Tuesday, March 15, 2005

It's the technology, stupid

Years ago, I attended a most unique writer's workshop at my local Barnes and Noble: they had a guest speaker (supposedly) as every single store at the exact same time (which begged the question: did I miss someone better?)

The writer who spoke at my store was halfway through his monologue when he said, out of nowhere (and out of context), "you know, one day all books are going to be published right here, in the store. You'll probably go to a kiosk and select your book and by the time you get to the front of the store your book will be waiting for you."

The group of onlookers began nervously chuckling. I thought the guy was a box of Fruit Loops.

What I learned later, however, was that Barnes & Noble had taken a significant interest (logistically and financially) in iUniverse. So, it turns out the workshop was really an excuse to generate some publicity (and get discouraged writers to jump on a technology bandwagon.)

But it got me thinking: would I want to go to a bookstore where I have to buy a book from a kiosk? I love the feel of the virgin paper, the gentle crackling sound the binding makes the first time it is opened, sitting down with a cup of overpriced joe and seeing if a chapter or two will hook me.

I discarded the notion, thinking it was silly, that no one would ever shop that way. But then it hit me: this is the same mistake that publishers, et. al. are making with e-books right now.

What they are saying: "People don't like to read books on computers or hand-held devices."

What they should really be saying: "My generation does not like to read books on computers or hand-held devices."

I'll bet they don't own iPods, either. Who could fathom putting all of your music on a tiny device and carrying it around with you? Young 'uns, that's who. In two different school systems in Northern Virginia, the high schools are handing out laptops to their students to use as the standard for reading, note taking, test taking and the like; they turn them in at the end of the year like textbooks. And in California and Arizona, seven different school districts are handing out e-book readers. To quote one superintendent: "It's a lot cheaper to throw away a handful of broken devices than to keep ordering dozens of copies of the same books over and over, year after year. And no one can scribble in an e-book reader or tear pages out. And the kids never have to carry more than one [book] with them. Everyone loves them."

So, you see, these kids will be bred to e-read.

And they, too, will select books from a kiosk, where they will be printed and waiting for them by the time they reach the front of the store.

Here is where the rubber meets the POD highway: once book purchasing goes to the kiosk (and POD activity right within the store), the playing field will be leveled substantially. If everyone is being POD'd, where is the sales edge* to traditional publishing?

And don't tell me it's the advertising.

Please note: I said "sales edge", not "edge" in general. The obvious answer to the question here is EDITING. But, for sake of argument, I am assuming we're dealing with books that needed little editing, like the multitudes that are acquired yet never edited by the New York brethren, day after day after day . . .

Bonus round:

A bunch of folks commented and sent me emails about Laurie Notaro's flip from iUniverse to Random House. If you want to read her story (from a chat session) from over three years ago, simply click this bad boy. You can tell it has been three years. When was the last time you could get in print via iUniverse for $100?

More gems on the way.