Last week, Amazon.com announced that for the last three months, sales of books for its e-reader, the Kindle, outnumbered sales of hardcover books. In that time, Amazon noted, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition. In short, books sales are rapidly transitioning from paper to digital form. For all intents and purposes, this signals the vanishing of the traditional publishing industry.
For me, personally, this comes as no surprise. In 1982, twenty-eight years ago, I staged a media event in Toronto to demonstrate something new called ‘electronic publishing.’ At that time, I told journalists that I planned to write a novella in three days. Then, the completed manuscript would be sent electronically to a ‘databank’ in the U.S. where it would be put ‘online’, making it available to the databank’s subscribers. Today, this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But less than thirty years ago, the very idea of writing on a screen, transmitting a work electronically, and having it read on yet another screen sounded like science fiction! To put this in context, in 1982, most people had no real idea what a personal computer was, let alone e-mail. The Internet was in existence, but used mainly by the military; a small number of scientists and academics. The Net would not become popular until the early 1990s, a full decade later.
Well ahead of the curve, my little Electronic Novel Event occurred, and news of an “all-electronic novel” was reported all over the globe. Years later, in 1997, I wrote about the 1982 event in the Financial Post, speculating on the impending collapse of the traditional book industry. I thought it might be of interest to post a scan of the article here, and under it, the same text, for easier reading.
Published in The Financial Post, December 20-22, 1997 regarding the Electronic Novel Event 1982.
Long before the Net hit mainstream, a Canadian wrote the world’s first electronic novel, Burke Campbell looks back at his Blind Pharaoh, which some critics called an intriguing stunt. They were only half right, the author says. It was staged for a rising star– information technology.
by Burke Campbell
Fifteen years ago, in the fall of 1982, William French, then book critic at the Globe and Mail, surprised his readers when he grandly announced, “Whether Toronto will … become the Kitty Hawk of the post-publisher era or merely the scene of a clever stunt will be a question for future historians to decide.” The ‘stunt’ he was referring to was my self-staged event: I intended to write a novel on a computer, distributing it electronically to computer screens around the globe. My words would fly through cyberspace, by-passing the traditional middleman, the publisher.
Correctly, French noted in his column that, “Publishers and booksellers, whose services would be eliminated if computer publishing took over, don’t seem unduly worried.” Near the start of the 1980s, most publishers knew nothing about computers and networks, and did not realize their full potential. The hardware companies that sold the technology had only a limited idea of how or why their products might be used. A corporate manager told me bluntly, “So you want to send a book by e-mail? What’s interesting about that? Who cares!” Undaunted, I forged ahead, securing grants, sponsors and making my event a very public affair.
On November 14, I arrived at an art gallery on Queen Street in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Surrounded by well-wishers and after several rounds of champagne, I began writing on an Apple III computer, generously donated by Apple Canada for the occasion. I lived well and wrote steadily for three days, at which time the completed manuscript (titled Blind Pharaoh) was sent electronically via phone line to Source Telecomputing Corporation, a databank outside of Washington, D.C. There, the ‘book’ was put online and made available to Source subscribers world-wide. One of the work’s first readers was Henry Kisor, the book critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote, “Blind Pharaoh was, of course, a stunt–but a surprisingly handsome one,” and went on to speculate about the new technology and the future of print publishing. Further, the creation of the “all-electronic novel” triggered a United Press International story and nabbed coverage in major newspapers and magazines all around the world. Radio stations called from across the U.S. requesting interviews with “the electronic author.”
At the time, a few far-sighted publishers felt that computers would gradually influence their staid industry over a span of, say, 50 or 100 years. In fact, the changes came swiftly, with traditional publishers resisting them even when they were beneficial. Today, publishers often blame the rising cost of paper for higher book prices. Yet closer scrutiny suggests it is their archaic practices that are as much to blame. As Henry Kisor observed in 1982, “More and more authors are writing books on computers, using floppy disks to store their writing. But they must send printed-out manuscripts to their publishers, most of whom are either too parsimonious or too nervous to explore the new technology for producing printed volumes, let alone electronic books. The words on manuscript printouts, already ‘keyed in’ once by their authors, must be re-keyboarded for setting type and proofread again–a wasteful process.” Fifteen years later, publishers still compel writers through legal contract to provide them a double-spaced, typed manuscript even when it’s easy to send and revise manuscripts via the Net, saving postage, time, and labor–not to mention paper. Unrepentantly inefficient, publishers continue to drive book prices up.
Computer technology influenced publishing by speeding up the manufacture and distribution of information. Significantly, it also altered the worth of information being published. New technologies permitted high-speed calculation, correlation, comparisons, analysis and distribution of all types of data, increasing the role and value of information in our economy. To maintain its value, this information had to be continuously updated. This, of course, spelled trouble for publishers who racked up huge profits making and selling educational textbooks. Once the shelf-life for information decreased, the contents of these heavy tomes could be rendered obsolete much more quickly, wiping out their re-sale value. In some cases, students are turning to the Net for current information or for documents that can be printed on demand or to cull contents from a variety of sources. Again, publishers are just now awakening to this sea change in behavior.
In every form of publishing, whether electronic or paper-based, technological invention and innovations continues. Books–text and graphics–can be digitized, sent via the Internet, and printed and bound on-site, wiping out shipping costs. Further, with the spread of Net marketing and distribution, book-lovers can order and pay for titles at Web sites such as Amazon.com. Aspiring and professional writers can use Authorlink! (authorlink.com), a U.S. on-line global introduction service, not only for writers, but for agents, publishers, and producers, too. But these electronic initiatives are typically led by those outside the publishing establishment.
Looking back, my 1982 event seems oddly prescient. To me, however, the future appears more interesting. I’m confident that five years from now, in 2002, writers will still be writing and people will still be reading from both screen and page. But by then, I suspect, the traditional publishing houses will have lost significant market share to other players and other industries more competent to carry out their functions.
Words haven’t changed, but the ways and means by which they reach us are strikingly different. Today, the written word, once anchored to the page, can fly around the world in the blink of an eye. And no one knows where its wings will take us.
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I recently came across a posting by the accomplished Finnish photographer Kari Kuukka, in which he, too, speculates on the future of the publishing industry. I think you’ll find his comments interesting. If you’d like to check out his ideas and photographs, follow this link: