In the previous entry, I looked at the future of the book as a medium but the changes to e-reading might also have substantial impact on society as a whole. In this entry, I will try to look at some of those changes.
A smaller book industry
Few people know that books are generally sold at a substantially lower cost than the printed one on the cover. I worked in a bookstore a long time ago (back in the pre-internet days) and books were then sold to bookstores for about half the cover price. I think what we’re now seeing is that e-books are sold by bookmakers at about the same price as they were before but it seems that less will be required to make and distribute books moving forward.
People who are currently employed managing the production and distribution of physical books will not be as essential as they once were. With fewer printed books going out the door, fewer people are needed to set the printers up, to provide ink, to make paper, to store books into warehouses for shipping, and to bring the books from one physical location to another. Book chains, which have worked as supermarkets for books will no longer be needed as printed books will only be sought after by people who want their book store to be staffed with like-minded people who care about books. While the independent bookstores will thrive again, the people who treated books as just another widget will mostly disappear from the book production value chain, with no new jobs to replace the ones that were displaced.
In other words, the industry of book creation and production is about to get radically smaller.
A few weeks ago, I highlighted that a market-changing tablet would probably be priced in the $200-250 range so there is no doubt in my mind that Amazon, with its Kindle Fire will succeed in the marketplace. What I do worry about, however, is that the rise of e-reader is something that will leave control of mass market book distribution in the hands of only a few players: Apple, Amazon, and maybe Barnes & Noble (if they survive).
Longtime readers of TNL.net know that I worry about the lock-down of the internet by corporate entities. In my view, the openness of the internet has been a key to the explosion in innovation over the last couple of decades and the internet may be reaching an important crossroad.
But with the rise of e-readers, that debate may become substantially more urgent. If we are dealing with most of the public getting its content through devices that are controlled by a few companies, we may regress to a point where control of information will be substantially tighter. We already know, from recent history, that the government can ask TV stations to be “more careful” in its coverage, leaving a country in a state of war with few images about the sacrifices made by our armed forces. In a future when distribution of most reading material is concentrated in the hands of a few companies, and distribution of other media is also in the hands of a few conglomerates, should we worry about potential censorship?
What about readers?
And what will happen to readers. Anyone who has had school-aged children has learned that an important way to improve reading is to read at home. But in a world where e-readers are multi-purpose devices that can also be used to watch TV and movies or play games, how will parent send their kids the signal that they are reading? And will kids take use of laptops and tablets as signs that the printed word is dead?
Today, it is easy to curl up with a good book and send kids a clear signal that book reading is a form of entertainment. Little mimics that they are, children start reading their own books as a result and I’ve noticed that families that read have children that read and the inverse is true. If reading is an important part of education and growing, allowing kids to build up their understanding of the world, their literacy, and their imagination and creativity, what will happen if children don’t read?
Will future generations only consume video and audio content with little or no interest in printed materials? And, if that is the case, where will the printed words that sit as the scaffolding for video and audio come from? Those are all troubling questions for which I have no answer but, in a world where physical books will become the domain of the few, they could become questions with large societal impact.