Publishing and planned obsolescence

Friday, October 8th, 2010 @ 6:55 pm | Books

Personal note: So my move to a new apartment and a busier than usual summer has meant this blog has gone fallow. Apologies. Well, without further ado, we’re back.

Publishing, unlike some of its other media counterparts (music, film, TV) has a peculiar relationship with obsolescence. For the last 50 years or so technology has helped media by ensuring that every 10 or 15 years or so a technological shift means that people have to re-buy media they already owned.

Bought the Beatles on vinyl great. Wait 15 years and do the same again for 8-track, then cassette then CD… The same goes for the movie industry. Bought that copy of ET for your kids? Well, you’ll have to buy it again now that VCRs are headed to the scrap heap. In 10 years those kids that loved ET will have to buy the film on Blu-Ray or whatever format happens to be kicking around at the moment.

Books have largely been immune to this. Sure, books go out of print pretty quick. I’d say faster than records or films. But once you bought a book it’s yours. You own that book and that ownership is pretty long-lasting. You can find a 600-year-old Shakespeare quarto in readable shape, so that copy of Twilight will probably outlast you, unless you drop it in the tub, leave it on the dock or put it too close to an open flame.

Of course, e-books are going to change this. One of the fears for anyone buying an e-reader is that your books could simply disappear in a few years time when file formats become obsolete.

A few things that could happen:

1. You’ll have repeated purchases. Did you buy Stephen King on your iPad? You’ll want to read him again when that new file format kicks in in 10 or 15 years. What do you do? Buy it again.

2. People will buy physical books. Love an author or the book itself? Buying it means you could have a connection with a real object. Believe me it’ll be easier for an author to sign your real book

3. