Will paperback books eventually become extinct in the era of eBooks? Best-selling author J. Stephen York doesn't know yet, but says it's entirely possible. (Photo by Michael Freeman).
Years ago, author J. Stephen York envisioned the future of publishing: a world where people would have books, but not hardcover or paperback versions. The future, he suspected, would be entirely done by electronic means.
At the time, that sounded like science fiction. But today, York, a professional writer of fiction for the past 35 years, has seen it all become reality: the eBook revolution, where anyone can download a novel electronically onto their computer without having to buy the traditional hard copy version.
“When I talk about the eBook revolution, I can’t say I didn’t see it coming, because I did,” York said. “It was obvious the e-reader was coming.”
To understand just how radically the eBook phenomenon is changing the publishing world, York noted that the industry was shaken to its core recently when best-selling author J.K. Rowling of the Harry Potter series announced she was turning to eBooks as well – except she would not be doing it through either traditional publishing houses or online retailers like Amazon.com.
“J.K. Rowling announced that her phenomenal series Harry Potter will be available for the first time on eBook, but they will only be available on her website,” York said. “She is bypassing publishers, and she is completely bypassing Amazon and other eBook publishers. What does this mean? I don’t know. Ask me next week.”
But he understands one thing quite clearly: eBooks have revolutionized an industry that he said is underoing “the most profound changes since the invention of the printing press.”
York – the national best-selling author of more than a dozen traditionally published books – doesn’t necessarily feel personally threatened by these changes. For one thing, he feels like the entire publishing world has gone through so many negative developments that he actually welcomes the rapid growth of the eBook – even more so as a reader and lover of good books than as a professional writer.
“I can carry a whole library in my pocket,” he said. “The choices available to me have never been greater, although there is a challenge finding good books among a sea of amateurish dreck. It’s the worst of times for publishing, but it’s the best of times for books, and I’m glad I was here to see it.”
On Saturday, York gave a presentation on, “eBook Apocalypse: The End of Books as We Know Them,” which examined the shakey future of the publishing industry as the eBook revolution grows in strength and popularity. Although York noted his own personal success writing fiction, he said the publishing industry had become a grueling field to work in.
“I’m a little annoyed at publishing these days,” he said. “Publishing is a field that has been doing the same things over and over again,” with no interest in adapting to a new landscape.
“It’s a vast machine made up of huge offices,” he said. “It’s a machine that has to be kept busy every day. That’s why publishing must most likely die in order to continue to exist.”
That death, he predicted, could come faster than many anticipate. During his hour-long presentation, York noted that the field is no longer about going to Barnes & Noble to find a book, or even ordering one online to be mailed to your home within a matter of days or weeks. With eBooks, he said, “It’s possible you have been downloading an ebook as we speak.”
That has publishers scared stiff, he said.
“Nobody, I will confess, even me, knows where this will all end up,” he said. “A lot of people in the industry are terrified about where this is going, worried about losing their jobs – if they haven’t lost them by now.”
They have good reason to be worried, he said. So do all traditional publishers — of books, newspapers, magazines and anything else printed on paper.
“It was obvious that books and newspapers and maybe even magazines were heading the way of electronic formats,” he said, tracing it to online retail giant Amazon.com’s introduction of the Kindle Edition ebook. By 2010, he said, this genre had “really exploded.
“Why did it take so long,” he asked. “Kindle represented a near-perfect storm of technology. Amazon made it possible to shop for books on a device. Click and you have a book to read. That instant gratification made Kindle a best seller. This is a massive subject.”
When Kindle was introduced, York said, traditional publishers scoffed at the idea – a serious error in judgment.
“Their first response to eBooks was to ignore them and assume they would never impact their market,” York said. “That was fine as long as eBooks only represented 1-2 percent of market share. But that’s not what happened.”
EBook sales not only soared, but allowed anyone to instantly become a published author, while publishers were stuck with the still sky high cost of printing and marketing traditional hard copy books. Low cost and instant delivery to readers – that represented stiff competiton, York said.
“It may seem obvious that an eBook should be cheaper than a traditional book,” he said. “You don’t have to print it, you don’t have to warehouse. What was publishings reaction when this trend became obvious? They tried to sabotage it.”
In the past year, York said, traditional authors have felt burned by publishing houses that under report the sale of eBook versions of their work – sometimes reporting only four or five copies had been sold online when the author knows it could actually have been in the hundreds.
“The losses to authors are huge,” he said. “The fallout from this hasn’t even begun. This could be a huge, huge scandal.”
While publishing houses are struggling to figure out what the future holds, the world of eBooks has enabled anyone to get published and bypass the old-fashioned way of getting into print.
“eBook publishing favors the prolific author,” he said. “For the diligent and productive writer, the future looks bright. If small writers can bypass traditional publishers, so can anyone else. Technology is such that anyone can walk away from a traditional publisher and still make money.”
This revolution has consequences for more than just the publishing houses, which are laying off editors at an alarming rate, York said. Large bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders are struggling to stay alive, and “Everywhere that eBooks are happening, bookstores are collapsing,” he said.
Likewise, literay agents are finding they’re no longer needed, either.
“Life is very hard for literay agents right now,” he said. “With no deals from publishers, they are looking at 15 percent of nothing.”
The changes even have ramifications for public libraries, he said, as anyone with a laptop can bypass a library altogether.
“Libraries desperately need to be reinvented,” he said. “Business as usual doesn’t work anymore for libraries.”
What may be most astonishing for writers of eBooks, York said, is the evidence that they can offer their product free on their home or host website … for a while, anyway, and then start charging money for it. There’s clear evidence, he said, that people will pay even though it was once offered for free.
“There is some evidence that giving things away does help the authors,” he said. “They can make it available for free on their website, and then they put it on an eBook and charge for it. What they have found is that even when it’s available free on the website, people still go out and buy it on an eBook.”
And nobody, he added, is quite sure where this revolution is headed next.
“The situation is changing with astonishing speed,” York said.

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  1. I see J K Rowling has finally separated from her (extremely) long term literary agent, Chris Little. Can this have something to do with her bypassing the traditional publishing industry and releasing books in electronic format direct from her new Harry Potter web site, Pottermore? It appears the magical relationship couldn’t survive the harsh daylight of commercialism… landing us back in the real world with a bump.

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