Photographer teaches photography, destroys profession

Wow, do I love this story about David Hobby, a photographer who was voluntarily laid off by the Baltimore Sun in 2008 started a weblog on how amateurs could use lighting to get professional results. The result is stunning.

By teaching a horde of novices the skills necessary to shoot photographs of a quality that was until very recently only within the grasp of an elite few, Hobby has played a significant role in the transformation of the profession. In the last few years, the market rate for many types of professional photographs has dropped by as much as 99 percent.

Ninety-nine percent? Crazy, you say. But here’s the proof.

To get a sense of just how bad things are for professional photographers right now, the story of Robert Lam is instructive. When Time needed a photo to illustrate its "New Frugality" cover story in late 2009, it purchased Lam’s image of a jar of change from stock-photo agency iStockphoto. The going rate for a Time cover had typically been $3,000 to $10,000. Lam was paid $31.50. Nevertheless, Lam declared, "I am happy"—the payment was more than he’d expected the photo to generate, and he was delighted to have a Time cover in his portfolio.

Lam told me by phone that he’s only a part-time photographer—he makes most of his income through a furniture store he owns. Last year, he earned $4,000 from stock photography. Since it’s his passion and hobby, not his job, that sum is fine by him. Most of what Lam has learned about lighting has come from reading online, on Strobist and similar blogs. Typical of the DIY approach of this set, Lam’s Time cover was shot using materials Lam found at a local sign store.

Shouldn’t everyone be happy about this? An unknown gets a shot at the big time, while Time magazine saves between three and ten thousand dollars. Well, not everyone was happy.

Veteran professional photographers were livid, calling Lam an "IDIOT," among other unkind words.

Why so upset?

Professionals, naturally, are upset with amateurs like Lam for diluting the market for their work. IStockphoto is littered with high-quality photographs, the kinds of shots that used to come out of studio shoots that cost four or five figures to produce. You can buy the rights to iStockphoto images for a few bucks if you want to hang them on your wall; for a few bucks more, you can run them in your widely-read publication. [Emphasis added]

The writer goes on to claim that the professionals are mistakenly placing the blame on the stupidity of amateurs and photo buyers.

But professionals who are outraged at photographers like Lam or at sites like iStockphoto miss the point. Neither Lam nor iStock would have had such an impact if their photography didn’t meet the market’s demand for quality. What’s diluting the market for elite photography is the transfer of professional skill to amateurs—the work David Hobby is doing. Though his blog is entirely about how to light photographs at a professional level, his reader surveys reveal that 86 percent of his readers are amateurs.

But I think the writer has missed the much more significant culprit, which puzzles me because it is sitting right there in his article: the direct connection of buyers and producers, in this case via iStockphoto. Just as is happening with digital music and books, those interested in purchasing a photo are now able to deal directly with photographers, no intermediary required. The gatekeepers have once again been circumvented.

I understand the outcry from professional photographers. I hear the same continual whine from professional musicians, who despise the amateurs who “steal their business” by playing local venues for much less than a professional can afford to charge. But I have no sympathy for them. They have ridden for free long enough, making money not off the value of their work but a market inefficiency that has now suddenly been kicked out from underneath them. Buyers are better off, opportunities now abound for those who want to produce, and the old guard should start their painful adjustment to the new reality, since it won’t be adjusting to them.

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Who put Rob Bell on the cover of Time Magazine?

We did.

Well, not you or me, but our champions. And not his face or name, but the cover story is about him and his new book. The story is worth reading, but not because you’ll learn much about the doctrine of hell, or what Bell thinks about it. What you’ll learn is an effective route to getting Christianity featured by a national news magazine.

What amuses the writer is not the questions Bell raises but the responses they have engendered among celebrity evangelicals:

Such a simple premise, but with Easter at hand, this slim, lively book has ignited a new holy war in Christian circles and beyond. When word of Love Wins reached the Internet, one conservative Evangelical pastor, John Piper, tweeted, "Farewell Rob Bell," unilaterally attempting to evict Bell from the Evangelical community. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says Bell’s book is "theologically disastrous. Any of us should be concerned when a matter of theological importance is played with in a subversive way." In North Carolina, a young pastor was fired by his church for endorsing the book.

