Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

When Will E-books Take Over?

First of all, my apologies for being a day late with my rundown of a rare (these days) non-coma-inducing The Hills episode that not only featured a she-Spencer (!) but also included Justin Bobby.... uh... well, they said he kissed someone who wasn't Audrina. It mostly looked like someone stepped in front of the camera. And Audrina was SO MAD that she HUGGED HIM and WAS TOTALLY NICE TO HIM and GAVE HIM A RIDE HOME and THIS TIME IT'S KINDA SORTA POSSIBLY MAYBE OVER. (Clearly you don't mess with Audrina.)

Justin Bobby was forced to employ his ultimate secret weapon: saying nonsensical catch phrases with his head cocked to one side. I know I'm powerless in the face of phrases like "What do you think I did?" and "You're on hallucinogenics" and "Your friends don't fathom me."

The Hills is back, ladies and gentlemen.

Anyway, lots of people have opinions about the Kindle and with apologies to the people who like to smell their books and turn the pages, I am of the opinion that at some point in the near or distant future the e-books will take over and while sure, some people will always read books on paper (in the way that some people still use typewriters), and illustrated books and heavy-photography books will probably still exist, I feel like the convenience, affordability, readability, environmental friendliness, and eventual ease of e-books will outweigh the residual nostalgia for reading printed books. In my opinion, someday e-books will comprise the majority of book sales.

In this e-book world of the tomorrow:
- bookstores could be largely a thing of the past (much like video rental stores) -- people would browse online and download directly to their cell phone/reader/organizer/thingamajig and find out about books through word of mouth, TV, and the Internet.
- people would have instant access to just about every single book ever published, anywhere, anytime (Google Book Search is helping make this happen). This part is seriously incredible to me
- thousands of trees would thank you
- big publishers would lose one of their major advantages in the marketplace (namely distribution) and would have to adapt to stay relevant
- there will always be literary agents to help authors navigate this increasingly complex landscape and to make sure they are fairly compensated for their content
- authors will be better able to control their own sales destiny, and if they can ride the wave of word of mouth, unknowns could capitalize in a big way because they're not dependant upon traditional distribution

This doesn't scare me! Honestly I think it's amazing and incredible and a major leap forward in human history. Literally the biggest thing in publishing since the printing press. And I'm not the only one who thinks this: just read Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt's post entitled "Why Traditional Books Will Eventually Die."

My question to you is: When will this happen? When will e-books take over? Or will they? Is it coming 5 years from now? 10? 50? Never?

You tell me!


Aden Albert said...

I think a large part of it will be if the display on an ebook or e-reader type device gains an information density equivalent to, or greater than, that provided by paper and commercial printing presses.

It's why most people print documents instead of reading them on their monitors--the monitor (on average) provides a resolution of 72 dots per inch. The same area on paper, printed with a press, has a generic resolution of closer to 1440 dots per inch, more if it's a photographic print.

So as of today's technology, in terms of transmitting information, paper is still better for non-dynamic content that doesn't need to update constantly or change. Once e-readers manage to match resolutions, then they will have isolated and eliminated paper's greatest advantage.

brian_ohio said...

This will happen when The Eagles keep their word and don't reunite yet again.

This will happen when the rock group KISS actually turns down an offer to make more money.

This will happen when Hollywood refuses to make a sequel to a box office winner.

This will happen Pamela Anderson stops walking down the isle.

This will happen when Oprah selects an Urban Fantasy as her book of the month.

This will happen when Gilligan and the gang get off that island without the help of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Nathan Bransford said...


Not sure if you've gotten your hands on a Sony Reader or Kindle, but in my opinion they've really already solved the dpi/readability problem. The only annoying residual is a "wipe" effect, which I imagine they'll figure out soon. I don't think we're very far off from a time when screens are truly as easy to read as paper.

Nathan Bransford said...

PS: not to mention the fact that on these devices you can adjust the font size -- definitely an advantage over the printed page.

Jenna said...

I hope never. I love books. I love bookcases filled with books. I love bookstores and libraries and I can't imagine not holding a paper version I can flip back and forth between, or dog ear, or mark up, or make notes know all that stuff you can do on paper that you can't do on little screens.

If it is inevitable I think it will be a long time coming. Like magazines, I think people love holding a book in their hands, seeing the cover, and feeling the pages...hopefull it's not just me ;).

Barbara said...

DRM is going to have to go. When I can loan an electronic book to a friend as easily as I can a paper book; when I don't have to worry about Amazon going away and taking my legally purchased books with them; when I can make notes and highlights in the text as I go.

Also, someone is going to have to perfect an electronic version of walking into a bookstore and wandering through the shelves, grabbing the pretty titles at random.

Anonymous said...

I think people start calling e-books books and call the other kind paper books (spelled p-a-p-e-r it's that thing that ancients extracted from the tree pulp after they stoped writing on dead animals' skins) twenty years after fourteen year olds refuse to read any other way. Paper book will be a novelty item but will stay here for quite a while like CD never really completely replaced LP. There are people who buy them and people who make new ones...

kw3b said...

I'm so glad you said all that.

I've been whispering it around ever since I bought my husband that ipod that plays movies.

Everyone I've said it to (in my writing circles at least) has looked at me like I was a heretic...a blasphemer.

I give paper 10 years.

krw3b said...

Hey! Remember on Star Trek, the Next Generation where Captain Picard had that hard-bound, paper book inder a glass case?

