The Dawn of the Next Incarnation of E-Books Is Closer Than We Know
By Ian Ségal
16 October 2019
Since the late twentieth century, the technological gestation of e-books was tilling the soil for its future harvest. But, it was not long after 1999 that the labors of these early efforts cleared the path to yield the first examples of devices designed to offer the public a chance to read electronic content. These pioneers from such companies as NuroMedia, SoftBook, and later, publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Random House, and Harper Collins, produced a wide range of electronic imprints of earlier published works. This was only the beginning as the new medium for reading had piqued both curiosity and interest and, in the early twenty-first century, spread its contagion like wildfire. But what was not initially foreseen had soon become visible—the new digital e-readers would be on a collision course with the printed book publishing industry. Through the present day, as we approach the year 2020, the survival of the book publishing industry has become the daunting concern for publishers and authors alike—change is not inescapable with the wheels of time in full motion. The confluence of book publishing with the expansive digital age, over the next few decades, will see the decline and end of printed books as new innovations will dominate market share while driving public interest to the dawn of the next incarnation of e-book media.
When we consider publishing today, discussions seem to focus on the subject matter of politics and television. The international intrigue of politics in the mainstream has consistently dominated nonfiction bestseller lists for years and is not waning. In recent years, other controversial areas sparked by diverse voices from the MeToo movement to social issues stemming from racial divides to sexual orientations have impacted the rise in acquisitions at Penguin Random House (Maher, 2019). And, this has been met with increased production of digital assets to deliver such nonfiction e-books to the demanding public. But, it still remains challenging to predict the behavioral preferences of the public when marketing new authors, continued fiction series, or nonfiction works that unveil the turmoil of the political arena. This, in turn, leads to the gamble of large investments in print publications which can be significantly reduced through a heavier emphasis on electronic publishing. But besides taking chances in different directions with print book publishing, other challenges exist and are more prevalent now with the exponential growth of e-book publications.
The book publishing industry is currently experiencing declining print runs that do not impact digital printing. As the Internet continues to interconnect the global landscape, the invisible hand of competition has outstretched its growing shadow. And the trigger for this change has been driven by the advances of technology which, through digital publishing, has delivered greater efficiency, faster and wider distribution, easier accessibility, and at lower costs—its efficacy has been proven (Verma, 2019). But what makes digital publishing even more exciting is both the marketability and convenience of a myriad of platforms, languages, and formats with an unlimited global reach to consumers. Although physical print runs may be diminishing, this has not negatively impacted publishing revenue; the elimination of warehousing surplus stock in favor of such services as print-on-demand has helped companies move to lean manufacturing while reducing their exposure to loss (Verma, 2019).
The introduction of print on demand (PoD) has dramatically shifted the method in which the publishing industry is tackling financial challenges today. Essentially, this service allows a publisher to only print a book when an order is submitted, thus eliminating the need for investing frozen money in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of copies of printed publications along with the cost for warehousing these books (Ingram Spark Staff, 2018). Depending on the demand, this process allows for scheduled printing, elimination of waste, and does not require a capital investment along with forecasting what the consumer wants regarding its ultimate published quantity. Printing on demand keeps titles perpetually in-stock—books are never out of stock as they “live” within the digital archives of online databases. Additionally, PoD offers production that does not compromise quality regardless of the printed edition and offers a variety of publications that are differentiated in binding, color, sizes, and more. But the biggest advantage by far is that it allows independent publishers, as well as self-publishers, to produce any quantity of printed books at any given time throughout a calendar year. To make order management through PoD even more effective, a self-publisher can have the entire effort facilitated and drop-shipped to a consumer without being directly involved with the fulfillment process (packaging and shipping); such online resellers as Amazon offer printing-on-demand with seamless transparency for both the buyer and the independent author.
