E Is Dead, Long Live E!

By David Alan Rech of Scribe Inc.


Last year, the AAP (Association of American Publishers) reported a decline in e-book sales. This led many in the industry to claim the restoration of print’s primacy and assert that e-books were just a passing phase. Printers, editors, production staff, and others refocused their attention back on print—it was easy to fall back on familiar habits. But no matter how hard one fights it, the process of creating books is electronic. To go back to the old ways ignores the reality of the publishing process—and I worry that it can be a disastrous mistake.

In Sunday’s New York Times, there was an article about the success of some self-published authors. The author of the article writes, “As independent authors grab a bigger slice of the e-book market, digital sales by traditional publishers fell by 11 percent in the first nine months of 2015, according to data gathered from more than 1,200 publishers by the Association of American Publishers.…Last year, a third of the 100 best-selling Kindle books were self-published titles on average each week, an Amazon representative said.”

Reading this raises a thought: Instead of e-books being in decline, is the reality that publishers are actually losing their market share? The AAP report, after all, is from member publishers and therefore excludes other publishing activities. Perhaps print books are reestablishing their dominance in traditional publishing because traditional publishers are losing the book market. Instead of interpreting the “decline” of e-books as proof of their failure, maybe we should interpret this as the failure of publishers to adapt to the contemporary market. In other words, instead of instilling confidence and relief, maybe this statistic should have us worried about our inflexibility to embrace new technology and avenues and hence our future viability.

This information was on the ever-maturing self-published author world—yet another activity that traditional publishers dismiss. It makes me wonder, though, if we are witnessing a major shift in the way books are published and disseminated. Over the past year, there has been a surge of e-only textbooks, the development of independent groups (complete with a publishing program) organized around the proliferation of ideas, a move of academic publishing toward libraries, and the self-publishing of materials normally done through traditional publishers. Perhaps this harkens the end of publishing as it has been pursued for the last fifty years.

Again, all publishing is based on electronic systems. Even books that are printed are written, edited, and typeset electronically. So instead of producing books in the same basic way that we used paper and pencil in the past, we should utilize the electronic medium and develop distinctive techniques that are better suited to that world. Instead of applying the same editorial and design aesthetic we would for a print-only book, we should be giving consideration to what works most effectively.

As publishers, we should focus on the value that we add to publications (after all, our profession does a great job of shaping content) and learn to adapt that to developing a new methodology.

If we are to survive as an industry, we need to do the following:

  • Stop resisting developments and start embracing them. Even if e-books (as they are currently conceived) are short lived, computers are not. And they offer us another way to explore the proliferation of narrative written works.
  • Stop dismissing alternative developments. They offer us an opportunity to learn how to better organize authors’ concepts into meaningful publications that resonate with our audience.
  • Look for the opportunity to spread the reach of our publications to the largest audience possible. This means creating publications that easily—and beautifully—work in any format. It means achieving a better understanding of how the written word functions.
  • Don’t dismiss the amateur nature of alternative publications, especially those that are successful. If we do, we are doing a disservice to the works we touch.
  • Finally, quit putting off an understanding of how things work to others. Eschewing electronic books developments means that we are limiting our mastery of our craft.

We can dismiss the development of e-books as a passing phase and rail against those who are achieving what we cannot. Or we can embrace the technology and aspirations of others to stay ahead and master our craft. One path will lead us to certain extinction, the other might bring about success and endurance as industry leaders. There are few guarantees in life, but I for one want to go out swinging.