And the writer is curious whether these vehement public reactions point to a deeper problem in the evangelical community:

The ferocity of the reaction suggests that [Bell] is a force to be reckoned with. Otherwise, why reckon with him at all? A similar work by a pastor from one of the declining mainline Protestant denominations might have merited a hostile blog post or two — bloggers, like preachers, always need material — but it is difficult to imagine that an Episcopal priest’s eschatological musings would have provoked the volume of criticism directed at Bell, whose reach threatens prevailing Evangelical theology. [Emphasis added]

I think the question “Why reckon with him at all?” is a valid one. We comfort ourselves with it when we see the defenders of other orthodoxies (climate change, political correctness, Darwinism) react ferociously when their thinking is challenged. And why not? Where the matter is truly settled, e.g. round vs. flat earth, the orthodox barely respond to a challenge at all, or at best draw straws with a sigh to see who will give the patient explanation this time.

Rob Bell’s question is a time-worn one, and so is the answer. Neither Bell nor his critics have anything new to say about the doctrine of hell, and I think the world understands this. So how to understand this quick, fierce response to someone who raises a supposedly settled question? A casual observer assumes that when the questioner is ostracized, the question is nowhere near as settled as the orthodox so loudly proclaim.

Being orthodox myself, I prefer to blame championism—the defenders of the faith must be seen giving a vigorous defense, in order to be worthy of their pay. We in the choir sing their praises. And the world gets another good Eastertime laugh.

Ad-supported Kindle

Amazon has just announced that they will be selling an ad-supported version of the Kindle for $114, about 20% less than the ad-free version. This sounds horrible, but given the way a Kindle is used the ads may not end up mattering as much to you as saving $25. Ads come in two forms, sponsored screensavers and a small bar at the bottom of the home screen. The screensaver is eminently ignorable, unless it might embarrass you to have other people see an ad on your idle Kindle. And the home screen is not a place you’ll spend much time, going there only to select something to read.

I’m intrigued that it is worth $25 to put this sort of unobtrusive advertising in your hands. Given how early it is in the era of e-readers, economies of scale are sure to drive prices down much further as their availability grows. Soon enough people who have little interest in them will own at least one, which they bought for $19.95 in order to have access to a few things that were otherwise inconvenient to obtain.

Taking a stand

This post is a follow-on to an email I sent to a friend last night, who was wondering if my increasing unwillingness to champion a particular approach to life (in this case, agrarianism) was a result of a change in my thinking. The answer is yes, my thinking has changed, but not in the way you might think. I still believe the things I used to champion—although I don’t think I was ever the stalwart advocate that many others are. What has changed is my thinking about championing a cause; back then I had mixed feelings about the approach, and now I am completely opposed.

I need to state clearly what I mean by championing. Wendell Berry is to my mind the most important apologist for agrarianism today. He explains the agrarian mindset thoroughly and brings out the important contrasts with modern industrial thinking. But I don’t view him as a champion of the agrarian way of life, or even a proponent; in fact, some have accused him of being an elegist for it. And this is the quality that makes him an exemplar for me. He understands the goodness of agrarianism, the joys and pleasures that were lost when life became industrial, the impossibility of restoring that way of life—and he doesn’t care. He chooses to live that way anyway, and leaves the reader to make his own choices.

A champion is different. Usually that person proclaims that if only people would adopt a certain approach to life, many perceived problems would be solved. Usually there is no evidence that this will happen, but the approach sounds good and taps into a rich vein of wishful thinking on the listener’s part. Usually there is decent money to be made in exhorting people to adopt this solution—books to sell, conferences to speak at, donations to be collected. Often the champion is not purely cynical about this, an Elmer Gantry out to fleece the rubes, but there is usually an assumption that “the laborer is worthy of his hire” as he works to get this important message out there. There are plenty of current ministries I could mention as examples of this, but to avoid offense I’ll cite the Promise Keepers, the 1990s movement which threatened to turn the world upside down by calling men back to godliness. Lots of books bought, rallies attended, weekly small group meetings held, speakers paid. But would anyone now suggest that Promise Keepers was a turning point in the godliness of American Christian men?

