by Scott Anderson
What is the future of books? That’s a good question. Right up there with: What is the future of art? Or, what is the future of music? The answer to all of them is, I don’t have any idea, but I’m not afraid to make some guesses.
To draw reasonable conclusions of what the immediate future holds for books we need to look backward at the history of commerce. Mankind throughout time has placed value on things based on the perceived rarity of the object under consideration. Gold, diamonds, oil, even Van Gogh oil paintings are all valued based on this same yardstick. Virtually any commodity or service derives its value through the public’s perception of its availability or exclusivity.
Is a digital print as valuable as the original canvas painted by Van Gogh? Of course not. Anyone can have a digital print of Starry Night. The same isn’t true for the painting.
The devaluation of music and the shift from recorded music to live performances as the dominant source of musical artist’s income today is based on an unmitigated flood of digital musical output into the marketplace for little or no cost. There were gems in the flood somewhere, but pirated, copied, and downloaded versions being offered for virtually nothing rendered the legitimate versions almost worthless to the merchants offering them. The outcome was the demise of the local record shop most of us grew up with.
Self-publishing, e publishing, mass-market hardbacks and paperbacks, all of these things are a part of the flood of supply that is pushing the publishing industry, and bookstores in particular, to the brink. Gutenberg didn’t start off selling 80,000 copies a month of his bible, but he revolutionized the printed word and started us down the path that led to digital downloads and the creation of electronic media. With each step on that pathway the unit price of “the book” has diminished. That’s good; a lot of us have learned to read because of it. But it didn’t help Guttenberg who underestimated the effect of competition and as a result ended up penniless.
Books, as we know them, will survive for the foreseeable future. They may become rarer as many readers flee to the simplicity of the digital download, but that very rareness will, in the end, enhance their value. Perhaps at some point almost no one will start off being published as we currently perceive it and only those that have demonstrated value in the electronic sphere will ever be considered for paper publication. Who knows?
Hardback volumes will fare better than paperbacks, cheap and disposable paper loses to digital in a heartbeat. Textbooks and reference books are more difficult to predict. I still have my old copy of the first edition of Johns and Cunningham, a physics textbook covered with underlining and notes made in my own hand and decades out of print. But modern students will have different values I suspect.I am an author with a book out in e-format right now. I run IsoLibris Publishing, we started with e-books only and have only just started to venture out into the world of POD. A friend of mine, a book collector, asked, “What are you going to do, sign my Kindle?” I understand his concern because I collect signed first editions, too. I love books. They have value to me and I am willing to pay to own them. I think some people always will.
Russell Scott Anderson M.D. is a Radiation Oncologist who serves as the Medical Director of Anderson Cancer Center in Meridian, Mississippi. He is a former Navy diver who worked in operations in the Middle East, Central America, and in support of the Navy’s EOD community, SEALS, the US Army’s Green Berets, the Secret Service, and the New York Police Department at various times during his time in the service.
He has written the family oriented literary columns Una Voce and The Uncommon Thread in the JOURNAL of the Mississippi State Medical Association as Scott Anderson M.D. for the past five years. He has also written as screenwriter R. S. Anderson on several feature films and written novels as Russell Scott. Time Donors Wanted was his first novel and his second, The Hard Times, is due out in the Spring of 2012.