We've made it to the future!

Ooooo, I can't wait for the food simulator-thingy to be invented.

"Tea. Earl Grey. Hot"

"KFC. Extra crispy. Now, dammit."

Scott said...

They won't.

E-books will definitely have a place in the market, just like audio books do.

They could be useful for technical manuals and other material that is often read on the road or in the field (which ever field it happens to be), especially if they can handle PDF and have a good search mechanism.

They could also be useful for people who have visual impairments that make the print in books hard to read, especially if the readers can read the books aloud.

For those two niches, they are an exciting technology. For casual reading, especially for ardent readers, I just don't see books going away anytime soon. For most readers, I just don't think these readers have any advantages over the traditional book, other than the nerdy-cool factor.

There might be some use for them in academia, where text books are back-breakingly heavy and have gotten as expensive as tuition, almost. If the reader has a good notation feature and makes it easy to print out the notes for study, it could be a great alternative to traditional texts. But, if that happened, I doubt the text book companies would really reduce their price all that much for electronic versions, plus the used text book market would become obsolete.

I just don't think it's going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Remember in the 1990's when everyone was talking about how POD was going to be the end of traditional publishing? It didn't happen. And very, very smart people--people who were inside the industry, were the ones who were wrong.

I don't know if it will be different with e-books or not.

I think it is funny how Nathan is 100 percent certain that his job won't change. LOL, Nathan!

Nathan Bransford said...


Two questions:

1) What is it about anonymous commenting that makes people so sarcastic?

2) How do you think my job is going to change? Care to elaborate?

And for the record, I didn't say it wouldn't change, just that the role of literary agent will continue to be necessary, perhaps moreso when the landscape becomes more confusing for authors to navigate.

Kimber An said...

I'm sure you're right. Since I'm one of those who prefers traditional paper books, I cannot begin to imagine the answer to your question. I think I'm probably in the minority.

I do sometimes receive ARCs electronically to review on my blog. I just cannot relax and enjoy the reading experience on a screen. I do my best though, because the author deserves a fair read.

Kimber An said...

krw3b, I'm still waiting for my replicator to get here too. I hate to cook.

Merry Jelinek said...

To weigh in on the wrong side of the writerly sensibility, I think the reason this is such a hot button topic here is that the majority of us are writers, which makes us all (I hope) ardent readers... We love our books. Bring them to bed with us (not that way, don't get all offended), take them everywhere we are and expound on them endlessly... when something is that important in your life any change is seen as the enemy.

That being said, with my hearty disclaimer that I, personally, would rather have the flesh and blood book in my hands, the issue isn't really what sells to writers. We're a relatively small percentage of the book buying public. The issue is what sells to readers - and I have to go with Nathan here, ebooks will eventually take over the majority of sales.

There will still be the buyers who want the book, but you can get that through amazon, and I'm afraid bookstores may, too, go along the wayside in time... I give it under ten years - and yes, I hate myself for saying it.

But with the downfall of the paper book comes the uprising of the technologically advanced readers... the technology won't change the need for great stories from wonderful story tellers. I'd wager that everyone on this blog will be able to get their books in either format for the remainder of their lives... there will be enough of us that prefer books for there to be a market for printing them. I don't think they'll go away, it's not like the vinyl album or 8-track, paper books had more than a ten year reign in their venue.

As far as the big publishing houses, I don't think they'll have a problem advancing as long as they take advantage of their expertise and consistently put out quality material... it's the biggest advantage they really have over the start ups, most e-presses don't have the same quality offerings. But this venue will be an equalizer, if the small presses are committed to quality and to their readers, they will have a better playing field to compete on.

Other Lisa said...


I think I see room for both. I really like techno gadgets (I own a bunch) and I would get an e-book reader (if it was functional and cute and not too expensive) as a way of reading, but I don't see it as the only way I'd want to read.

Then again, I still use a film camera.

C.J. said...

i think the scales tip the day they release 'ulysses' for these e-readers with all the hyperlinks to maps of dublin and homeric references embedded. at least that's the day they're going to sell one to me. the wikipedia function is a good start though. my prediction for years 'til ebooks get half the market share: 10. i feel like the amount of books that are purchased as gifts will keep hardcopies in business for a long time (just like CDs vs. music downloads).

Tammie said...

I love gadgets and gizmos - love them. But I have to say I don't see it happening.

While I love the reasons you posted (I'm for saving trees to - but they thought plastic bags was a good idea to) I don't think the reasons out weigh those who love an actual book.

Too many issues to be compaired to music cd's and movie dvd's. The book hasn't gotten to the cd or dvd level to merit a gadget and I don't see it happening any time soon.

Plus don't you feel it is a different crowd from the cd/dvd crowd? Librarys and upity yuck-yuck folks would delay any real take over. I don't mean to sound sarcastic or rude - just stating a fact that it may be a different crowd.

Sam Hranac said...

You said, "When they're better than books."

I agree, but add, when they are significantly cheaper as an alternative path. We may be forced into e-books by e-conomy.

One of the ways e-books could surpass regular books is by adding in-context community and content links. Start with Shelfari or some such app, find out how books you have rated high match with those of people you also rate high and borrow a book from their shelf. Read a topic in the book, highlight it and search for other books of the same tone, from the same genre, with the same topic.