If I was ever a champion for agrarian life, simplicity, or any other principle I was a conflicted and tentative one. I repented of such thinking privately years ago and do so publicly now. What removed the uncertainty for me was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together; read about that experience here, and follow the links for more details. Briefly, Bonhoeffer persuaded me that it was more important to transcend differences with our brothers (and the world) than it is to dispute them; put another way, differences are not to be resolved by winning the argument but by relying more deeply on our common bond in Christ. And once I grasped this I was able to understand the mindset advocated by Jacques Ellul, which some call “faithful presence.” The introduction to Ellul’s book Presence of the Kingdom explains it thus:

What is first required of the Christian is not action  but a presence, a style of life, an attitude, a special mode of existence. Authentic Christian existence trusts in the power of the Holy Spirit to give our “presence” a revolutionary and explosive force in history.

And later in the book Ellul writes:

God may act, or He may not act, and when God wishes to act He ought to find instruments which are supple and obedient, ready for his use. God rarely acts in a transcendent manner; on the contrary, as a rule He chooses a human instrument to accomplish His work. Now in this work of God, which is actually decisive, will God find the people He needs?

Our job is to learn to live a godly life, prepared to be a witness for God in any and all circumstances He chooses to bring about. God arranges our situations, and we respond to them faithfully.

Some folks will just flat-out dispute this. Others might say, fair enough, but who is to say that God hasn’t arranged circumstances so that my faithful response is to proclaim the wickedness of abortionists, feminists, Hell-deniers, evolutionists, sodomites, racists, Wall Street bankers, Monsanto, the FDA, the medical-industrial complex, President Obama, the Federal Reserve, or praise choruses? To which I say: not me. I only suggest that you be diligent, honest, humble, and faithful as you work to reach your conclusions. And I pledge to do the same as I work toward mine.

What inspired me to write this today was a blog post with a refreshingly direct title, Can you be discerning without always being angry? In a way it shocks me that a Christian would even ask this question. Isn’t it obvious that an approach to life is biblically suspect if it keeps you in a state of perpetual indignation? But in another way it is a perfectly natural question, given the current state of the church.

A few years back I was having lunch with a friend. He mentioned that he thought if churches were a breed of dog then we would be a Pit-Bulls. As we talked more and I tried to understand I discovered that he perceived that we were the ‘shoot first ask questions later’ type of people. As a leader in this context this means that I was being perceived not only as a leader of Pit-Bulls, but one myself.

He was describing an attitude of anger that he saw in me. He acknowledged that there was a lot of biblical discernment. And this seems to be the way it goes. The Christians who seem to ‘excel’ in the area of discernment also seem to be very comfortable telling everybody else what is wrong with their theology and ministry. [Emphasis added]

Once I heard one of these “excellent discerners” explain that his listeners often told him they agreed with what he said but objected to how he said it. To which he would reply, no, you are in fact offended by the truth of what I say. I now realize that the claim was not only false but a convenient excuse. The truth has power of its own, and doesn’t need us to help out by wrapping it in confrontational and offensive garb.

I don’t recommend the conclusions of this blog post, because I think the writer is only partway along the journey to understanding that it is more important (and more effective!) to be irenic than prophetic. But he is very perceptive about the problems and temptations that arise from righteous indignation:

People become really good at going after other people. It seems like if you create a culture for this type of thinking then some folks will just blossom. They will love it. Trust me, I’ve run this blog now for 5+ years and can attest that it is the controversial posts that get people the most excited. People like to go after people. In churches as well, people can fulfill their fleshly desire to be critical of everyone that doesn’t look like them. This can also provide added security and affirmation that you are thinking right. It is very contagious. [Emphasis added]

And he does recognize the alternative of faithful presence, with one unfortunate caveat:

Around this time I can remember our Senior Pastor reminding us in a staff meeting that “as a church we want to be known by what we are for rather than just what we are against.” I thought this was brilliant. [Emphasis added]

The “just” needs to be removed. Or, even better, “we want to be known only by what we are for, not by what we are against.” This is more or less my own personal mission statement. I want people to know what I think is right and good—and I want them to know that I will carefully consider any challenges to that thinking, until seventy times seven times and beyond. To proclaim what you know to be wrong is to dismiss people who think otherwise, even before they have a chance to say, “But what about …?” To be known for what you are against is to be known as those who withhold their welcome from anyone who disagrees. Say what you want about hating the sin and loving the sinner, any reasonable person knows they will experience pressure (“loving” as it may be) before their thinking is properly aligned with that of the group, and love only afterwards.

