Digital technologies have obviously disrupted the publishing business as they have music and film and will do higher education. The record business was first to experience the shock and in its response offered plentiful examples of what not to do. To my mind, publishing has done much better, both in terms of the incumbents safeguarding their position and in terms of innovation with new formats and new creative options.
This is not to say that everything is ideal. There are new, damaging concentrations of market power in e-book distribution. There are too many celeb biographies and cookbooks due to the winner-takes-all dynamics – dynamics that Anita Elberse’s recent book explains.
[amazon_image id=”0571309224″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Blockbusters: Why Big Hits – and Big Risks – are the Future of the Entertainment Business[/amazon_image]
Still, as I’ve said a few times, the balance is positive in terms of innovation, and also number of titles available and book sales. This weekend I read this post about the ‘book porn’ phenomenon, the growth in websites like Bookshelf Porn and Explain Yourshelf, the ‘#shelfie‘ vogue on Twitter. The author of the post explains it in terms of the physical pleasure, turning pages, feeling the heft of the book, seeing the spines on the shelf.
There’s an economic account, too, namely that reading online and reading offline are complements, not substitutes. Many people made the assumption that e-books would substitute for physical books. But the sales numbers don’t bear that out, as physical book sales have not declined much (during an economic downturn) while e-book sales have soared (from a low base).
It’s the same mistake that was made when people predicted the paperless office; in fact, access to more information led to more printing of documents, not less. Or when it was predicted that telephones, or social media, would reduce face-to-face contact, when all the evidence is that they increase it (see Ed Glaeser on this).
Generally, forms of communication and vehicles for ideas are complements, not substitutes.