Sales of Amazon's new Kindle Fire are predicted to reach 5 million by the end of 2011. That's pretty remarkable, given that it was only launched six weeks ago. It's not just good news for Amazon. A whole army of independent book publishers are in line to benefit.
I'm one of them. Like so many authors I have decided to move away from print to e-books, to become an independent publisher. We're in the middle of an e-book boom but that's not the main reason I decided to make the move. I've been looking into e-books for some time now. And what I've found is so exciting that I am rapidly becoming an ambassador for them. For two reasons.
The first reason is purely selfish. It was a growing disillusionment with literary agents and book publishers that first made me think of going independent. It's not hard to become disillusioned with book publishers, most authors that I know are. It is so difficult, and so financially unrewarding, to get a book published. Unless of course you are an A-list author and there's a good chance of a screenplay coming out of the book.
I've had a couple of print books published so it's not as if I'm a no-hoper. But sending out enquiries and manuscripts, one after another, and getting nothing but standard replies back is very demotivating. Most of the time it's quite clear nobody is reading your work.
I know that the publishing industry is in crisis. We are in the middle of a massive economic downturn, which is always bad for book sales. And hard copy publishers can't compete with independents using digital media, either on cost or on the speed of getting books to market. But publishing is not the only industry to face these challenges. Every creative industry does, and others too. Why do traditional book publishers and their symbiotic agents seem to be far better than anyone else at wallowing in their inactivity to respond to the challenge from independents?
When books aren't selling what sense does it make for an agent to say "my list is full?"
Is it really? Well you must be doing pretty well out of the authors you have if you are not even prepared to look at new opportunities.
And what nonsense for publishers to refuse to accept unsolicited manuscripts. You haven't got the resources to read them all? Then you shouldn't be in business. How many successful shops refuse to look at new lines that are offered to them? How many ideas did Steve Jobs refuse to consider because he was too busy? How many insurance companies refuse to give a quote because they've got enough customers?
I've been in business all my life. I know a bit about it. Traditional publishing faces challenges but they are not insurmountable. There is only one obstacle in the way of traditional publishers, and that's indolence. How do I know this? Because the e-book business is booming and there are opportunities galore, for those willing to rise to the challenge.
The second reason is nothing to do with commerce. It is to do with society and literacy. E-books have the potential to make a huge impact on society's engagement with reading, and the evidence is they are beginning to do so. The proliferation of websites dedicated to books, particularly e-books, and the number of visitors they attract is quite phenomenal. It seems that owning an e-reader encourages us to read more, and encourages people who are not readers, to become them.
A recent survey in the UK found that one in three children do not own a book. That figure is up from one in ten, just seven years ago. But the publishing revolution has the potential to change that, for the better. E-book sales are already 20% of the market, and that's before all those Kindle Fires are unwrapped at Christmas. They don't appear to be a passing fad. Ebooks are cheap to buy and instantly available. They are small and light, you can carry an entire library in your pocket or handbag. Being a book reader suddenly got easy.
It must be good for the world, mustn't it, to have more people reading? Not to be able to complain quite so much about the dumbing down of popular culture? We're not suddenly going to see a world full of bookworms, but there is no reason why books cannot start to be as popular a medium as any other, rather than something which many people avoid because reading requires slightly more concentration than other entertainments.
Of course, the quality of what is read is important. But a boom in readers means a boom in writers - and most people who write take pride in their work and want to produce something of value. I'm not naive enough to believe that e-books have brought us to the threshold of a cultural utopia. But after a lifetime of hearing pundits complain that pop music, TV, computer games, the internet and everything else new are destroying civilisation, suddenly here's a technology with the potential to bolster our cultural values.
E-books are the latest example of how digital is changing our lives, and I think it's great!