To those who are attracted to a strong prophetic stance but uneasy about its temptation to indignation, anger, pride, self-righteousness, contempt, condescension—it doesn’t have to be that way. The thing you feel called to denounce should be matched by a godly counterpart you have embraced. Forgo the denunciation, and redouble your embrace! The good thing you exemplify will itself serve as a rebuke to the corresponding wickedness, without any additional help from you. And the fact that you have visibly managed to live out your ideal will say infinitely more to your listener more than any words you offer extolling a way of life that is merely speculative for both of you.

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching,  they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.  But godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Tim 6:3-6)

Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one. (1 Thess 4:11-12)

Current shortcomings of ebooks

I mentioned in a previous post that I am only interested in the content of a book, not the physical delivery vehicle. Elsewhere on the internet someone dismissed me as a philistine for saying so, calling my view scientific and utilitarian in contrast to her own “poetic” view! I’m tempted to defend myself like Warren Beatty did, in the famous monologue from the film McCabe and Mrs Miller:

I’ve got poetry in me. I ain’t going to put it down on paper.I ain’t no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it. I can’t never say nothing to you. If you’d just one time let me run the show, I’d….  You’re just freezing my soul, that’s what you’re doing. Freezing my soul.

Freezing my soul, I say! Well, not really, but misunderstanding my point, for which I take responsibility. Which is not to say that those who love physical books will like my true point any better, but I’d prefer to be dismissed for what I actually think, and so I will try to clarify.

Physical books have existed in many forms over the years. Scroll and codices, hand-copied and typeset, leatherbound and cardboard bound and paperbound, with pages of parchment and linen and wood pulp, meticulously produced with a hand press and spewed out of high-speed mechanical presses. I can imagine that at least some of these are craftsmanlike and can be appreciated for their physical properties. But I suspect that hardly any of us own books like that, or could afford to.

Physical books can also have certain intangible attributes whose value I won’t deny. If someone handed me a mass produced book that had been owned by Neil Postman or Wendell Berry or my grandfather, or if a friend had given me a book he wanted me to read, I would think of it differently than an identical copy I had purchased at a bookstore. Sentimental value is still value. But I own very few books like that, and I would think that for folks with extensive libraries very few of the books in them have such value.

I once was an avid reader of a particular subgenre of science fiction, the “new wave” of the 60s and early 70s. At one point I probably owned a thousand or so titles from the era. Those books meant a lot to me, and even though I wasn’t planning to read them again I had a vague notion that I would pass them on as a legacy to my kids. But about twenty years ago I changed my mind and tossed out all but a few. Why? For one thing, I no longer thought such writing was suitable for young readers. More important, though, I realized that passing along the books wasn’t an effective way of passing along what they meant to me. Better to talk with my kids about what I had learned, and then give them the opportunity to chart their own memorable path through the literary landscape, unhindered by any expectations of mine.

I noticed that my attitude towards physical had changed when one day as I was reading Harold Bloom’s The American Religion I came across a passage that led me to toss it (gently) across the room into a wastebasket. Bloom’s book was badly researched and quite misleading, so trashing my copy gave me great pleasure. I’ve told other people about that, and some have reacted with horror: throw a book in the trash? But I had only just purchased it from Half Price Books in Austin TX for $3.98, where it sat in a stack with forty other copies. Trashing my copy did not deny anyone the possibility of reading Bloom’s book. And trashing it was a recognition that what I held in my hands was not Bloom’s book at all but a physical delivery vehicle for the book. It wasn’t especially well printed, the dust jacket was minimally designed, the hardcover nondescript, the typeface unremarkable. And it was exactly like all the other physical copies, of which the publisher had printed so many that most of them were now gathering dust in used bookstores around the country, never to be opened before the booksellers finally got around to trashing them.

So I am not attached to physical books as aesthetic objects, since the ones I can afford are not aesthetically pleasing and not intended to be. But I do appreciate many of the functional qualities of a printed book. Through years of practice I have become very good at finding a passage in a codex. I’m not much for marginalia, but I do like to underline passages as I read and I find that a helpful aid to locating important things in books I’ve read. I like flipping through a book. I like reading by light reflected of a page. I like being able to lend a physical object.

