ePublishers.” All these intermediate steps from authors to readers have been, not eliminated, but collapsed by the “eReader.”

When you realize this, it’s clear why the eReader has shaken up the publishing industry. At my own company, ebooks were first used for marketing about 10 years ago. But with eReaders everywhere today, the whole publishing process must prove that they’re worth keeping around. Everyone from agents to bookstores must show that their contribution to the process is still worthwhile. Who needs a publishing process when an eReader makes it automatic? Indeed, why cook when you can throw something in the microwave?

To prove that they deserve to stick around, each step in the publishing process has to answer questions like these:

Agents/Acquiring Editors: Will authors go build their own platform from which to distribute their writing? Will readers do their own legwork in discovering these new authors?

Copyeditors: Will readers notice or care about misspellings and bad grammar? Will they see an author’s poorly organized writing for what it is? Will the work of editors still be worth it for both authors and readers, enough to justify paying more for an edited book?

Sales: Is there a need for a big sales force to get books into digital channels?

Readers have already spoken about bookstores and distributors: see Borders and a host of independent bookstores. Meanwhile, bookshelves will simply disappear as a side effect. Ironically, the only step that may remain relatively intact is marketing—the ones who first used eBooks. Will self-published authors pay to get their books marketed? Will publishers be reduced to marketing firms?

Of course, these questions assume readers will shift completely to eReading devices, but that may or may not be the case. But in some parts of the industry, these questions will be relevant. EReaders and Tablets seem to be working their way up the chain of publishing, from most frequently published content to the most lasting, starting with newspapers and moving to magazines, mass-market paperbacks, and textbooks. How far up this chain will it go? Where will it reach equilibrium, and will it stay there?

In my next post, we’ll compare and contrast the eReading device (i.e., computer) and the book as a set of features.

Part 2 is here.