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There is an interesting conversation about ebooks going on CNN’s SciTech blog, spurred by the announcement that Amazon will be charging as much as 50% more for titles published by Macmillan. Obviously other publishers will want to do likewise. So look for new releases on the Kindle to cost $15.00 in the near future.

Also expect sales numbers to drop. And piracy to increase. And then expect to hear more whining from the publishing industry as it shrinks into obsolescence.

They are reacting to electronic distribution in exactly the same way the music industry did, trying to protect their market in an ignorant panic. And I guess they should panic, because their days are numbered. Unlike music, a good ebook can be created with a single laptop computer. No expensive recording equipment, no expensive instruments, nothing. Once digital formats shake-out there will be some simple process for posting your story on the Internet for browsing and sale, probably with a percentage going to a Web host like Amazon (although the ability to completely self-publish will be there – but a large service will deliver more traffic).

Review blogs will do the rest – or, if you want you can publicize your story via Web advertising. The point is, from creation to distribution to marketing to consumption it will be a 100% electronic process. The only missing elements are editorial and research tasks. The production work a good editor and research staff do is critical to the quality of fiction and especially non-fiction “products”. There are Web-based services available now, and those with the means will take advantage of them. For a fee – or perhaps a cut of the profits if they really think you have something.

If the stodgy, tradition-bound publishing industry doesn’t adapt to this new model it will become extinct. It’s survival prospects are grim – much worse than for the music industry. This is a completely Darwinian scenario: if publishing doesn’t alter its modus operandi it will die. Well, mostly.

There are segments of the industry that are tough to fit to the new way of doing things. In particular text books and technical publications will not benefit from the e-publishing boom (watch that hyphen, because when it disappears that means the e-something is up and running, like ebooks). But they will definitely benefit from electronic distribution, and very soon you can expect to see the ubiquitous student backpack go the way of the slide rule.

As for prices, don’t worry about that. While ebooks will probably not be sold like music at a buck a track (the market is smaller), prices and features will have to reach the point where piracy is no longer attractive. And since many fewer people will have their hand out for a percentage, this will be no problem. For the first time in the history of the “printed” word, the author may actually get the lion’s share of the profits. As with music, ebooks are not in the same class as movies and games, where the industry can simply keep prices high to offset losses to pirates.

Consumers are going to have to adapt to the new reality, as well. The days of owning a physical product are coming to an end. We will be purchasing the rights to use a digital product. There will of course be no “used ebook” market. Lending or giving books to friends will be limited to sampling – a good marketing tool for the author/distributor. But if we can get lower cost and the convenience that ebooks will provide, we’ll adapt. That’s our Darwinian destiny.

An interesting question is: what will happen to libraries and book stores? The ebook revolution could revive the sagging library community. There will be no shelves full of physical books to manage anymore. Libraries can offer limited licenses whereby a reader can download an ebook, keep it for the regulation two weeks, then either electronically renew the temporary license or release it – and the ebook disappears from their device. But this will probably lead to centralization of library services into regional or even national entities. And there will be some kind of nominal fee for the service.

Bookstores have a grim future. Barnes and Noble is on to this, and the Nook system is their first step toward adapting to the new reality. Someday the whole book-part of the B&N store will go away, and there will just be a little café where people sip lattes as they browse the ebook selections via wi-fi. The Nook is specifically designed for this scenario. But there will still be a market for old books – those titles that just can’t sell enough to be converted to electronic format (no matter what Google thinks), but there won’t be a physical store – they’ll be online, and if we’re lucky eBay won’t own that market.

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