These are all areas where ebooks currently fall short. But none of them are essential qualities of paper books, they are only things that paper books make convenient. As ebook readers evolve they may eventually be able to do some or all of those things, perhaps even better than a paper book. I don’t like making notes with my Kindle. But I do like highlighting passages, since the Kindle draws straighter lines than I do. And I consider it a major improvement that my Kindle can show me a list of all the highlights I’ve made in a book, and take me to a particular one when I click on it. I also consider the ability to search for text in an ebook to be an improvement over paper on a par with the improvement that codices made over scrolls when someone thought to number the pages of the codex. I expect in the near future to be able to do useful things I never before imagined.

Ebooks are young, and they are fragile in ways that would keep me from relying heavily on them for now. Lending them is not always easy. Managing a library can be difficult. Knowing that an ebook you’ve bought will always be available to you is not a certain thing yet. But I think these shortcomings are growing pains, not essential limitations of the new medium. For example, someone will eventually figure out a collection of procedures and mechanisms for building and preserving a library of ebooks that will give me the reassurance I need that my books will always be available to me. From then on I won’t worry about their sudden disappearance any more than I worry about a fire obliterating the UK library—it could happen, but the possibility is remote enough that I am happy to let UK warehouse the obscure, costly, and rare portion of my “collection.”

So, to summarize. I agree that paper books can have valuable aesthetic qualities, but I don’t think these are what print lovers refer to when they romanticize books. I also agree that the experience of reading a physical book differs in many ways from reading an ebook, but I see that as the result of specific shortcomings that those who design ebook devices will overcome as they become more widespread and heavily used. My one divisive claim is that the essence of a book is the words it contains, words that can be delivered in many different ways without diminishing its essence. And I think that my extensive library of physical books backs me up, filled as it is with cheap, badly printed, decaying, smelly, unattractive copies of the best that has ever been thought and said. I am grateful for the money-grubbing publishers who tried to make a few bucks by putting those words in print. But if an ebook reader gives me easier, cheaper, more consistently readable, more flexible, and broader access to the written word, then that’s where I’m headed.

Printed books as a niche market

For those of us who have learned to think of printed books as the default vehicle for writers of book-length works, the oncoming shift to ebooks can look puzzling and even implausible. How could the reading public possibly throw over all the qualities we’ve come to know and love about the printed page for the sake of a new format that is immature, awkward, and missing many important advantages? People have made similar claims for other technological innovations that ended up fizzling out. Isn’t this just one more fad?

In looking at ebooks I am not trying to predict, but only to identify the issues that are raised and think about how they might play out. I won’t feel stupid if ebooks never take off for some reason I haven’t thought of. But I will feel stupid if I turn out to be wrong about the relative importance of some issue I’ve identified, or how those issues interact.

I think folks who prefer their books in print can rest easy for now and for awhile to come. Printed books will not disappear anytime soon. However, this is completely consistent with the idea that ebooks will quite rapidly take over from print as the default delivery vehicle, perhaps in the next year. Here are some observations about the coming shift that should be comforting to those who like their books in print.

Ray Bradbury’s firemen will not be visiting your house. All those printed books you already own? They’ll be yours as long as you care to devote shelf space to them. Nobody wants to take them out of existence. And you’ll never need any technology to access them aside from a source of light, your eyes, and perhaps some eyeglasses.

You don’t have to give up printed books to read or own an ebook. I did not buy my Kindle to read ebooks. I didn’t expect to do that even for free, and I thought it was insane to pay $10 or more for one. I bought my Kindle to read long articles I found on the internet in a setting more comfortable than my computer. Which is what I did and continue to do. I did download some free classic literature for fun, glanced at it and found it to be fine, but haven’t read any yet (I wouldn’t have been reading a printed version either, due to lack of time).

After a few weeks I did decide to buy the ebook version of a traditionally published book, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I bought it because (a) I have wanted to read it for about a year now, (b) the UK library has continued to let me down by not acquiring a copy, and (c) no used copies were showing up at AbeBooks. Finally I decided to quit waiting and just go ahead and pay the $10. I’m glad I did; it’s a very good book. And I was glad not to pay another $7 (plus shipping) for the hardcover.

