Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

The mystified oracle: How can we predict what digital will do to publishing?

Ouija board parody based on a computer keyboard with LOLcats


A wise and kind of nasal man once sang, “Come writers and critics, Who prophesize with your pen, And keep your eyes wide, The chance won’t come again. And don’t speak too soon For the wheel’s still in spin, And there’s no tellin’ who That it’s namin’. For the loser now Will be later to win For the times they are a-changin’.”

(With my pen? How old-timey.)

This blog is dedicated to following the times as they a-change in publishing due to the onset of the digital revolution. We, and many others in the industry, are given to prophesize with our keyboards, and we’ve been doing it for years. The problem is that it’s kind of hard to predict the future in these turbulent times.

At this point, it seems kind of obvious that digital is here to stay. Reports continue to roll in that while bookstore sales flag, ebook sales keep rising. But what’s the impact of digital on books and magazines? Everyone’s got her theory, but as for confidently predicting the future of publishing, I’m afraid only the Magic Eight Ball has a good answer: Ask again tomorrow.

Part of the problem is that we’re not really sure what the best comparison is for a digital revolution in publishing. There have been other digital revolutions, most notably (and ominously) in the music and movie businesses.

There are, of course, some similarities.

For a jerk who knows little about the evolution of music technology, I will (perhaps over-confidently) offer that music had been marching slowly and inevitably toward a digital undeath since the advent of the cassette tape. People want smaller, more portable ways to listen to music. When MP3s arrived, it was like manna from heaven—we’d gone from records (big, floppy, and breakable) to cassettes (small, but OMG that tape) to CDs (small, rigid, and breakable), but the MP3 offered us instant access to only the songs we wanted. It was perfect. Similarly, ebooks and digital magazines offer us instant download capability and portability.

With movies, it was much the same story. Where once we were forced to purchase large VHS tapes and adjust tracking, we can now stream all we want for a monthly fee without even having to leave the couch or put on pants. Ebooks and digital magazines offer instant availability—and the Netflix of books doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

In both of these models, traditional forms—album and box office sales—have suffered because of digital. Arguments that records and CDs offer superior sound quality fall on deaf ears (heh…sorry) to those who prefer the thrift and convenience of MP3 purchases and illegal downloads. And why pay $14 to go to the movies, or buy one, when you could stream instantly for $9.99 a month?

All of this points us toward a not-so-rosy future for the publishing industry. But I don’t think either of those is the most apt comparison, and we shouldn’t be pricing coffins for the print industry just yet.

Music and movies may not always have been digital in format, but for a long while now, they have been electronic. We’ve always needed electricity to watch television in our homes or listen to music on the radio. Books, by contrast, have only ever needed the light of the sun, or maybe a candle if you’re into eye strain.

It’s only recently, with the advent of books on computer and ereaders, that electronics have entered into our reading experience. Of course, I’m ignoring the production process, which has long benefited from a switch to computers from the printing press, but from a consumer standpoint, electricity need not factor into our consumption of the printed word.

Although many people have embraced ereaders, there remains a devoted print consumer base that can seem almost offended by ebooks’ “encroachment” on our industry. I don’t really see that happening as commonly with music or movies anymore; sure, you’ve got your purists who’ll talk your ear off about vinyl’s warm sound, and your movie buffs who swear by the theater experience. But there seem to be far more print enthusiasts than MP3 haters anymore. Since books and magazines are such late arrivers on the electronic scene, it seems to me that perhaps it’s too soon to say whether print will follow in the footsteps of vinyl and movie ownership.

One comment on “The mystified oracle: How can we predict what digital will do to publishing?

  1. Keira Lyons
    July 2, 2012

    Great point about needing electricity to consume music and movies! Already I feel the impact of electricity on my reading habits. Not infrequently, I’ll be frustrated by the fact that my iPad is dead or I can’t get a damn WiFi signal to download a new book. It’s always a good idea to remind ourselves how invaluable–and unsurpassed as a medium–the printed book really is.

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2012 by in Opinion and tagged , , .

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