Also, research could work better, if every time you grab a quote from an e-book, Word automagically places the correctly formatted citation in the document.

If they're locked down and you can't do any of this, then they will continue to bite dogs.

Josephine Damian said...

Nathan, I think you should conduct a poll by age group as to who will buy/use this gizmo, or embrace any kind of e-book form.

Something tells me that it's those of us who are old enough to be your mother :-) who reject the idea that paper books will go out of style; my bets it's the oldsters who want to douse the Kindle.

Perhaps as the boomers die off and the kiddies who first started reading on a gizmo or computer screen grow up will you see a beginning of the end of traditional paper books.

Heck, look at what's happening to newspapers.

V L Smith said...

I don't think it will happen in our lifetime, but I think it will happen within the next 100 years or so.

There are so many factors to consider:

Environmental issues - We are not as concerned about conservation as our descendants will be. Something like Kindle might even become mandated for them.

Economic issues - It will take time for this technology to become priced so that people of all income levels can afford it. No one would want to deprive the poor of the ability to read.

Business issues - At some point in the future, this will cause an upheaval in the publishing industry. Agents and authors will probably still do their jobs as usual, but publishing houses will need to restructure. Houses that are the top dogs now, might not be once the dust settles, if they can't or won't regroup to meet the demands of the technology. The smart houses either already have or will have divisions to handle e-books so they are ready when the change is necessary.

I could be completely wrong on my projections, but this is my theory.

Josephine Damian said...

PS: Merry, good point about the skewed demographic here on Nathan's blog.

Anissa said...

Ah...I was waiting for this one! "Your friends don't fathom me," is perhaps the best line ever. Ever!

And dork that I am, I had to pause and reply (in slow-mo, no less) the whole "kiss." Let me tell you, MTV missed it. No footage. What they pulled instead was a blurred out image of...wait for it...Justin Bobby leaning in to kiss Audrina. Oh the drama! That's worse than the notorious voice-overs. :) The Hills at its finest. Gotta love it.

And finally she-Spencer. (!) is right. For a minute there I thought perhaps I was on hallucinogenics. Scary!

Laurel Amberdine said...

Wow, I'm amazed at the number of people opposed to e-books.

I'm about as ardent a reader as can be (easily a novel-a-day if I have a good supply and can evade my responsibilities...) but I have no attachment to paper and binding. It's the story that matters. The easier to obtain, read, and carry around the better! If I could get direct writer-to-reader telepathy, I'd take it!

That said, I agree with Barbara. For now, the DRM is too onerous. And the prices are usually much too high.

2readornot said...

I don't see it happening within the next 25 years or more. Maybe never. In some ways, it's a neat idea that any book could be read by anyone - -but I think there are too many obstacles still to overcome before we're anywhere near that.

bunnygirl said...

I can't speak to the long term, but in the short term I think it would be a fantastic supplement to regular paper books.

There are so many rare and niche books that it's just not cost-effective to print, but that it's tedious to read on the computer because you have to actually be at the computer to do it. I'd love to be able to download obscure books or PDFs of my friends' writings and read them in bed on a paperback-size reader.

This technology would also be good for some college texts, which cost a bundle and end up being revised every year to reflect current research.

There's room for both old and new technology, I think. Both have their unique advantages.

Mary said...

Nathan, I completely agree with all you’ve said.

But I think it’s still eight years (yep, I know that's precise) until the tipping point.

There will be a lot of advantages for writers, as there have been for many musicians since the changes in the music industry.

People will still be allowed to love books. I love books! I also love my vinyl LPs (super-cool), my CDs, my mp3 files, and my iPod.

Trish said...

I am old school. I love film cameras, records and a world without paper books would just suck.

SeaWriter said...

Absolutely. It's the natural order of things. Not that things are natural anymore. But the Kindle and its ilk are simple and elegant, as physicists like to say, and solve more problems as a format than the printed book can solve. That's the goal, right?

I love books. I have collected them all my life. However, one of the happiest days of my life was the day I donated my entire art and art history library to my daughters' prep school. Giving up stewardship of such physical mass was as liberating as losing weight.

Go, kindle. Light makes right.

midnight oil said...

I still love my eight tracks and reel to reel. I own a bunch and still have working players. I love my records, though needles are getting hard to find. I love my mp3 player, it holds so much. I write on paper first, then when I am happy I put it all in my computer, than it really starts to take shape. I am hoping for a marriage between real books, and electronic. I am building a library for my children. I have one of the original prints of Swiss Family Robinson, and I actually have a full set of the World Book Encyclopedia. (My kids think these are funny, we actually researched our school work with those.) We have over a five hundred books in our library here at home, and I wouldn’t want to trade them in for the world. E-Books will happen; my worry is not being able to adapt myself and my work to them.

Jeanne said...

I don't think e-books will ever take over.

Their niche will grow as the different technical details are worked out. And until they can make it comfortable to read in bed, I don't think it'll take over.

Hardcovers are not so easy to read in bed. But paperbacks are nice and bendy, allowing you to shift position and adjust your grip on them to suit. And if you fall asleep on top of them they're kind of pillow-like, their corners don't stab you, your face doesn't stick to them, their batteries don't run low and your page is usually easy to find again because you've bent the binding so the book falls open in just the right spot.

If you fall asleep on an e-reader wrong, who knows what would happen. And how would it handle a little bit of drool?

Isak said...

