No, the publishers are probably not going away tomorrow

I personally adore reading on a screen—when my publisher shifted to an all electronic work flow for editorial I was delighted—and it’s certainly very likely that e-books will become a large part of books sold sooner rather than later. At the same time, I don’t think that books are going away any time soon and I’m not at all certain that the shift to CD and MP3 is a good comparison to a shift to e-readers.

For one thing, the formats killed off by digital music had much shorter histories and testing periods. The LP lasted what, a bit over 40 years as the primary delivery system for recorded music? (2014 edit: and is now undergoing a renaissance among audiophiles) Recorded music itself goes back to the 1850s and has had significant format improvements every 20-40 years. The book in codex form goes back to Republican Rome with only minor changes—that’s 2,000+ years of optimization.

For another there’s the delivery model. Publishers, in one form or another, go back further than the codex (Sosius and Co would be a Republican Roman example). Record companies? Not so much. It’s perfectly possible that digital is going to completely and utterly change all that in a year or five or ten, but everyone said the internet made recessions obsolete too, and look what happened there.

The codex (and many of the big publishers) have survived the advent of talkies, radio, television, the serious audiobook, and (so far) the e-book. The weight of history is currently on the side of publishers and physical books surviving for at least a while longer and e-books only becoming a part of the mix.

Is it possible that physical books will go away completely? Meh, we’ll see. Become boutique items only? Probably, but it may well take a lot longer than the digital visionaries expect it to.

Are publishers going away? Almost certainly not. Despite what many people have been saying lately, they serve a lot of valuable purposes in the production of books. Will the current publishers be the publishers of tomorrow? Some of them probably will, some won’t. Just as some of the publishers of yesterday are the publishers of today.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Feb 8 2010, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)