Musings on Writing & Publishing
Will Ebooks Eventually Replace Print Completely?
I was invited to debate the pro side of this argument at an Oxford Debate and would like to share my transcript here. The point of an Oxford Debate is to change more minds than your opponent, while arguing unambiguously for your side. Here is my transcript for the Opening Argument and Closing Argument. Enjoy!
Eight-Minute Opening Argument
Good evening and welcome. I’ve been asked to convey a quick public service announcement. For those of you who arrived by horse and buggy, the city fathers, faced by the heightened threat of cholera, urge you to please help divest the city of that foul ailment on which pestilence delights to feed.
My name is Caleb Mason and I’m the founder of the literary fiction imprint Publerati. We publish titles that might not have the large audiences the remaining Big 5 publishers need to keep their lights on. Our books are available through all ebook channels, and many also as print-on-demand editions through the emerging Espresso Book Network.
Ebooks will eventually replace print books and let me tell you why. I break this argument down into three categories: Benefits to the Reader; Benefits to the Business Model; and Benefits to Civilization.
First benefits to readers. It’s now possible for anyone with a regular telephone, smartphone, tablet, or computer to purchase any title at the exact moment they want it to read immediately. Think about that. But even more, an infinite number of readers can enjoy that same title at the same time! Imagine the impact this is having on evolution.
Future generations will look back and wonder how life was possible where a person would get in a gas-polluting car, drive to a bookstore, and not find the book they wanted. Did those people buy something else instead? Was that book they wanted never read as a result of them forgetting? How many book sales were not made for those authors?
But more than just access, ebooks improve the reader experience in ways print cannot. We can now enlarge fonts, reading later into life. You no longer lose your place in the book. I often wonder how much of an author’s painstaking work goes unappreciated because the reader dozed off and lost their place. Ebooks open to your place automatically. My favorite feature is the built-in dictionary. There is no longer any reason for not looking up a word’s meaning. And you can store the book securely to access wherever there’s internet access. No more forgetting the print book when on vacation.
Secondly, are the benefits to the book business model. Right now, an author is paid only 10-15% of a print book’s net sale price. That net price, in the case of a $20 dollar book, is around $12 on average, after the bookstore keeps 40-50-% of the retail price, so the author gets around $2.00 per print book sold. But the real inefficiency happens in how physical books are distributed and what this means for authors. Let’s say the publisher ships 100,000 copies to Barnes and Noble for the holidays of that exciting new masterpiece Rupert Murdoch is so thrilled about, Romance and Vampires: The Legacy of the Kardashians. The publisher thinks this big opening order means demand will be high, so immediately roll the dice and reprint another 50,000 copies. In March, after the holiday blur, cash-strapped Barnes & Noble — who by the way is only surviving by adding non-book merchandise to their remaining stores and whose coming demise will further benefit indie bookstores in the near term already helped by Borders’ closing — Barnes and Noble tells the publisher they only sold 50,000 copies and plan to return the other 50,000 to avoid paying for them on the invoice now due. The publisher has two choices: take the returns and lay off more staff, who are kind of confused since they just got holiday bonuses based on rosy but bogus sales projections, or declare the work out of print, which means they are not responsible for those returns.
The big loser here is the author, whose print edition goes prematurely out of print. Ten years in the writing, only twelve months from print publication to death. In the future, this may force more and more authors to sell digital downloads personally via their social media or online shops, using systems allowing them to scale and grow as needed, per the demand of their publishings.
Thirdly, is the impact ebooks will have on civilization’s march of progress. I envision a future where the sprawling malls of our time will be turned into lovely parks after all the unnecessary and unhealthy mall shopping is gone. Already millennials are consuming far less fossil fuels than previous generations, in part because they shop online and not at brick and mortar. How much gas have you wasted over your lifetime going back and forth to malls, buying and returning?
We can either whine about these changes or position ourselves to be part of the better future. The problem is the gods gave us two great gifts to make life bearable: rationalization and denial. So we all cling to our comfortable pasts. And the hypocrisy among many writers, who post anti-Amazon messages on Facebook while 40-50% of their total royalty income is coming from them, is astounding to me. If you feel that strongly, have your publisher include a no-Amazon clause.
But most important, having every book available digitally will improve human knowledge. For those of you who arrived via horse and buggy, think how much civilization has improved because you can now board a flight and be in London tomorrow morning. Imagine what the Victorians would think! Of course, back then, the retail button industry did everything it could to keep the new zippers off their shelves. Nowadays, the AAP, the advocacy group for the publishing industry, will tell you ebook sales have dramatically slowed. Raising publisher ebook prices as a collusion tactic to protect their paper business probably had something to do with this. Yet the AAP doesn’t even measure all the self-published titles or any book without an ISBN.