That little peek into The Hills made my eyes throb nearly out of my skull, and--oh, oh god--blood's dripping out of my nose.

I'll try to maintain consciousness with this:

I think eBooks will become prevalent in the next twenty years. Figure the progression of audio media; cassettes were around for a long time and CD's were only available on a limited basis. But then there was a sudden acceleration, a format which never really took off commercially like mini-disks (sort of like beta in video media, but beta became industry standard and is still used by most network television stations, just the same many radio stations use mini-disks--those that haven't gone satellite). With mini-disks you got the wide-spread prevelance of several digital audio file formats, but mainly mp3, which is easily compressed, user-friendly, and has little loss. This is what made the iPod possible. The Internet only accelerated this. Once software engineers come up with a fluid way to read, annotate, and transfer book media files, the actual hardware will quickly take off just the same way that people now have music on their phones. By the same token, we have a resurgence of things like vinyl which offer a richer, warmer, better quality sound than the lossy digital audio.

It sucks that eBooks are inevtiable for people who have lived in the Twentieth Century. It is the natural order, and I'm curious how they will make things like writing in the margins possible. That's really the challenge programming the software. I'm adverse to it for a lot of reasons, but I think mainly because as living creatures, we fear changes to our environment. As writers, we're afraid of this change because it's hard enough to get published and find a niche in the marketplace and now the game will potentially change, slightly.

Tammie said...

laurel amberdine said -Wow, I'm amazed at the number of people opposed to e-books.

I don't think it is so much that the folks here oppose it but just feel it won't happen or at least not for a long time.

So yeah, maybe a poll would be cool but remember we are a pretty cool group to begin with and wont exactly represent the regular reader. I'm 41 and I don't think its the older folks who might resist change.

But then again maybe I'm wrong?

Heidi the Hick said...

I would like to think there's room in our world for both.

I'm tempted to compare non-fiction on a Kindle device with on-line encyclopedia. The information can be updated regularly which is prohibitively expensive with paper. I agree that text books could be replaced without anybody shedding a tear.

Also, the Tree Thing.

But you know how I feel about booooooks and yes I have a vinyl record collection too.

As for writers and agents, I have to compare this again to the music biz. We've been in music for 20 years. Dizzying changes in that time. Guess what? People are still making music. Record sales are in the toilet. But I still never see my husband because he's in the studio recording musicians. He's clicking a mouse instead of aligning a tape machine...but there is music being made.

Here's what we should really be concerned about, and I think this is happening in the book world already: Anybody with a computer can make a recording/ write a book/ call themselves a genius. The world is polluted with music/ words/ genius!!!

And now I must slink off and not make this comment any longer...

The Bag of Health and Politics said...

It does scare me. The issue is what do we do about libraries. How does that work. If it doesn't work the way it has for the last 100 or so years, we just created a knowledge under-class. And to me, that is a really scary thing. If you have to have a Kindle and the $9.99, or whatever, to read books--to be informed--then there's a big problem for a democratic society.

Church Lady said...

I agree with Scott and Heidi and the others who mentioned there's room for both.

Online stores haven't decreased mall presence. But they have provided a valuable addition to the economy.

There will be niche markets where e-books will fare nicely--the ones Scott pointed out, for example.

I don't see paper books and e-books being mutually exclusive.

Great topic!

Bryan D. Catherman said...

Two Months ago, I attended a bookseller's conference which featured a number of panel discussions on TEXTBOOKS. Understandable, a textbook is unlike a typical novel; however, as much as the college bookstores want to push E-books (with the same profit margins minus the shipping costs), nobody wanted them. The students wanted something they could write in, highlight, read on a bus, use as a pillow, flip back and forth in class, and dog ear the corners. The professors didn't want e-books or textbooks. They wanted to use excerpts and journals and others stuff (some of which is copyright protected but they don't care about such matters unless they hold the copyright.)

So I don't know if the E-book like we know it is the bullet that will take out the traditional book, but it's obvious that there's a change on the horizon. I'm thinking it will be a slower change than music and DVD rentals, but change is coming.

Anonymous said...

I think Nathan's job will be more and more important. The way I see his job will be more and more of a career manager than of a contract negotiator... It will be go to that talk show (webcast) and not to that "The Hills" fan club there are only people over seventy in that loony bin... If you were plugging biker chick erotica the geezers will love you but you are writing about the Italian Renaissance - nobody over the age of 12 is interested in that... Or that psycho albino monk is so original! It will be a hit, I can almost smell it..

Stephanie Zvan said...

Give it a couple years of tweaks to the interface, a couple more for a cool design, and a few after that to build the market to the point where we get economies of scale and availability of material. I'd say around ten years for general acceptance and a solid market share.

One of the cool things I predict is that, as paper copies of most books fall out of favor, you'll see really nice binding for those that do exist. Everybody who wants the cheap copy will get it electronically. Nifty extras will be provided to tempt the rest.

Linnea said...

Well, I'm sorry but prefer to live in denial. I NEED my bookcases packed with all the books I love.

Other Lisa said...

If it doesn't work the way it has for the last 100 or so years, we just created a knowledge under-class. And to me, that is a really scary thing.

Amen, brother. We are already well underway to doing this, given the decline in public education and public discourse. Libraries are one of the few genuinely democratic institutions left. Without them, we might as well admit we are living in an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy and call it a day.

Anne Dayton said...

