[ Essay ] Books never die, publishers will

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Here is a collection of whinings from book publishers feeling threatened by Amazon. Low prices, disappearing retailers, brain-drain…in a word, they are facing death. What happened to the music industry has been occurring in the publishing industry, with an alarmingly fast rate. Just recently, Encyclopedia Britannica ceased to be that glorious brick in your living room.

I should be moaning too: I have always been an avid reader. My childhood home was filled with books—picture books, novels, comics—and during summer vacations I routinely read up an entire row of a bookshelf in the school library. Even today, I carry a book with me wherever I go, even when I am visiting a nearby 7-11.

But unlike publishers, I am having the best days of my life as a reader. And it will only get better. Instead of (paper) books, I carry Kindle with me, which contains my entire ebook library in a paperback format. I have 5 to 10 books in progress, and I change the book in an instant, as if flipping through TV channels (old habits die hard). What if I forgot to carry my Kindle? I just read on my mobile phone, using the Kindle app. It automatically syncs with my hardware Kindle, so I can pick up right where I left off. What about that “paper” feeling? My fingers tell me that pressing a button is equally satisfying as flipping a page (old habits die easy, maybe).

Buying books has become easier too. Amazon’s 1-Click buying option is the Godsend for us (though I don’t support Amazon’s patenting such a simple and useful idea). And that’s not the only shortcut:  I found that a new edition of Microsoft’s Manual of Style had come out. Amazon did not have it in their stock, but then I saw O’Reilly was selling the ebook version. I bought it, downloaded the package, which had a PDF file for my desktop and an ebook file for my Kindle. It took 30 minutes from hearing the news and start reading it. I realized my days of going to a bookstore, at least for a technical reference, was over.

In short, I don’t need a bookstore or a publisher. All I need are an author and a channel between him or her. Bookstores might survive as a hybrid model of gallery and retailer. But publishers? Maybe they are required as a group of editors. As E. B. White says, writing is rewriting, and even the best authors need someone to look over their shoulders. But an editor doesn’t need to work in a publishing house, right? I don’t see any Raison d’être for publishers. If history repeats itself, publishers will turn into a group of lawyers who will do anything to stop democratizing reading experience and keep sucking blood from both writers and readers. Let’s hope this time it will be different.