By Andrew Smith
NEW YORK CITY – Johann Gutenberg printed his first book on his printing press in 1452 – the famous Gutenberg Bible. Some joke that his second book was a tome about the end of the publishing industry. What were they going to do, now that anyone anywhere could be printed?
Though the story is likely apocryphal, the parable gives an idea as to how mankind has responded to technological advances throughout history. The electronic book sensation has garnered the attention of the publishing business over the last five years, and some have said that e-books would – naturally– mark the end of the book.
“I don’t think [it will happen] any time in the near future; we’re going to have books for awhile,” said Debbie Harmsen, editor-in-chief of BenBella Books, Inc. “Not until the devices get cheaper – because right now they’re still pretty expensive…it’s going to take longer to replace books to e-books than CDs to the iPod.”
The changes in the industry, however, are difficult to ignore. Wesley Adams, executive editor of Farar, Straus & Giroux thinks it’s certainly a big deal.
“I think this is the biggest one we’ll have to struggle with for generations,” he said. “Five years ago, agents stopped sending hard copies and started emailing word files and PDFs, and for much of those five years we were sitting here having to print out all the manuscripts, and you can imagine all the costs of paper and photocopying. So that’s just one change the [e-books have] proven really efficient at.”
The Amazon Kindle was first published in 2007, and with it came the declaration from C.E.O. Jeff Bezos that the traditional book would soon be obsolete. Publishers were concerned that they might even be left out of the new e-book industry. Amazon offers many of its Kindle books for $9.99, which quickly worried some publishers.
“It’s a massive concern,” David Young, chairman and C.E.O. of Hachette Book Group USA told New Yorker magazine in April. “If it’s allowed to take hold in the consumer’s mind that a book is worth ten bucks, to my mind it’s game over for this business.”
According to the American Book Sellers Association, the number of independent book sellers has declined from 3,250 to 1,400 since 1999. Amazon Vice President Russ Grandinettis said after the first version of the Kindle was released in 2007, “On average, [Kindle users] buy 3.1 times as many books as they did twelve months ago.”
Publishers grew afraid that Amazon would bring Kindle book prices so low, and that Kindle sales would be so high, that the publishers – as well as the traditional book – might go out of business.
Then there came in 2010 what some publishing houses called the “Jesus tablet” – evidently because it would save its people from Amazon’s sins. Apple’s iPad, in the eyes of some publishers, was a more innovative, more publisher-friendly device than its e-book predecessor.
The iPad has a sleek look with a simple and –thanks to the iPhone – familiar interface. When Apple C.E.O. Steve Jobs first introduced the iPad in January 2010, publishers were excited at the prospect of Amazon now having a legitimate e-book competitor.
“It’s cool; it’s in color,” Harmsen said, comparing the iPad to Kindle’s grayscale screen. “There’s a little bit better interface too.”
Publishers hoped that the Apple’s iPad would right Amazon’s wrongs by selling its iBooks products at a higher price than Amazon. And as Harmsen and Adams both said, the iPad had a much easier interface, making it more accessible to the general public.
But for BenBella books, Harmsen’s small publishing house in Texas, the iPad actually benefits them less than the Kindle. BenBella sells its e-books to the Kindle format for $12.99, but Amazon lowers the price to $9.99 in order to maintain its low prices.
“Amazon just takes a loss,” Harmsen said. “But we still make money on it as if it were $12.99, so our authors get royalties on the $12.99 even though it’s sold to the buyer for $9.99.”
But the iPad has changed the game, Harmsen said. Apple doesn’t want to take a loss in profit like Amazon, so for Harmsen and BenBella Books to publish on the iPad, they have to sell their books for $9.99 and take the loss themselves. And if BenBella refused to do it, they’re books would simply not be published on the iPad.
Both Adams and Harmsen were unsure of the iPad’s long-term effects on the publishing industry. The financial impact notwithstanding, e-books will certainly change the way our culture reads, Adams said. Will e-books replace the traditional book forever?
“Probably in the fullness of time – a generation,” he said. “The paper book is going to be a luxury item perhaps. For some, there’s going to be a there’s going to be a need in the mass market for paper. But I think for books that are more limited in audience appeal, the electronic form may eclipse the paper.”
The future impact of e-books is even more interesting, Adams said. What do e-books mean for children’s literature? Will toddlers be satisfied to press buttons instead of turn pages? Adams paused and looked at the Sony eReader on his desk, an author’s manuscript etched in e-ink on the screen.
“My kids looks at so much and reads so much – ‘reads’, he’s not yet two years old – but he’s perfectly happy pressing buttons. I think that’s going to just be part of their vocabulary.”