I think it's interesting how passionate people are about this. I love books. I really do. And I not only write, I also work in publishing. But I'm kind of like ehn, if we move to digital, we do, and if we don't, we don't. We'll adapt when/if/as the time comes.

It's the content, not the physical object, that matters to me. Truth and beauty and love can be communicated just as easily on screen as they can on paper. As long as words still move people, I don't mind delivering them in whatever format is the most useful to them. Now, if we ever decide words are obsolete, we have a problem.

K.C. Shaw said...

I don't see why we can't have both. I like ebooks, and with the right reader I can see myself loving them. In a, you know, healthy and platonic way.

But the book as it currently exists has been around with very little change for hundreds of years. That's because it works very, very well. Certainly print runs will get smaller as ebook sales get to be a bigger chunk of the market, but there will always be people who for whatever reason prefer a physical book.

Think of it this way: if I drop a book in the tub, it does not destroy the rest of my library and electrocute me. If I drop it onto concrete, it does not cause all my books to fly into a lot of pieces that cannot be put back together. If I lose one book, I still have all my others. And the batteries never run out of my book just as the pilot announces that we're parked on the tarmac for the next six days*.

I suspect textbooks will be the first to go entirely ebooks, and I suspect that print books will remain in place primarily for libraries. Keep in mind that not everyone can afford an ebook reader. Or a computer. Or an iPod. Or a cell phone. Or a car. Or food. But they can still go to the library.

*of course, I may run out of book at that point--in which case I hope I brought an ereader along. See? We can have both.

Isak said...

The real problem will be managing the licencing and copyrights to the media files. (Music files now fly around everywhere without much regard, so that whole issue will have to be resolved, too.) It's not the fall of civilization. Just think, we'll have an ultra-literate global society since we've increased the access to information. And if they add a function to one of these 'readers' that translates between languages, there will be no boundaries and nations once confined by dictatorships or totalitarian rule that block information will not be able to suppress the people's ability to reach out to the rest of the world.

Paper copies of things aren't going anywhere. In such things as the legal field, judges and attorneys still want paper copies of contracts and transcripts.

superfly said...

Never. Although, I like the idea. It doesn't exclude writers from the equation.

Remember when Final Fantasy came out with an animated movie and everyone said that animation was so lifelike that actors would be out of a job. Ten years later, Beowulf. But it is still one in thousands. I think people will always want books, but maybe there is a market for an alternative. Time will tell.

R.C. said...

I'm an oldster (I wrote my senior thesis on a typewriter, yes, that old), and I can see having one of these in the future when they are not so expensive. I agree with Heidi - there's room for both. I would use it when traveling, that way I won't be embarrassed if I'm reading trash on the plane (no one will know!!!!!).

Plus, if I'm on a remote beach in a foreign land (I can dream, right?) and I run out of things to read, and the resort has internet . . .

On an aside, I'm reading Feed by M.T. Anderson right now, so the whole technological progress thing has made me a little nervous.

Vinnie Sorce said...

I think it will have it's place in the world of words as another vehicle to distribute said words but I don't think it will ever completely take over the market. Don't forget, there's a whole world outside the US that is still way behind on the tech front.

Plus technology breaks at the worst times. Books don't break.

Dave Wood said...

It feels like we're already on our way and it's mostly a matter of technology. My guess is it'll be a clear trend within ten years, just like watching movies on portable devices is a clear trend now. The Kindle doesn't seem quite portable enough: an early step maybe, but not convenient enough to be there yet. I think it would take technology like a cheap flexible display screen that could be compressed to fit into a pocket, like a pocket book does (sort of), or maybe a heads-up display about comparable to a pair of sunglasses. Given resolution of the screens on iPod and similar devices, the heads-up display doesn't seem too far off, especially since it would play movies, display web pages, etc. as well. Then it would just be a matter of how long it takes people to adapt to the distribution (a la Amazon) and paying for the device. There are still a lot of older baby boomers who won't use online services.
I'm curious why publishing houses would survive, though. Basically, their function is to marshal resources. Remove the need for most of those resources (paper, presses, physical distribution, advertising budget) and the need for publishing houses pretty much goes away. Then publishing would be a matter of writing, editing, simple layout, maybe some artwork, a basic sales contract with an e-distributor like Amazon. And that contract could be automated pretty easily, which means that agents as we know them probably wouldn't be needed either (sorry, Nathan). Prices would go down, but more of the profit would go to the author/editor (I'm guessing some sort of online collaborative process would develop). It would be self-publishing on steroids with no more advances and every hobbyist doing it. I imagine that, with no more gate-keepers, the landscape would be a lot more like U-Tube and the blogosphere: a sea of low quality stuff around with the occasional good piece floating to the surface.
As a writer, I don't know if that should scare me or intrigue me.
Oh, and copyright/piracy issues would be a mess. That's definitely scarey.

Anne Bradshaw said...

Nope. I don't think they'll take over. They're not reader friendly.

On the other hand, I have a much more reader friendly give-away on my blog today--a brand new compact DVD. And shipping is my Christmas gift to whoever wins! Can't beat that for friendly :-)

Nathan Bransford said...


I think publishers will still be relevant, just in a different way. They are still the ones with resources for advertisement, co-op money and placement, they provide editorial services and of course the endorsement that comes with being published by a major publisher. It seems to me that their position will be weakened somewhat, but I don't really think they're going anywhere.

