Online Books: 21st Century Publishing

Anyone born before or around 1975 can remember a time when people bought popular music recordings on vinyl records; when moviegoers enjoyed films either exclusively in theaters or in second runs on television; and when book stores were small, ma-and-pa affairs in quaint buildings on or near every town’s Main Street.  All of that changed sometime during the late-1970s and 1980s with the coming of CDs, videotape (followed by DVDs), and corporate mega-booksellers. 

What few noticed at the time was that there was an even larger cultural revolution going on behind the scenes, one that began quietly with then teenager Bill Gates’ study of the BASIC computer language and Steve Jobs’ first employment at Hewlitt-Packard.

Fast forward to 2011.  The ongoing transformation in world culture is leading inexorably to the demise of the way that we traditionally have listened to music, watched movies, bought and read books–and yes, done business.  Almost everyone has a computer, whether a desktop or a laptop, and most of us have a cell phone of some kind or another.  Go into any surviving record or electronics store, and you’ll see that the CD section has shrunk considerably.  DVDs and BluRay discs are still prevalent but they, too, are less so than they were five years ago.  As for books. . .well, Barnes and Noble is still apparently going strong; however, the bookseller powerhouse Borders recently declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  We still have music, movies and books, but at an ever-increasing rate they’re relocating online to digital sellers.

At the top of the heap after seventeen years is Amazon.com, which sells all of the above and more, everything from automotive parts and aquariums to golf equipment and computers.  Together with Apple’s iTunes and other mp3/streaming/app-featuring services, Amazon has transformed public consumption of popular culture. 

Amazon’s most revolutionary innovation yet may prove to have been the Kindle reader and the downloadable books it supports; not only because of the device’s compact size and portability, and its books’ relative low prices, but for the imitators it has spawned

Which brings us to the point of this article.  With books going digital, the presence of online publishers has exploded over the past few years.  From the consumers’ point-of-view, books now are cheaper, more portable, and don’t require a trip to the neighborhood book store; all you have to do is point and click your mouse button.  For writers it’s even better.

All of us who write, even those of us who have seen our work published by major houses, have gone through the rejection letter cycle with agents and publishers.  Sometimes it’s because your book doesn’t fit with the commercial demographics the agency or book company caters to; in other instances the work is considered too esoteric, or too traditional, too hard to categorize or not commercial enough–and on and on.  Admittedly, some who submit query letters or manuscripts lack the skill or the experience to create a satisfactory piece of writing.  Whatever the reason, writers traditionally have had to learn a great deal of patience while we wait for the rejections which, on the plus side, compel us to grow thicker skins.

That, too, is changing thanks to the current digital revolution.  More and more writers are choosing to bypass traditional publishing to get their work into virtual book stores where they set their own prices and have more control over their work. 

At the moment it’s kind of like the Wild West in virtual bookland, where anything goes and almost anything at all can be published and sold.  But that’s to be expected in any new industry where standards have yet to be set and the market still hasn’t discovered what there is of value out there and separated it from the incompetently produced.  Time will take care of both, as it always does. 

Whatever happens, whether or not publishing houses bow to the new reality and go exclusively, or primarily, online, or whether they go under altogether, writers will remain.  And as they have ever since the first scribe picked up a crude tool to invent written language, they will continue to find their venues.  Writers are nothing if not adaptable.

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