As printing-on-demand services continue to reduce the hard costs of maintaining and warehousing extensive inventories of books for both formally published and independent authors, it does shine a light on the continued change in direction for the book publishing industry. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist most noteworthy for inventing the World Wide Web, offered his vision for the evolving digital print book industry (Harvey, 2016). Berners-Lee believes that as e-books and web-based technologies continue to advance and converge, there will be a similar amalgamation of digital book content and standardized or uniformed formatting. As engineers continue to explore the cutting-edge of new advances in e-readers, the reading experience for consumers will not be compromised—only enhanced through transparency, interlinking, and trackability which will measure how e-books are being acquired, read, and reviewed. It remains his belief that the openness of expanding technologies across the Internet will further encourage the monetization of both content and the changing reading experience. And such future prospects can only be afforded through the endless potential of digital media shepherded in by the advances in technology.
But with all the fervor surrounding theses progresses and user experience wrapped inside the digital age of e-books, is the public ready to relinquish their hold on book printing technology invented in the fifteenth century? It is within books that voices have been scribed to transform the world by publishing opinions, wisdom, intellect, and more through distributed content for mass consumption. However, beyond the quality of the production of printed books, such as the materials used in its printing, very little has changed in the practice in almost six-hundred years (Dominick, 2013). This, in turn, is gradually leading the public towards embracing the inevitable destiny of physical books and the capitalization of digitally printed content in the form of e-books. Retiring printed books for new digital media is becoming overwhelmingly welcomed by the mainstream reader.
Over the past several hundred years through the present, books have comprehensively captured and conveyed countless stories, ideas, philosophies, sciences, biographies, histories, and more by uncountable authors who have targeted an audience of millions. Books have reflected the earliest forms of mass communication and facilitated their effort through freely moving and impacting cultural wisdom through the socialization of its content. But to continue this trend, the dissemination of this plethora of information, fiction, and nonfiction, cannot continue to be optimized quickly and efficiently through the medium of physically printed books. What begins to resonate here is that books, similar to LP records used for recording music in the past, will be reduced to the level of antiques and pursued solely by collectors and bibliophiles alike. And although I am foreshadowing what I see as the destiny for printed books, there are other impediments that are precluding its tenancy in our society today.
With the far-reaching availability of digital books through sophisticated portable electronic devices, the impetus for changing the compass direction from printed publications to e-books is more apparent than ever. E-readers have identified a host of differentiating factors that advocate the surrendering of physical books over new digital media. Some of the problems with printed publications include but are not limited to them being uncomfortable to hold, not easily transportable, a waste of material such as paper, as well as the indirect need for book owners to dedicate more physical space in their homes for their storage. Additionally, those who believe that by procuring printed books they are supporting the livelihood of various authors are actually ignorant of the embedded costs itemized in the final sale that come from warehousing, distribution, marketing, printing, and reseller fees. With this said, the typical author only sees a royalty profit of approximately 10% to 15% of the sale of each book which, in turn, means such purchases actually support an industry rather than the writer.
This brings us to the future and, for all practical purposes, that future is now. Most of the growth within the publishing industry today is attributed to the sale of e-books—not the traditional printed books that we grew up on. And to nurture this excitement, the development of enhanced e-books is currently underway by designers and engineers across varied disciplines of technology. The evolution of e-books is exploring the integration of images, video, audio, and other digital interactivity into the next generation of these electronic devices (Ruppel, 2010). What this will do for the book publishing industry will forge digital books through the user experience it provides. Along with interactivity, the next age of these media will offer opportunities for readers to intermingle with other readers, authors, forums, and more—this exists today through Amazon’s Kindle devices and their interface with online platforms such as Goodreads.com. Again, feeding new experiences to the consumer market will become the greatest determinant of the direction of e-books. And this will bring us closer to the foreseeable day that printed books will be retired to either a graveyard, antique store, auction house, museum or an individual’s private collection.
