Dead publishing houses and digital reading

Some booky gubbins from over the weekend … a sad bit of news that caught my eye on the SFBC blog is that Perseus Book Group is axing a few subsidiary houses in their acquisition of Avalon, one of which is Thunder’s Mouth Press.

In my fortunate position of getting sent more books than I have time to realistically read, it’s a rare occasion that I lash out my own cash on one, but two of the books I bought in the last year were Thunder’s Mouth titles: Sterling’s Visionary in Residence collection and Rucker’s Mad Professor. There’s a lot of these amalgamations happening in publishing at the moment, and I wonder how this will pan out over time – the Long Tail hasn’t yet kicked into the book market the way it has music.

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Some bibliophile at The Guardian got given a demo unit of iRex’s forthcoming Iliad ebook reader to try out for a month, and seems to be fairly impressed by it – although he reckons it’ll be a long time before they kill of the print book business, which is something I’ve always conceded and which has been stated by minds far greater (and more versed in the technology and economic ramifications) than mine. But as reflects the item above, the following statement is interesting:

“It won’t destroy bookshops, any more than the much more advanced music-download business has destroyed albums.”

I can only assume the gentleman hasn’t seen the sales figures for the music industry recently – the album is indeed dying as a format, as is the bricks-and-mortar music outlet. The effects will take longer in an industry like literature, where pace of change is by necessity that much slower (books take time to write and edit after all), but if there is a truism in media these days, it is that “technology disrupts markets – inevitably and irreperably”.

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Finally, we have the one and only Bill Gates proclaiming that reading will eventually go entirely online. There’s no timeframe mentioned, of course, and it’s probably a tautology to all but the most agressively technophobic. But Gates has scored well as a futurist prediction machine in the past – his book The Road Ahead, published in 1995, was stunningly accurate as far as such documents go – though not without some prophecies that look remarkably silly in hindsight.

We’ve got a long future of paper books to come – with POD technology making short runs more practical and affordable, there’s little reason that science fiction should suffer the effects of change any more than the greater market as a whole. But as the Guardian fellow says, we will start to see ebook readers in the hands of the ubergeeks – Stross’s “Slashdot Generation” – very soon, and the first increments of change will begin to unfold.

If I had £500 spare, I’d happily be one of those technology pioneers – indeed, should anyone from Sony or iRex be reading, I’d be more than willing to evaluate and critique their product for them over a lengthy time period …

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