But even within the AAP measured pool, in 2014, 510 million ebooks were sold, matching the number of hardcovers. $5.96 billion dollars of print and ebooks were bought online, versus $3.86 billion in physical stores. And 33% of all paid ebook sales made on Amazon were self-published, so not reported by the AAP at all.
The publishing industry is also not measuring the rapid rise of reading on smartphones. In a recent Nielsen survey of 2,000 people, about 54% of ebook buyers said they used smartphones to read their books at least some of the time. That’s up from 24% in 2012.
This reminds me of when I worked in the photo industry, as it transitioned from film to digital. Their industry association only measured themselves. Kodak. Poloroid. Those two former giants are gone, thanks to Apple, Samsung, and Facebook. The main lesson is change always comes from the outside.
There has been some bogus research publicized on how people keep track of the chronology of what they are reading better on paper than a screen. Not to get bogged down, but the oft-cited Norwegian study had only two participants who regularly used Kindles, so most of the participants were probably uncomfortable with the Kindle itself. It’s like asking a driver of a regular car to get into a Tesla and start driving! Another study done at UPenn found that students retained information better when reading on a Nook. So if you believe Monsanto when they tell you their research concludes that pesticides are safe, then by all means continue dining out on these ridiculous reading studies.
And what about those children and teachers in developing nations, such as the ones being served by Worldreader, to whom Publerati donates a portion of our sales? In 2014, over one million hours of reading took place in Africa on the regular non-smart phones the people already have. Prior to the advent of ebooks, the typical library contained only a handful of print books.
Worldreader also provides free ereaders, mostly donated by Amazon, to African schools, along with ebooks from many publishers, and the literacy rates have vastly improved as measured by control studies. This democratization of knowledge is good for all societies, not just our privileged one, where paying $30 for a hardcover novel seems reasonable to the chosen few, but not to me. My goodness! That’s three or four big-screen movies!
In summation, we might not be around to see this ebook-only future, which will eventually come, but I remind you the key word in debate here is eventually. The world will be a better place without us, without our horses and buggies, without our shopping malls, without our gas cars. Thank you.
Three-Minute Closing Argument
I’ve laid out my argument for why ebooks will eventually replace print books, divided into the three categories of benefits to the reader, benefits to the business model, and benefits to civilization. But let’s take a look at what’s been going on during our brief time on this planet. During my lifetime, the biggest event has been the development of personal computing and connecting all these computers to the Internet of Everything. With the rapid proliferation of mobile computing, now we are all connected to the Internet of Everything wherever we go. The wrist watches of Dick Tracy have arrived!
The digital network is everywhere: inside our homes and expanding to our appliances. Wifi is being installed in cars. Our heart defibrillators are monitoring us over the Web. Everything outside the digital network could be in peril in the future. Only the most connected people will make it onto the next Noah’s Ark, with their Google-delivered God Alerts!
In the majority of cases, revolutionary change has not been something the established industries could either prevent or take advantage of. Rand McNally once printed two million U.S. road atlases just for the summer. Now they cling to near-obscurity, replaced first by Garmin GPS and then smartphone location-based services. Huge inventories of entertainment content have rushed online: music, movies, and books, and the number of physical retail locations selling these items, and the distributors once serving them, are disappearing. Television viewership is declining and future generations will puzzle at how quaint it must have been to wait an entire year to see one movie, The Wizard of Oz. Already we can choose what to watch, when we want, via Netflix and other services.
News reporters are being replaced by each of us as eyewitnesses on all the scenes of the world as they happen, armed with phone cameras, Twitter, and Facebook. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the future of journalism, where opinion leaders make unique arguments and investigative journalism tells a story no one else can tell as well. But straight reporting of real-time news is not something print can keep up with. Authors do matter and whether they are remarkable journalists, cartoonists, or novelists, they will continue to be hugely important in the digital-only future.
Large volume content catalogues such as music, movies, and books are best delivered digitally direct to you. No single store can stock all the titles we want. Which is why ebooks will eventually replace print books. The print book distribution infrastructure will collapse as seen in other categories including photo stores, record stores, and software stores, like Circuit City and CompUSA, both long gone. Pay attention to the latest Barnes and Noble news and stay abreast of this major gating event for books. We might cling to the old business model, but it has not been good for the planet, for other less fortunate people, or many shut-out authors who write very well, but do not (thankfully) have the mass appeal of the Kardashians.
Please remember to clean up after your horse on the way home. And thank you.