And contracts are getting MORE complicated, not less, with the advent of new technologies and a rapidly changing environment. This increases the need for the expertise afforded by literary agents.

We're not going anywhere either.

Heather B. Moore said...

This is tough one. The modern technology is very exciting though. I hope there will always be room for both. For authors, it's way more exciting to have a hardcover book that WE wrote in our hands--something tangible. But of course if the new wave brings mass sales, can't complain about that.

Angela said...

I think the only people that would gain from this would be the Publishers. I mean there's definitely gonna be less cost involved with publishing an electronic book and I don't see how that will give the authors more money. Especially when the electronic books cost considerably less. The lower the book price, the lower the royalty payout. Right?
And the following comparison is a leap but electronic greeting cards haven't ousted the paper card industry? I think the Kindle and E-Books will be an added surplus to publishing and book sales with print books still in higher demand.

I'm thinking Booksurge is going to bigger than this Kindle thing and possibly put all agents out of work. I'm just kidding. Nathan, I have no doubt that you'll be the last agent standing for a good long while:)

Dave Wood said...

No doubt you're right, Nathan. I was just putting my speculative fiction hat on, while you're monitoring the industry, real world, from the inside.

I sure hope so, anyway. I don't really think I'd like the chaotic future I was hypothesizing. I'd much rather have collaborative specialist-to-specialist relationships with an agent and editors. Looking for an agent is probably about as entrepreneurial as I'm comfortable with on my own.

Heidi the Hick said...

I've been doing more thinking on this and I'm wondering if there will be a difference in the way writers get paid.

(Not that I've been paid for writing- YET)

I tried to think of more ways an e-reader would be handy. Weekly dose of People mag? Maybe. But wouldn't that be like taking your laptop to the can with you? Come on. Admit- where else do you read trashy mags???

I'd like to hear what students think. Lightweight, easily updated? OR highlight, underline, make notes in the margins?

I'm using a gorgeous MacBook right now but I get irritated when I'm on a hot streak and the batteries wear down. My Moleskine never runs out of batteries. And the debate rolls on...

Scott said...

I thought about this thread last night while I was reclining on my bed, reading Iceland's Bell by Halldor Laxness. I asked myself whether I'd be as comfortable holding an ereader as I was holding the book.

I don't think I would be. I think reading would lose some of its intimacy in those curl-up-with-a-book times. I realize that's largely psychological and it reminds me of back in 1983 when I was writing with a computer and friends said they could never do that because the computer puts distance between them and their writing that they don't have with a pencil and paper. My thought then was, the computer is a tool and the pencil is a tool and it really doesn't matter which tool you prefer.

Ereaders might be the same kind of thing. Maybe it doesn't matter how the story is delivered, not really, but to the person on the other end, it might. Cold plastic (or even warm plastic) doesn't match the feel of a book.

I thought of another disadvantage. I'm a research addict. Whether I'm researching something for a writing project or just for fun, I usually have several books around me, open to relevant pages so I can compare what they each say. I can't afford that many ebook readers.

Even this Laxness book I'm reading. It's not an easy book, and it's taking me a while. It contains a number of cultural references and Icelandic and Latin phrases that aren't familiar to the average English-speaking reader, so I'm frequently flipping back to the endnotes. If I could mouse over the term and have the note pop up like it might on some e-readers now or in the future, that would be a cool thing (and another reason why these things would be useful for students).

But often, reading involves flipping around in the book. I might need to flip back because something I read makes me want to double-check something that I read earlier in the book (like, to admire a writer's use of foreshadowing), or I might need to flip ahead to the endnotes or glossary or a map or whatever. That's so easy in a book.

SO, I think that we'll see more and more ebooks as time goes on, but I just don't think the paper book will go away, especially as paper scientists develop better recycled paper or even a synthetic substitute. But I just don't think that integrated circuits and LCD displays will be the thing that does to paper what paper did to vellum. Something will, someday, but I don't think this is it.

Conduit said...

People talk as if MP3s have replaced CDs and downloadable movies have consigned DVDs to history. Well, I was in my local HMV store a day or two ago and they still had plenty of both on the shelves. There is a tactile experience even with CDs and DVDs, a sense of ownership, that doesn't come with the digital equivalents. But the digital equivalents are doing very well. If we apply this model to the publishing industry, I think we'll see both printed books and E-books exist alongside each other quite peacefully.

One interesting thing has happened in music as a result of the MP3 format: new talent is finding its way past the traditional gatekeepers. Word-of-mouth has helped people like the Artic Monkeys and Kate Nash get straight to the public, leaving the big labels playing catch-up. The overall effect has been beneficial for the music industry. The public had gotten fed up with the constant diet of pre-packaged plastic groups the music industry was feeding them. There has been a shift, however, and now the public can find new music for themselves. It's then up to the industry pick up the ball and run with it.

With E-books, we could see the same thing happening. Perhaps writers will establish their own readerships across the Internet, meaning new talent can break through without the accountants having to do profit analysis before signing a new author. One of these days, a new writer is going to become a hit without the assistance of the traditional industry. When that happens (and I believe it's a when, not an if) we'll see some radical changes.

