A momentous, global revolution in the experience of reading and writing is well underway, and shows no sign of retreat. In brief, we are moving out of print culture and into electronic culture.
Consider. How many of you are reading books now, more or less consistently, on a Kindle, Nook, or some other kind of e-reader device (including your laptop)?
How many of you are aware that sales of electronic books are currently crushing sales of conventional books?
Take a look at some recent statistics from the AAP (Association of American Publishers):
All major adult print segments—hardcover, paperback and mass market—showed a decline in sales in May …. While e-books showed a steep uptick of 146.9% for the month, bringing in $73.4 million in sales, adult hardcovers dropped 38.2%, adult paperbacks dropped 14.3%, and adult mass market fell 39.4%.
And so far for the calendar year 2011: e-books have brought in $389.7 million in sales, a 160.1% climb over the same period in 2010.
Amazon has said that Kindle books started outselling hardcovers back in July 2010, and began outselling paperbacks in January 2011.
It is thus fair to conclude:
The principal medium for conveying the written word is becoming more and more wholly electronic. (A principle that Borders, now bankrupt, was too slow to recognize and act upon.)
At the same time, writers of both fiction and non-fiction are seizing the moment by eschewing the conventional road to publication. Instead of asking agents and publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores for help in bringing their wares to market, they are making use of the ease of distribution afforded by such venues as Amazon.com. and going straight to the ravenous e-reading market themselves.
Thriller writer John Locke, for example, recently sold his one-millionth ebook on Amazon. And 26 year-old Amanda Hocking recently made news by selling over one million e-copies of her paranormal romance series—before opting for a more conventional arrangement by signing on for 2 million with St. Martin’s Press. Self-published author Barry Eisler, however, turned down a half-million dollar advance in order to remain self-published.
None of these writers are my personal cup of electronic tea, but they at least prove the eagerness of the ebook market, and the ability of writers to take their destiny into their own hands.
So that we can conclude:
The principal means of publishing and distributing the written word is becoming not only more and more electronic, but more and more in the hands of writers’ themselves.
Which brings us to J.K. Rowling and Pottermore. In June Rowling announced her new Pottermore website (to be launched in October), an immersive experience into the world of the Harry Potter books that will include new material from Rowling (e.g. backstories on the characters), interactivity via fan fiction and games, as well as being the only place in the galaxy where one can purchase e-versions of the Harry Potter books. It’s true. Rowling wisely retained the electronic publication rights for all her books, and so now is able to offer e-versions of them exclusively through her new website.
Of course, it takes someone with a global, pop icon platform like Rowling’s to be able to draw readers to one’s electronic works and make pots of galleons without the help even of Amazon and Barnes&Noble. And it’s not really accurate to call Rowling a self-publisher, since she made her reputation selling gazillions of books through Bloomsbury in the UK and Scholastic in the U.S. (Though for an interesting take on this, see David Gaughran's piece on Pottermore.)
But still, it’s hardly a stretch to surmise that Rowling’s Pottermore website will both entrench and make more exciting the experience of reading and writing through exclusively electronic media—especially in the as yet relatively dormant children’s market.
Pottermore will also help underscore the third principle of the current revolution in reading and writing: that for both fiction & non-fiction writers, ownership and control are possible like never before.
But the question for you is:
How do you like this revolution? Do you think it’s inevitable? And even if it is, is the revolution good, bad or indifferent for the human experience of reading and writing—for the transmission of ideas and stories?