I expect that for even the most ardent print lover there will eventually come a book or some other sort of writing (in my case, long magazine articles) only available in electronic format, something they want to read badly enough they will buy a cheap, functional reader to read those things in addition to their usual menu of print.

The shift to ebooks will create a huge bounty of discarded print books. Since I had no particular love for the publishing industry, I was quite happy when the tax laws changed so many years back and publishers started remaindering books rather than keeping them in taxable inventory. I bought many of them, and even developed enough patience to wait a year or so after a title I wanted was released because I knew I could have a hardcover copy for almost nothing at that point. I am also quite happy that libraries have bought so many books that nobody but me wants to read, since they are now in the process of clearing their shelves and companies like Better World Books are putting them into my hands for $4, shipping included.

This bounty is nothing compared to the coming flood. People who love books but are not particularly attached to print will begin to clear their own shelves once they are comfortable with this new way of acquiring and reading books. Those books will become available to those who want them, for next to nothing.

You’ll always have access to print. Back when personal computers first started to make inroads into corporate America, plenty of people were predicting a shift to the “paperless office.” But one wag claimed that we were far more likely to shift to the “paperless toilet.” And he turned out to be right. Computers led to more printed paper in offices, not less.

For printed books to go away print itself will have to go away, and that isn’t likely. Even now for some things there is a strong preference for the electronic version, e.g. email. But sometimes it is convenient to print an email, and when it is no one hesitates to do it, because printing it doesn’t cost that much and the printer is already there for other reasons. As long as you have a printer, you’ll have access to any book you acquire in printed form. Just print it.

Now, printing a book on a standard computer printer is far from ideal when it comes to things like format, binding, etc. And there are other options, though less convenient and more expensive. If you are dedicated to professional print quality, you can have one printed for about 50 cents—once you have paid an initial fee of around $2000 to have the press set up. It may sound absurd, but if you can get 1999 of your friends to go in on it with you, you can each have a copy for $1.50. This is how small publishing currently works.

More realistically, you can get a Print On Demand publisher to make you a copy. Here the startup costs are lower but still there. I sell a couple of books by Jerome Lange, printed by Keystone Digital Press. They are very nice, books a print lover would have no objection to. KDP will print you as few as 50 copies of a 160 page paperback with full-color cover for $187, or $3.75 a copy. So now we’re down to needing 49 friends!

You may think this is silly. What you want is the current arrangement, a nicely printed book at a reasonable price obtained simply by handing a cashier some money. Unfortunately, that arrangement exists because enough other people think the same way that it is worth a third party’s time to cater to that thinking. Once enough people start thinking differently, those third parties will evaporate and you’ll be on your own to cobble together a solution. (I’ll be writing about this phenomenon in a later post.)

But this does not mean that a new cost-effective solution will not present itself. Just to prove a point, To make a point, back in 2002 Brewster Kahle (of Internet Archive fame) created the Internet Bookmobile, a van carrying a high-speed printer and a binder, which could create a book for you for $1. People who want books will always be able to have them pretty cheaply.

Enjoy the free ride we had, don’t begrudge the free ride that’s coming. I’ll write more about this later, but the short version is that for the past 150 years print lovers have been free riders on a remarkable confluence of technological and social trends that are now diverging. Prior to 1850 a personal library was a rare luxury, restricted to a wealthy and sophisticated upper class who liked it that way. If you read the intellectuals who wrote between 1850 and 1950 you will be struck by how contemptuous and worried they were about the fact that mass production was putting books in the hands of common people. Fifty years later it is easy to forget that it was exactly that mass consumption of books that made it possible for those of us who like obscure writings to get hold of them at a more than reasonable price. A well-stocked bookshelf is not an entitlement, and we should all be grateful for the free ride that industrial presses, national distribution, and mass consumption of books has given us.

The coming shift to ebooks poses some challenges to print lovers, but I hope what I’ve written above persuades you that print lovers can rest easy, at least this generation of them. And after breathing a sigh of relief, I hope you will open your heart to the new possibilities that ebooks create. Writers can now reach their readers directly. A writer need only collect together a few thousand fans to make it possible to write for a living. And perhaps the most heartening observation I’ve read so far about ebooks:

When the children of 2011 look back, they will not see this as the year their local libraries were taken away. This will be the year they all got libraries of their own.

