A book evolution, not revolution

We often hear arguments that the age of the book has passed or that, with the advent of e-books, the book is doomed. It makes good copy, just as populist-sounding charges that publishing is “corrupt” does, but none of these arguments recognizes the human cultural tradition that we build on rather than destroy. Is it true that no one listens to radio now that television has reached 50+ years of use? No, we remix our attention and what is valued. Books, both paper and digital, will live side by side.

I write this because of two Fast Company pieces of the last 24 hours, one of which I helped edit for my good friend, Marcia Conner, the other reporting on the possibility that Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol could sell more copies in digital form than hardcover. I am sure The Lost Symbol will sell more e-copies than hardcovers over time, if readers don’t find they are disappointed by the book—it’s virtually assured, just as cheaper paperbacks outsell hardbacks. The important question is whether e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will cannibalize hardback sales or be additive. Only a few weeks time will answer this question, as the initial hype wears off and sales become more “normal.” Based on pre-orders, the book has been in Amazon’s best sellers list for 150 days; all those copies were delivered in the last 24 hours. Currently, The Lost Symbol is #1 in both Amazon’s book and Kindle stores. Shortcovers is reporting its biggest sales day in its short history, exceeding its previous one-day sales by 100 percent.

Fast Company‘s Kit Eaton dissects Stephen Windwalker’s claim that e-books will outsell hardbacks, based on day-one figures that are largely guesswork. Eaton suggests that while Kindle sales may be strong, it doesn’t mean that e-book versions of The Lost Symbol will outpace hardcovers. With one million copies sold after such an intense marketing campaign, however, it’s unlikely that more than 3.5 million hardcover copies will be sold (early customer reviews on Amazon are not positive). The Da Vinci Code, too, was a phenomenon of the mass market paperback. As I argued a couple weeks back, the lost symbol in this story is a dollar sign, since Amazon and its e-book competitors lose money on each digital copy they sell.

The point, though, is that in an evolutionary market, these kinds of event product launches are watershed moments, when change becomes visible. I think it is very realistic to expect that readers with smartphone e-reader apps will choose this book just to see what the fuss is about, but I doubt The Lost Symbol will be the catalyst for the sale of millions of $300 e-reader devices.

Marcia Conner’s comments on the use of “2.0” to denote significant changes in an industry are right on point. We constantly hear of revolutions, but we are constantly building on past accomplishments. A 2.0 release of software is a significant change from the first version, but it does not break completely with the past. If it did, it would be incompatible with the customer’s needs, simple ones like opening old documents and doing whatever it was the software promised to do.

While Marcia was writing the piece, she sent over a couple drafts of the piece and I made the comment that assuming anything familiar to people today is in its second iteration is an act of hubris. Government has certainly evolved dozens of times and, as Marcia wrote after our exchange:

And one more thing: Calling everything “2.0” gives credit for all change to the current generation. Many institutions are on far more than their second rev. Publishing, for instance, is on its sixth or ninth rev, not its second. There are innumerable versions of things. It’s simplistic, silly, and conceited to call everything “2.0.” It’s taking credit before credit is due.

Publishing, whatever version it is on, is certainly not going to throw out what has provided continuity for readers through centuries, but it is going to change dramatically. Understanding the new relationship between readers and the text, whatever it consists of, and how distribution challenges have changed is the key to reinventing publishing. If we assume there will be a revolution, but find that after the upheaval nothing much has changed, there will be enduring disappointment. At this moment, we have only seen readers’ willingness to pay for digital versions of books, but the long transition that will change books and their distribution has only begun.

About Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.
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