But here's a point: With the ubiquity of the Internet and the emergence of portable reading devices, as well as PDAs and mobile phones that gain more functionality day-by-day, it follows that the way people read will affect what they read. We keep applying this debate to novels as they currently exist as bound paper, or nonfiction books that sit on our coffee tables. As time becomes more precious in modern life, and chances to read become fewer and farther between, how will that impact the nature of the content? If a person has twenty minutes on the train to read twice a day, will they want something that fits that time? Will novels become shorter? Will chapters by necessity become snappier? Will the short story or novella make a come back?

Or will other ways of gathering words and ideas together emerge that fit with the modern world? After all, this whole blogging thing is only a few years old to most of us...

Oh, and in my view, Nathan is spot on: the agent, and the publishing industry as a whole, won't go anywhere, but the nature of what they do will almost certainly be transformed in the not very distant future.

Neptoon said...


I hope it doesn't happen in my lifetime. I'm a dinosaur. I like being a dinosaur.

I only surf on boards over nine feet in length, with paraffin on their decks and no %#$%#& leashes. I like never talking on the telephone unless I am at home or in some pay booth of my choosing. I listen to music in my car...not voices. (unless, of course, it is a rough day and I'm talking to myself).

I like grabbing a book and taking it on a plane or a train, or taking it to a park or the beach, and never worrying about it needing batteries.

They have not yet made the gadget that I will read books on...

Heidi the Hick said...

I'm sorry to keep coming back but I find this topic fascinating!

I am interested in what Conduit said about the sense of ownership. That's part of it for me. A downloaded song does not feel real to me. But then, I'm oldish. We old people like the old ways better, grrf grrft grunt.

I think some of us have an identity thing with our books. If it's on the shelf, it defines me, it's part of who I am. This is what I've read. Some people even use their bookshelves to lie. A whole row of classics that have never been opened. Status symbols. Not one of them cost $400 though.

CarBeyond said...

Re: Electronic Books - My Thoughts

Hi. Great topic. Lots to think about in it. Nice touch, the video link too.
OK, to your question:

Where and why do I read? What are my habits and my preferences?

I am an avid reader. I collect books all the time for my library, new books, books I want to keep, reread, share, savor. For Christmas, I am installing eight new Ikea bookcases in my house.

I read approximately 10 to 20 books at a time on a regular basis in bed: usually something like this:
1-3 novels, ranging from Literary Fiction (that illusive genre) to science fiction
1-6 self improvement or spiritual books (Yes, I admit it. I am a junkie for new ideas about how to live well and in harmony - bla-bla-bla, let me at it.)
1-4 reference books, books that give me information on computers, business, formats, art, etc.
1-3 books on philosophy, ideas, theories

Reading in bed is fab. It is relaxed, relaxing, if I want to lean back, think about something, take a break, go to sleep with an idea or a thought or a story passage, I can. All I need are my reading glasses, my books and a lamp. I would miss that most of all.

(Reading on the beach is an extension of that, not to forget you can shake the sand off a book, roll over on it, sleep with it, and its still there.)

I also read on the computer, but research mostly. I gobble up google, whether it is about something that just occurred tome, something someone spoke to me about or connected to a project or writing project that I am working on.

Reading in front of the computer is informational and communicational. I love e-mail and electronic communications. That is reading I start before coffee even.

The biggest problem with computer reading is that it hurts my eyes. I love it for information and communication, but I hate it for pleasurable reading. My eyes feel like two strawberries afterwards.
It is bad for my eyes.

The second biggest problem with electronic books for me is that computers will crash, shouldn't get full of sand on the beach, need electricity, hum, and you can’t unplug with them (unplugging battery dependence too). In addition, they just aren't well loved for the pleasure of the novel, i.e., better send to for a novel than read one on a computer.

I WILL read information on a computer, but not pleasurable books or ones I want to really study. I have plenty of friends who publish on the computer. Good stuff too, useful or interesting. But I just don't get pleasure with e-books. They are a must-have and not-available-anywhere-else resort. When I can buy it in print, get back to me.

Personally, I think e-books will be great for college texts and information. It will save a lot of lugging heavy books through campuses or expensive book fees.

However, you would have to wrestle me to take away the pile of books I keep next to my bed to try to replace them with electronic books. I have never met an avid novel reader who takes their novels, by preference, electronically.
I suspect there will be choices and should be. In both cases, bigger print will be needed.

I appreciate, also your take on this subject. I will try to keep an open mind,
(but I have a guard dog for my library coming on e-Bay.)


(Typos, like Freudian slips, are usually left behind with great amusement, but in this case, I did try to clean some of them up.)

Miri said...

I get that e-books, to some people, have a slight convenience edge on book books. But not much of one.

I run an unofficial library at my school, as our school library is a quarter of a mile from the freshman building. Though a lot of kids get busted for it, we are not allowed portable electronic devices in the building. I can't see them ever relaxing that policy, because if you can cheat on a cell phone, you can certainly cheat on an e-reader.

Plus, I wouldn't be able to share books I love with people I know will love them too. A good 80% of my group of friends, for one reason or another, is not allowed by their family to go to Books-A-Million. There are times when I'm their sole provider of wordy entertainment. If paper books die off, what happens to that? With e-books, all sorts of bizarro copyright issues crop up if you try to share them. Not just bookstores but libraries would die out, and then what happens to people who don't have an expendable budget for books?

This is a huge bias for me, I admit: just today I put a French-English dictionary in my purse because it was feeling too light (where it keeps company with a Bible, Spanish and Japanese phrasebooks, and the occasional fantasy or historical romance). I love the feel and the weight and the experience of brick-dense paper books, and I'll never stop.

