Jeff Gomez writes the "Print Is Dead" blog and is the author of a book by the same name. I just received a galley copy of the book and started reading it last night; stay tuned for a full review here in the not too distant future.
Jeff was kind enough to participate in an interview with me about the book and the future of publishing. Here's what he had to say:
JW: The subtitle of your book is "Books In Our Digital Age." Up to now, the e-book platform hasn't really taken off. What do you feel will be required before e-books become a more significant segment of our business?
JG: While you’re correct in stating that eBooks --- as we know them --- have not really taken off, in the meantime what has indeed taken off is electronic content. So while people may not be buying novels in PDF format, they’re buying music online, streaming TV shows from the websites of networks, and integrating their daily lives with a number of different interactive websites (such as Myspace and Facebook). So consumers are certainly ready to consume content digitally (witness the rise in online news, and the demise of the newspaper), so now it's just up to publishers to come up with a great digital reading experience, and I don't think that's yet happened.
JW: What are your thoughts on digital rights management (DRM)?
JG: Well, being an author and working in publishing, I see both sides of this issue. And it's not something that's just being fought for by the publishers; many authors and agents are wary to have their works out there, complete and unprotected. And while I think it would encourage literacy instead of piracy, I think we're years away from seeing a lessening in DRM, and I don't know if we'll ever have a completely DRM-less society when it comes to media. Instead, I'd rather content providers got together on standards so that we didn't have so many competing formats. One answer to the problem of DRM, in terms of eBooks, would be to get rid of competing formats. If there were a universal but protected file format --- say, the digital equivalent of vinyl forty years ago --- then that would go a long way towards putting to rest a lot of these arguments.
JW: Most e-book efforts up to now have been simple ports of print books into PDF, for example. Will this model ever work or do publishers and authors need to find new ways of leveraging the technology and offering more value than what readers can get in a print-only product?
JG: You're absolutely right; what's held back eBook adoption isn't that they're not enough like regular books, but rather it's that they're TOO much like them. We need electronic books to do things that regular books can't do, and that includes thinks like search, hyperlinks and multimedia. Because the idea of reading through a PDF file "page by page" will always pale next to the real thing. eBooks (or rather, digital content) needs to come up with its own user-experience, the same way that CDs didn't try to replicate the two-sided experience of vinyl.
JW: How much of a role will price sensitivity play in the future of e-books? Is it likely that mainstream customers will pay the print book price for an e-book?
JG: This is one of the most interesting issues surrounding this entire debate, and I certainly don't have a concrete answer to the question. What I think needs to happen is across-the-board experimentation; we need to see what consumers are willing to pay, and of course with what frequency they're willing to pay that amount. And while there's a great temptation to price eBooks incredibly low right now, in order to get people to read them, this makes no sense since there aren't enough eBook readers in order to get the publishers to lower their prices. Once the "network effect" takes place, in terms of eBooks, then I could see having lower prices across the board. But until they grow in popularity, lower prices will face resistance with publishers as well as with authors and agents. (And yet, of course, this sets up a Catch-22, because perhaps lower prices would be the thing that leads to widespread adoption.)
JW: Which of the various monetization models do you feel will work best with e-content in the future (advertising, subscription, price per unit, etc.)?
JG: All of the above. I also love that you called it "electronic content," since that's what it really is. And that content will vary widely, from things that we would consider today to be either a magazine or a newspaper or a book, but in the future that will all come under the heading of "content"; it will consist of words on a screen. And some material will be better suited to advertising than others, while some material will work on a subscription basis. There won’t be just one monetary model; there will be lots of them.
JW: What should authors be doing to prepare themselves for the "Print is Dead" scenario?
JG: It's very difficult, but they need to try and break the crush they have on print. I know it's great to see your name on a dust jacket, or your book in a store window, but that has nothing to do with reaching people or exchanging ideas or information (or even telling stories). And yet the notion of what it means to be "published" is so ingrained in the minds and marrow of writers; to them it means physical things like books and bookstores, not to mention tours and book parties. All of that is going to change --- indeed, it's already changing --- and writers need to prepare themselves for the idea that much of their various relationships (not just with their readers, but also with their publisher) are going to happen electronically. More importantly, they need to realize that this is a very good thing, and not a bad thing. Simply put, the Internet is the best thing that has ever happened to the midlist author, and the Internet will save more careers than it ruins.
JW: How about publishers? What should they (we!) be doing?
JG: First and foremost, publishers need to rid themselves of the notion that they're in the "book" business. (The only ones who are in the book business are printers.) Instead, publishers need to realize that they're in the idea business. And once they start to get this reality into their heads, they'll start to see that a digital world will offer them many more opportunities than limitations, and that an electronic world isn't the end of Gutenberg's invention, but is instead its latest improvement.