What Happens When Books Become Electronic

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 11/21/2007

If we could look at the basic goal of the publishing industry, it would look something like the diagram below.† The authorís thoughts and knowledge flows to the reader, for which money flows from the reader to the author.† Usually, the lines are that as direct as these appear, but this is the basic idea.

More frequently, it looks more like the diagram below.† The author feeds his thoughts and knowledge into the publishing industry, which gives the author money for his trouble. †The reader feeds money into the publishing industry, for which the publishing industry provides the reader with thoughts and knowledge.



In the current model, the flow looks a little like the diagram below.† Thoughts and knowledge move from left to right and money moves from right to left.† Technically, we could bypass any of the junctions between the author and the reader, but the agent never works directly with the reader.† The other nodes will, at times.† These nodes do serve a purpose, though they do not always serve their purpose very well.† As thoughts and knowledge flows through the nodes from left to right, it should improve in quality.† This should result in a willingness by the readers to pay more for the final product, so more money will flow from right to left.

You will notice that there is a direct connection between readers on the right hand side.† In the current system, readers frequently trade books.† Sometimes an exchange of money occurs also.† A book is a physical product and readers can pass them around readily.

The diagram below shows how the system might look if we move to electronic content.† Notice the difference.† All publishers are feeding into a single node.† In actual fact, this one node could be multiple companies which provide content for various devices, but there will be far fewer sites involved.† The traditional bookstore will probably disappear.† The reader will go to one location to purchase any content that he might want.


In the current model, part of the reason that authors are willing to sell their work to publishers is because the publisher can get the book into stores more easily than an independent author can.† Publishers provide editors, design the cover and pay for printing the book.† In the electronic model, the cover design is less important, and the cost of printing is minimal.† An author can feed his manuscript to the online distributor who will then provide it to the reader.† The question here is what must the publisher/agent combo do to justify their existence?

I believe that it will come down to quality and the effort required to produce a product that the reader recognizes as being worth the money. Eventually, electronic content will provide features that ink and paper cannot hope to offer.† Many authors will lack the skill required to generate the features that the readers will demand.† It is a little like the difference between a blog and a more traditional website.† People are willing to accept the low quality standards of a blog as long as they donít have to pay for it, but if they are paying for it they demand better features.† Publishers and self-published authors who want to coax the money out of the pockets of readers so it can begin to flow from right to left will have to make a name for themselves by showing their ability to provide a quality learning experience or a highly entertaining reading experience.

As electronic book content becomes more elaborate, it will probably require the skills of people trained to do the work.† While the typical self-published author will be able to provide the textual content that he can now, many self-published authors will find that their product no longer compares to what the big name publishers are offering.† Moving to electronic content may result in the decline of self-publishing.