In addition to the event horizon of new enhancements to electronic reading, the earlier explosion and circulation of a wide array of competing devices vying for the market share has been dwindling. As a result of the ensuing competition between e-reader device manufacturers, companies like Amazon have shifted to offering software and mobile applications that allow users to use any device of their preference. Regardless of the selected device is an Amazon Kindle, a mobile phone, tablet, or laptop computer, the electronic reading experience offered by providers is no longer hampered by dissimilar equipment. This universal approach allows consumers to remove the barriers of proprietary machines for enjoying their reading experience while optimizing the performance of mobility possibilities for readers.
Beyond the universal approach of delivering the user experience across a myriad of platforms and devices, online distributors of e-book publications, such as Amazon, are no longer tethered to fixed pricing of digitally published books at $9.99. Many titles are priced even higher and, at times, daily deals offer such electronic books at promotional savings at a fraction of the suggested retail price—far less than the printed book publications. With the fluctuation in pricing, it remains ever important for publishers to focus more on the development of a future of interactive experiences which will encourage consumers to embrace the pricing associated with those digital products. But in the interim, with participation in subscription-based programs, consumers can also enjoy the benefits of unlimited reading through providers, such as Amazon, with their Kindle Unlimited offers. For a recurring fee of $9.99 per month, consumers can enjoy unlimited reading of over a million titles of digitally published books, magazines, and even audiobooks across any device that uses the Kindle software.
Outside the realm of subscription-based unlimited reading and an expansive universe of digital publishing that also includes audiobooks, we are witnessing a shift from paper to electronic; the role of the traditional printed book publication will continue to lose its importance. Publishers will increase both their foothold and influence with the introduction of new technologies enhancing the reading experience which will further enhance both entertainment and educational reading (Ruppel, 2010). With the viral amount of content being created across the World Wide Web, it will be the publishing houses who will take ownership of effective content management, archival, and distribution of digital sources of titles. Instead of following print publishing to the graveyard, we will also observe a paradigm shift for publishing houses as they redefine their roles within the expanse of the coming decades of the digital age.
As we approach the next decade, we continue to face many questions and predictions that are working actively to shepherd us along the navigational path into the future of book publishing. And although we do not anticipate the replacement of the author by robots designed to conjure up new book titles, there are some insightful thoughts that we need to be aware of as we traverse the unfolding landscape of digital media. It has been suggested that we may begin to notice the activity of independent authors facilitating an effort to connect directly with their targeted readers using mobile applications and similar digital services (Rueben, 2018). And although we are at the early stages of such interactivity, this has been somewhat alluring for self-published authors who look to remove all obstacles that preclude affecting their followership, the reading audience, and the financial bottom line. The partnership of self-publishing with companies such as Amazon has cultivated not only massive distribution and accessibility for independent authors but also afforded them a greater share of the profits—70% as compared to an average of seven to 12% for traditionally published authors. Additionally, the digital marketing and promotional avenues across the Internet are fairly inexpensive and, at times free, which in turn nurtures continued growth of digital book titles. This will endure for decades, luring more and more independent authors to the realm of digital publishing.
But the greatest forecast of what is anticipated speaks to augmenting the digital reading experience across the expanse of virtual reality (Rueben, 2018). And such trailblazing technology will not only foster an augmented desire from consumers but will promote new career opportunities within the digital publishing industry. This compass direction also outlines a new overarching business model for the book publishing industry as they welcome new innovation while adopting changing times with the outlook of opportunity. The motion of images orchestrated in concert with traditional text and audio clips across digital platforms will become the core segment of the transformation of digital books of tomorrow (Mod, 2018). The manifestation of this technology will stretch the user experience beyond traditional reading from print and e-readers to a realm in which a truly interactive experience converging text, audio, video, and user input and responsiveness will be delivered to the consumer. Printed books are slated to become a relic of the past—an artifact of our history—while publishing will stand on the vanguard of the next digital revolution. And it will be on this frontier that the book publishing industry will unveil the next incarnation of digital reading, forever altering the ethos of the literary world.
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