How quickly will readers shift to ebooks?

It’s hard to imagine that something as ubiquitous as the printed book could disappear quickly. But part of the difficulty is that such transitions come not as sudden shifts but overlaps, and although we’ve experienced several of them in the recent past we don’t remember them as dramatic events. CDs existed alongside vinyl records for quite awhile, and suddenly they were gone—but no one perceived their disappearance as sudden because their attention had shifted to CDs long before. Same with cassettes. About eight years ago I was publishing a series of spoken conversations both on CD and cassette. For quite awhile sales were split 50/50 between the two formats, and then literally within the space of two months it shifted 90/10 in favor of CDs. (I assume that was the year when CD players in cars became standard equipment.) Believe me, we perceived that as a dramatic shift. But it wasn’t, really. Cassettes had long before become a legacy format, useful only to people who had players in their car.

An important thing to keep in mind: when ebooks take over, paper books will not disappear. But at some critical point ebooks will become the default format, and from that point print books will be a niche market, although a fairly large one as people adjust to the new reality. Konrath and Eisler put it well:

Joe: In the history of technology, when people begin to embrace the new media tech, it winds up dominating the marketplace. CDs over vinyl and tapes, DVD over VHS. The Internet over newspapers. Even Priceline over travel agents–

Barry: Yes! Sorry to interrupt, but this is something that interests me so much. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “But paper isn’t going to disappear.” That isn’t the point! If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you. So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that paper is being marginalized. Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.

Now, some new technologies really have completely displaced their forebears. For example, there’s no such thing as eight-track tape anymore. And yet some people still do listen to their music on vinyl, despite the advent of mp3 technology. The question, then, is what advantages does the previous technology retain over the new technology? If the answer is “none,” then the previous technology will become extinct, like eight-track. If the answer is “some,” then the question is, how big a market will the old technology continue to command based on those advantages?

Joe: You’re talking about niche markets.

Barry: Exactly.

Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.

Barry: Agreed. Lots of people, and I’m one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc… those are real advantages, but they’re only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight–but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

So how quickly could the landscape change, whether or not we notice it? Consider the example of video and record stores:

Dean, in particular, seems to think bookstores will remain valid for the next decade or two, whereas I foresee a collapse on the order of what happened to video and record stores.

In our little college town of 15,000 students and about 10,000 full-time residents, we had seven video stores and four record stores five years ago. Today, all we have is Blockbuster, which is a chain on the ropes, and one niche store that combines videos, books, albums, and CD’s, eclectic art for the discerning college hippie. Ironically, we have one other “record” store—and all it sells is classic vinyl albums, mostly on eBay. I think that’s the Bookstore Future—towns might have one weird shop that thrives on nostalgia and the personal touch. We do have a neat indie bookstore owned by former M*A*S*H writer Karen Hall, but it recently cleared away a section to put in a yarn store, not a good sign of the health of paper sales in spite of our recent Waldenbooks closing.

I certainly noticed that the advent of Netflix killed the video store. Quickly, but not instantly; Blockbuster still seems to have delusions that their stores will become relevant again. Meanwhile, Netflix prepares for its own imminent demise at the hands of streaming video—by creating the first and best streaming video service. Record stores I’m less familiar with in everyday life, but I do remember noting with interest as companies like Tower Records suddenly closed all their physical outlets.

And books? Perhaps its telling that there is so much talk these days about how the e-reader experience could never compete with the look, smell, and touch of a real book. Not interested myself in anything but the content of a book, such talk always struck me as insane. Nearly every book I’ve owned has been a shoddy physical product, printed on cheap wood pulp, badly bound, misaligned, smelly—none of which bothered me, since I wasn’t interested in paying more money for a higher quality delivery vehicle. Books were to be read, marked up, and shelved. But the defenders of print are now starting to sound like foodies in their rhapsodic appreciation of books and (independent, always independent!) bookstores. When snob appeal is your main line of defense, you have become a niche market.

For those who move on, it will be a vague process, as it was when the world moved from thinking of cell phones as an extravagance to thinking of them as, well, phones. For staunch defenders of the niche, there will come an afternoon when they look around and wonder: Hey, where did everybody go?