You walk up the street to your neighbourhood bookshop. It’s a modest little space with reading tables, a coffee bar, lined with bookshelves. Several of your neighbours are there, chatting over coffee and cake, waiting for their books to print. You notice that maybe only one copy of each book is displayed, cover out — a bit like your local DVD rental shop.
In one corner of this bookshop is an ATM-like gizmo with a computer display screen. You head over to it, tap the glass to wake up its online catalogue and proceed to search for a book by subject, title, author or from a list of new releases in your preferred genre and language. Titles with thumbnail displays pop onto the screen, ready for downloading and/or printing. You make your selections, charge the cost of your downloads to your account, press the button and the machine begins to burp and whirr. In perhaps 12 minutes, a newly bound, still-warm, perfect-bound paperback book slides into your hands — or the proprietor’s hands if you’d prefer to sit and finish your coffee.
You’ve specified a large-print copy, a gift for your vision-compromised mum. You’ve customized another copy for yourself (now being bound and trimmed) selecting a sans serif face in a smaller format to fit into your pocket.
You download a third copy directly into your ebook reader, to peruse on the plane to Mum next week. You can afford this. Ebooks are cheap. Or they certainly ought to be because the bricks and mortar, gasoline and consignment costs are gone. Every ebook or print-on-demand book will be a “sell-through” or firm sale. Poof! Warehousing inventory’s gone. The file sleeps in electronic limbo until called into existence by you. No expensive shipping by air, rail or truck to bookstores. No shipping, period. Publishing has joined the green scene.
Right now, unsold books are mostly pulped. That’s an earthy word for tearing their jackets off to be mailed back to the publishers as proof that the book’s guts have gone to the glue factory to be churned into newsprint soup.
A different world is dawning. Not just for publishers and readers. The exciting possibility is that this could be a writer-centric world — writers at the hub of the wheel of ebook fulfillment. From home, writers could post their work online to be downloaded by users worldwide in a format called Epub — a text file that reflows into whatever electronic catcher’s mitt is out there: computer, ipod, Sony Reader, Kindle, cellphone or quite soon, a single device combining all into one.
In the earlier world, publishing was a cluster of niches. Many independent publishers marketed small quantities of a wide range of literature in lots of specialty bookshops, lots of small book gardens. Readers had choice, briefly, and then things went pac-man. Little independent gardens were razed and a few monster greenhouses replaced them —greeenhouses growing yoga mats, scented soaps, eyeglasses, throw rugs. You couldn’t read these. You walked past them — for miles, it seems — on your way to books. Less choice, lots of copies.
In the new world, writers will share their earnings with fewer middlemen. Bookstores will be intimate again, full of niches and affordable books — New Curiosity Shops — with machines at the back spinning webs linking writers to the reading world.
— Sarah Sheard
Write Magazine (Writers’ Union of Canada) Vol. 38 No. 1 Spring/Summer 2009