What’s Wrong with Publishing? #4: Don’t Fear Digital

Welcome back.

The usual disclaimer: The opinions and ideas expressed in WWwP? entries are ruminations, not rants. I’m thinking out loud here. Even if it seems like I’m demonizing some quarter of the industry, I’m really not — I want publishing (every aspect of it) to be stronger and better. Everyone has a role to play. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. I adore just about everyone I’ve met and worked with in publishing; nothing I say here should be construed as denigrating any sector of the industry.

So, it’s time to talk a little bit about e-books.

Back on the day when I pre-ordered my iPad, I happened to speak to someone at a major publishing house. I mentioned that I’d pre-ordered my iPad and there was much gasping and astonishment at the idea that I would buy an Apple product. (Oh, all right — there was no gasping or astonishment. There was, instead, a sort of droll, “No kidding.”) I described what I would do with it, what I was looking forward to, etc.

And this very smart publishing person said something like, “I can’t wait to see what you think of it. You know, we’re having a meeting here tomorrow about the iPad and e-books and all of that, talking about how we can fight them.”

Fight them?

Fight them?

That’s crazy talk.

Look, e-books are here and they’re here to stay. In the coming years, they’re only going to get bigger and more important and more in-demand.

Many people — too many — think that the purpose of the publishing industry is to produce and sell books. Not true! The purpose of the publishing business is to produce and sell stories (or, in the case of non-fiction, information) that are to beread.

Whether we read it on a screen or on a page doesn’t matter.

The discussion about e-books too often devolves into a shouting match of “Luddite!” and “Digital diva!” as two sides hurl pointless invective at each other than ultimately has nothing to do with actual publishing and actual stories, and has everything to do with simple prerefence.

Well, get this straight: The e-books debate has nothing to do with your personal preference or even your business preference. This is not an argument about “I like e-books” or “I prefer a dead tree in my hands.” Stop getting sidetracked by that! It has nothing to do with anything! Preference one way or the other is absolutely moot; history is moving in a specific direction and we can shape it, but we can’t change that direction. It’s like squeezing a tube of toothpaste — you can make ess-curves with the toothpaste or you can make a straight line, but once you squeeze, that toothpaste is going one way: OUT.

The music industry tried to “fight” digital music and look where that got them.

The question we should be asking when it comes to e-books — the meetings we should be having — is not about how to “fight” them, but how best to exploit them.

“But Barry! E-books mean the end of independent bookstores/books in my hands/hardcover editions/quite possibly the universe itself!”

No. No, they don’t.

Well, more accurately: They don’t have to. Sure, if we’re stupid (like the music industry), all of that could come to pass. But if we actually learn from the mistakes of the past, e-books could end up being a great opportunity.

You may recall that I kicked off this series of posts after spending some time at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, NY. It’s a wonderful independent store that has just celebrated twelve years of bringing books to its community. While at the river’s end, I spent quite a bit of time discussing publishing and its future with the store’s owner, Bill Reilly. One of our topics of conversation was, of course, e-books.

And what was his opinion of the dreaded e-book? This man who makes his living selling actual, physical books? This independent book entrepreneur?

Here it is: “I’m not afraid of digital,” Bill told me. “I welcome e-books.”

Next time, I’ll talk a little more about why we should all welcome e-books. Until then: Don’t fear digital!

Oh, and be sure to tell me what you think in the comments section below. The comment form gets rusty if it isn’t used all that often…

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

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