Print books have experienced a relative revival, with sales climbing 1.8% in 2017 to 687 million units, marking the fifth consecutive year of an increase. Smashwords’ founder, Mark Coker, in his 2018 ebook predictions, stressed the generally lower prices for independently published ebooks and the growth and maturity of author tools. “Indie authors proved that it was possible to self-publish with pride, professionalism and commercial success,” Coker notes.
However, Amazon has become a major roadblock. Coker writes, “It’s a dark future where writers can still self-publish, but one marketplace holds all the readers captive, and that marketplace’s business model is entirely dependent upon commoditizing everything it sells. In this dystopian future, participants can still pat themselves on their backs and call themselves indie authors if it makes them feel good. After all, they’re still choosing to publish where they publish. But the emerging truth of the matter is that these indies have lost their independence because if they jump away from that dominant marketplace, there might be no there there to jump to.
“Then on July 14, 2014, Amazon introduced Kindle Unlimited [KU] which offered customers unlimited book reading from a catalog of titles sourced almost entirely from indie ebooks enrolled in KDP Select,” Coker continues. “ A key feature of KU is that the author’s list price is irrelevant. Authors are compensated less than one half penny per page read. Today, over one million indie ebooks are exclusive to Amazon via KDP-Select and KU. Those books act like leeches to slowly drain other booksellers of their lifeblood. Amazon aggressively promotes KU to its customers. It encourages them to read books for free with KU. Readers of indie ebooks now have over one million reasons to never purchase another single-copy ebook again.”
Audiobooks and Podcasts
Pew Research Center finds that as of March 2018, “Nearly one-in-five Americans now listen to audiobooks.” Although print still dominates, with 67% of Americans having read a print book in the last year, audiobooks are on the rise. “Some demographic groups are more likely than others to be digital-only book readers, but in general this behavior is relatively rare across a wide range of demographics. For example, 10% of 18- to 29-year-olds only read books in digital formats, compared with 5% of those ages 50-64 and 4% of those 65 and older.”
It continues, “Interestingly, there are no significant differences on this question related to educational attainment or annual household income. Some 7% of college graduates are digital-only book readers, compared with 5% among those who have not graduated from high school.”
One rising format of importance is the podcast. As Kevyn Burger of Minnesota’s Star Tribune notes, “Now podcasting has become the latest evolution in the genre for those who want to hear a gory story while they drive, fold laundry or walk their dog. … These podcasts, however, are a sharp departure from the audio storytelling of traditional radio. Over-the-air broadcasters must adhere to FCC regulations and few risk using the public airwaves for content that is unapologetically grisly, graphic and gruesome. Even radio programs considered racy seldom venture beyond PG-13 ratings. But with no oversight or uniform standards, podcasts can venture into hard R territory. And listeners seem to love it.”
Another format of interest is OERs. They have been endorsed by UNESCO, whose members coined the term in 2002. Some of them are ebooks, some are more like worksheets, and others are specific learning or teaching materials. OERs are generally posted freely on the internet. Some are reviewed and indexed, while others have to be searched. OERs have grown greatly in recent years, and UNESCO boasts major success in helping to broaden educational opportunities across the globe.
An Active Marketplace With Ongoing Innovations
We are in the midst of massive changes to expression, research, and publication. University of Puerto Rico professor Leonardo Flores asks, “What is the future of literature in a world in which every generation increasingly reads and writes on computer screens rather than on paper? How does our writing change when composed and published directly in digital spaces? How can we communicate effectively in media that are increasingly multimodal, virtual, computerized, and interconnected in global networks?”
On June 21, 2018, MIT Press announced the creation of the Knowledge Futures Group, described in Publisher’s Weekly as a “joint initiative between the press and the MIT Media Lab, … intended to spearhead collaborative technology projects that will allow for easier and more widespread publishing and dissemination of digital scholarly and academic works.” It continues, “The formation and naming of the group is a formal step for a previously loosely affiliated group of researchers, publishing professionals, and academics, many of whom have been at work on their respective projects for years. “
“‘We’ve created this space for pure experimentation,’ said MIT Press director Amy Brand, ‘and we’re able, in our core publishing, to take advantage of some of the things that are happening there.’”
Flores notes that “over the past 20 years we have seen digital media and networks transform the circulation of writing that does not rely on laying ink on paper. Digital media technologies have had a major impact on the publishing industry because they are changing the creation, publication and circulation of the written word. … We are humans and use the word to express ourselves artistically. Period. Why limit literature to the possibilities offered by only two media, voice and writing on paper? It behooves us to extend our notions of literature and the tools we use to study it to digital media in order to understand and cultivate the written word in all its manifestations. …”