I guess if bookstores die out, they die out, but I want to walk into a bookstore at least once a week for the rest of my life. If books aren't gone 'til I am, not my problem. Though I want my kids, someday, to love books just as much as I do.

Woohoo, soapbox!

Helen said...

I don't know... a paper book won't crash on me or need recharging.

It'll probably be like how the DVD has eclipsed VHS. Hopefully, however, it'll be a lot slower. All that reading on a screen certainly won't do my eyes-that-need-glasses any good.

The thought of not having a bookstore to walk into a blow my money in is a little frightening, to be honest. I mean, yes, I download an awful lot of music through iTunes, but there's still nothing like walking into an actual music store and browsing.

Or maybe I just don't like change!

Chumplet said...

I entered the newspaper business twenty years ago. When computers came on the scene and later internet, everyone screamed that newspapers were going to die.

We adjusted by launching a website and on-line job sites.

Twenty years later, our newspaper group has grown. Our classified sales force has grown. There is no gloom and doom in sight.

I love my book. I like to feel it, smell it and hear the 'slap' on the table when I drop it. My daughter, who is 18, spends just as much time checking out library books as she spends online. My sixteen year old son just bought six Clancy novels. Paper ones.

The reading appetite of the public is voracious, whether electronic or paper. It will simply grow. There's no limit.

The other reason I embrace paper novels is because I made a whopping $9.75 on three months worth of electronic sales on my novel. Sheesh.

Southern Writer said...

Nathan! Nathan! Are you ill? It's Thursday night. I came to read your blog and *gasp* there's no entry today. I'm sending you a hot toddy in case you need one (how about egg nog with Crown Royal?), and hope you'll be back soon.

liquidambar said...

The best thing about paper books is that you don't need any special technology to read them. You buy them, stick them on your shelf, and barring flood, fire or vermin, you can read them over and over for decades. Nobody suddenly takes them "off line" or switches the technology on you.

If you buy an ebook in 2010, are you still going to be able to read it in 2015? Or will the technology have changed so much that it will be like trying to find a way to read a 5 1/4" disk in today's world?

The environmental issue isn't cut and dried. Electronic books use environmental resources too. Unless your ebook is solar-powered, you may be using nonrenewable energy every time you read it. Whereas paper is a renewable and recyclable resource, and doesn't use any more resources after its initial creation.

Topher1961 said...

Thanks liquidambar. Now that you mentioned renewable energy, I can comment on here and count it as work.

Irving said...

It will take one more generation after this one, about 20 years. And you forgot to mention that millions of trees will be saved when all newspapers and magazines can be accessed on the book readers, probably along with tv and radio, music, etc. A ubiquitous device to read and see everything.

carbeyond said...

As my husband commented, trees may be saved for newspaper and magazines, but people WILL print out their books. How many trees will that save?

Chris said...

I've read quite a few books on my Palm. The feel of reading on it versus a real book in hand wasn't a dramatic difference for me. I liked having a dictionary handy to look up words which I could more easily do on a Palm.

However, I've purchased only one e-book. I can't say as I would purchase another e-book. Why? It's not the feel, but the value of what I've purchased. I can use a software program again and again and still have a sense of its value. A book, I may read once or twice or just buy if I really like it. I can't resell or donate an e-book. (Sorry, have to make room for the new ones.) To sell me on purchasing an e-book would be a low price, but unfortunately at the author's and publisher's expense.

philip said...

For big time travelers e-books can be a nice solution to space. I like to read some history books when I travel- usualy 700+pages and hate sticking them in my bag and hate leaving them behind. * Portability is an issue. Good travel solution. I believe the ebooks may offer some marketing gimmicks that pull in readers to buying into new authors. I hardley ever buy any books at the book store any more. All *new* used books on sale on Amazon or Alibris or whoever else. That said, I'm an online browser and the ebooks tool may be the next thing for Pushing options to people and subsequently have increased success over time. Adoption of the online ebook is just a question of time and ultimately could represent a salvation for books over time. It seems that the readership community is getting older and older and its good to see a technology that may put more books into young adults hands. Old schoolers may stick with paper but change is on the way for a younger generation.

Sam Hranac said...

(I hope that link works)

The good people from Polymer Vision have (re)introduced the "Readius." With its fold-away screen, it could overcome the problem of having to have a separate e-reader from your cell phone.

Amber said...

Amazon's Kindle has a particularly long battery life, first off. You can read an entire novel in one sitting without having to charge it. How is that breaking your flow? In fact, you could probably read three 60,000 word novels in one sitting without needing to charge it. So after you read one book, just charge it. It's not inconvenient. Of course I like print and I was once a fierce defender of print, but now it's just sloppy sentimentality to try and hold on to something that is ultimately going to prove to be less convenient than an e-reader. Granted, I think textbooks will stay print because I do like writing in them, but textbooks are a niche market in the first place. Nobody buys them except for teachers and college students.

Clare WB said...

So right about the font size. Not only is it a big boon for the sight impaired, who have had plenty of trouble getting the books they want in large print, it's great when you realize too late on a trip that you've forgotten your reading glasses. Trust me. It's happened.

Clare WB said...

I do object to how much e-books are costing for commercially published ones. It's the still the main reason I buy used books and paperbacks rather than only e-books.

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