When the Kindle first came out, I remember a distinct feeling as my heart sunk into a swamp of pessimism. This is it, I thought. I am an English major, an aspiring novelist, a "writer," at literally the worst time in American history of the world to be one. In other countries, of course, any time is a bad time.
My friend's mom owns an independent bookstore, one of those rare and beautiful things that now primarily feasts on the wallets of tourists and upper middle class locals. He frothed at the mouth when Amazon released the Kindle, decrying the institution and talking about how this would essentially murder books and those who try to write them.
He's not alone in these grim predictions, especially as eBooks start overtaking print books in sales numbers. Borders made a lot of headlines when it filed for bankruptcy, essentially because people saw this as the beginning of the end.
First of all, I think it's ironic that we used to whine that Borders was killing independent bookstores, then felt a gaping hole when its giant, plastic-scented warehouses of coffee and books begin to shutter. The same thing happened when Blockbuster first crash-landed in small towns with independent movie stores like UFOs, then eventually went bankrupt because of Netflix and Hulu.
Second of all, this left me torn about the advent of the eBook. People were going to lose jobs. We would be destroying one of civilization's oldest traditions by abandoning the printed words.
And also, I was a little puzzled that this hadn't happened sooner. Really, what was the delay? I find it hard to believe that sweating researchers labored for years attempting to develop Kindle's apparently revolutionary "e-paper technology" in some secret underground facility. But... I guess that's been something people have been working on for years.
There are obvious logistical advantages to something like the Kindle, especially if you're like me and generally wield 1,000-page fantasy books with walking trees on the cover that are not only embarrassing on the train, but also potent, deadly objects during rush hour. Plus, older people like it, because the text size is adjustable and they can have a few more years convincing themselves that their eyesight isn't deteriorating.
Basically, e-book readers are good for the consumer... but, the argument goes, publishers are doomed. So, consequently, everyone who feeds on that coral reef - authors, editors, agents - are also doomed. One report predicts that the revenue lost will amount to more than $2 billion by 2014.
OK. That's bad. Right? No. Ask yourself - what do publishers do for an author? Without the act of publishing, how about some public relations? How about some commercials on Youtube and Facebook for books? How about actually coming up with a new business model for a new generation of readers?
Now, the other worry is that so many eBooks are now $1. I would theorize that if a book costs as much as a king size Snickers people would buy more books. If authors publish independently, say, via the Kindle platform they would lose less revenue because it wouldn't be wasted on a publisher or agent or editor, and the would avoid skimpy royalties. And they would have more freedom to write about what they want.
What about agents and editors? People will still need representation and edits to produce quality work. Frankly, they should be fine. Every industry should be fine, except instead of adjusting, they're whining about it and scrounging for the last blockbusters when they should be headed toward the future.
Imagine going to your favorite author's website. There isn't a whole book available, but there are 50 pages available for a dollar. This is a constantly updated manuscript and can be instantly sent to your eBook reader in segments. It would be like the serialization days of Charles Dickens.
Not only that, you could subscribe to your favorite authors directly on your Kindle. You could get other fun little tidbits from them - short stories, character bios, maps, other features - for the subscription fee as well.
When it comes to discovering new authors, agents may actually have to search for authors instead of the other way around. They will have to act as a filter for the new ocean of authors. If there was a reliable website for this kind of thing, then wouldn't that be perfect? Publishers and editors would have to develop a ratings system for genres, for specific niches, in order to better direct readers. It could just be a website like Rotten Tomatoes, except for different crowds of readers.
Agents should be behind this push. Editors should help authors quickly produce this material. Publishers should provide the platform.
This could help weed out books that aren't worth a crap. YouTube has promoted questionable talents - like Justin Bieber - to mainstream, but it has also acted as a jumping board for much more substantial artists, like Bo Burnham and a lot of other very talented people.
But no one is doing it yet.
None of this would take a genius, and, overall, it would be more profitable for everyone involved. Books would be far more accessible, less cumbersome, and more instantly gratifying. Publishers could put ads on relevant filter websites. And, hell, why couldn't an author make a Director's Cut of a book for people who would want to pay an extra 50 cents?
Predictably, books would be shorter, because our information consumption habits are changing. Another plus for author and reader, along with agents, editors and publishers if they play their cards right. That means the work is faster, more rewarding, and there will be more of it for everyone. I'd also like to note that book sales aren't dropping.
The real trick is for people to stop thinking of print books with such a sacred air. The industries involved are so complacent. While music, movies, and television all scrambled to adjust to the internet, literature sat high and mighty, because people got headaches when they tried to read on a screen. Sorry, that's all changed. So, how about it publishers, editors, and agents? Why won't a field of creative professionals get together and be creative when it comes to selling books?