The ebooks versus books “war” has been raging for sometime. This frivolous and baseless war has been conjured up by those that want to maintain their current control of the book market, mainly modern book publishers, and those that are resistant to change. Ebooks are not going to kill books, or libraries, or bookstores, the same way that television didn’t kill radio and the internet didn’t kill television.
Ebooks are the latest advancement in book technology. Publisher mass produced books were the last major technology that replaced the rotary press and the Gutenberg press before that, and hand written and bound books before that. What people really mean when they say that ebooks are killing books is that they prefer things not to change. They prefer “real” books, those that are mass-produced by publishers that have been around for only 100 years or so, to the newer style of books.
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To address this debate lets look at the history of books and printing. In 1440 Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before that books, were hand written and so very expensive to produce and to own. Only the very wealthy owned books and they were also the only ones that could read.
In 1455 Gutenberg printed his first book, a reproduction of the Latin Bible. In 1475 the first book written in English was printed.
In 1534 the first publishing house was established at Cambridge in England, Cambridge University Press. The Press’s mission was “To further further the University’s mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.” Keep in mind this is still 200 years before the novel was invented in the early 17th century. Being an Academic and educational publisher, they did not publish for general audiences.
It isn’t until 1639 that the first books were printed in the new American colonies. Followed by the first magazine being invented in 1663. In 1719 Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was written, which was the first and beginning of the English novel. This and many others were being reproduced in the US without any form of payment to the authors. We have always been rascals when it comes to stealing from other countries.
Many advances in printing technology later produced the rotary press in 1846. This made it possible for newspapers to increase circulation and the New York Times debuted shortly after in 1851.
In 1845 paperbacks were introduced in the United States leading to the Copyright act of 1891, which banned the reprinting of English titles in paperback, due to all the pirating of books.
In 1917 the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded, following in 1918 with awards for Fiction, drama, and poetry.
James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in 1922 leading to the first copies of a novel being destroyed because it was considered obscene. This is also the first book in the Modern Library’s 100 best novels list.
This brings us to modern day publishers that were developed as “a purely commercial affair” that established publishing as a business. In 1911 the formal business model of publishers and presses was developed leading to the domination of book publishing by presses with a profit bottom line. This was very different from the Cambridge University press that was disseminating knowledge and was not profit based.
For authors to get published they needed to go through literary agents and publishing houses to even be taken seriously (another fallacy). A book published by these publishers was considered good quality, but that alone does not guarantee a good book. A self-published book does not guarantee low quality writing either.
As technology has advanced in book printing from the Gutenberg press, to rotary press, and now modern day laser printers, so has the book. As different genres were developed so did the book business models. What I think this all points to is that book technology, mainly the book itself, has never been a constant. The ebooks versus books war is just the latest resistance to the evolution of books.
The current business model has been in place for about 100 years and it is finally beginning to change; giving more power to the authors who can choose to publish themselves and reach readers through the internet and online book sellers like Amazon. The business models have changed from mom and pop bookstores, to major chain retailers, to online wholesalers making more inexpensive books available to the reading public.
Books, bookstores, and libraries are not at war with ebooks; ebooks are the latest technological shift that has taken place. Like most change, it is being resisted by people who are accustomed to a certain way of reading, and the businesses who have perfected their marketing and sales models to produce their profits. The large global corporation book publishers are fighting against the acceptance of ebooks, specifically with Amazon.com who is taking their monopoly away from them by having the control of the market and demanding better pricing.
Authors have always been able to self publish but there is a great amount of stigma associated with it. Arguments have been around for some time now like, if you can’t get your book published by a major book publisher then you must not be worthy of publishing. Publishers have a stranglehold on the book markets and control what is published and what is advertised. Authors without a foothold have a very hard time breaking into the market.
The publishing houses are businesses that are concerned with the bottom line. Whether the book is good or not is only a small part of the equation in deciding whether to publish. Whether the book will produce a profit for the publisher is the main consideration. Publishing houses do not equal quality or variety in books.
Major publishing houses have published Britney Spears's and Sarah Palin'sautobiographies, likely through ghost writers, because they would sell big, not because they were well written. Deals are made in the millions for the latest celebrities to publish books. If the publishers are supposed to maintain the quality of books published, then someone forgot to let them know.
In the next part we will talk about the arguments commonly made against ebooks and why they are baseless. For the final portion, we will cover the pros of ereaders and how you can have both books and ebooks live in harmony together.
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