Does the Amazon Vs. Hachette Battle Ignore a Future Where Physical Books Will Be Extinct?

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In Bloomberg, writer Leonid Bershidsky has a POV on the protracted, lengthy battle between Amazon and Hachette over e-book pricing — a battle that is being framed, at least in the media, as a sign of “the future of books.” It’s a fight that is happening for the profits that are available in the future, one that’s getting vicious as Amazon does have a 65% stake — arguably a monopoly — over the selling of e-books. Bershidsky, however, feels as if this fight is already obsolete, as the pricing of e-books between publishers and distributor(s) is something that won’t matter in the future, when our book libraries are somewhere in a cloud and no-one actually buys anything — instead, he argues, we’ll rent books from Amazon the way some people apparently rent movies from iTunes.

For now, at least, the net effect of the Hachette/Amazon battle is shameful for both corporations, and readers and writers are losing out on getting books available in the world. From what little I’ve observed of publishing, when a book’s distribution is limited on release — take, for example, current “Colbert bump” book Sweetness #9 — the lack of “pre-orders” affects the amount of copies that bookstores order, creating a vicious cycle that cuts the book’s commercial potential off at the knees.

Those numbers mean that the author’s next book is less likely to sell, too. There’s no asterisk that implies “bad sales are the result of my book being released at this historically important Mexican standoff between two large businesses.” What feels gross about this tactic with publishers and Amazon is that it’s not taking out the marquee authors like, say, Stephen King. Rather, it’s limiting the exposure of debut authors. Great careers may not happen in this environment, and that sucks. The professed “freedom” of self-publishing is able to flourish in this environment as well. It’s a mess all around, with few winners, save Jeff Bezos, now and forever.

However, Bershidsky’s vision of a future where our book libraries are in the cloud feels off, too — he compares hardcovers and paperbacks to music’s vinyl and CDs, with the already-obsolete Kindle and e-reading on whatever device analogous to the iPod.

But will physical books become obsolete? I really am not sure if that’s the case. What has been interesting to observe regarding “the rise of e-reading” is that, at least for this particular luddite, it’s not particularly pleasurable as a storytelling medium, much of the time. Books I’ve read that have been longer than Gone Girl have been a drag of clicking, clicking forward. I can’t even imagine the annoyance that would come from reading Infinite Jest or Capital in the Twenty-First Century on a phone, computer, or, uh, Kindle. I wonder, as well, whether there’s going to be a generation of people with awful eyesight from our current lives with screens. I imagine all this exposure may not age well, making the paper book, something without an ambient light behind it, feel like a respite for the eyes. (I am a very old woman.) [You’re not that old – Ed.]

And the numbers with e-books have been interesting. From conversations, it’s been sounding like “adult books,” as broad as that is, have been shaking out to be more 50/50 physical books vs. e-books, whereas in categories like young adult fiction, sales are still 80% physical books.

Unlike the idea of “where your music comes from,” the physical pleasure of books is something that’s 500 years old, since we had our very first Gutenberg Bible. (Magazines and newspapers on the other hand, have always been evolving.) Reading is not something that feels as readily acquiescent to technology as music, or even streaming movies as the multiplex has less and less options. A book is a perfect physical object, absolute proof that we were here as humans and a species. Recently, I happened upon a century-old copy of one of the fusty classics you read in school. It was signed by the author, a real signature, and just to see that — to realize that this hero was real, that he existed — turned my mind around. It was a profound experience.

The way we read is changing, but I’m not sure if it’s a complete sea change in the way that other media has fallen in the past ten years. Obviously the publishing situation is a mess — and it’s a mystery as to why e-books haven’t been bundled together with physical copies, one of the tactics record labels have been using with vinyl purchases (and don’t forget, vinyl is resurgent). I do see a future where books are moving toward being a luxury purchase, in a manner: e-books may be for the masses, physical books may be for the enthusiasts. You see it around the edges, with people “cultivating old books” for their libraries, or even “TBR” piles of books on Instagram, where it’s a collection of books I am consuming but not actually reading, per se.

In some ways, Pandora’s Box has been opened with e-books and the internet. We’re creating more readers than ever, it’s never been easier, and that’s not a bad thing. (As long as the world does not turn into Mike Judge’s scarily possible satire Idiocracy.) But, as an engaged, curious person, it feels like we’re losing something as well as a result of Amazon’s demand for market dominance, and perhaps it’s quality control: whether it’s through big industry publishers or a generation of writers that can cobble together a small life in the industry.

Really, the only moral to this Amazon/Hatchette mess is that even if publishers aren’t necessarily fighting the fight for the little guys and the writers of the world, even if they’re not even fighting the relevant fight, on the other hand, Jeff Bezos appears to be a libertarian mercenary who doesn’t care about people and pleasure, just the pursuit of something, to the detriment of all businesses ever. I believe, very much, that we will keep reading, and “the cloud” will just be an addition to our book collections, but do we really want a publishing industry based on some Ayn Randian ethos? Because that idea truly feels like a dystopian future.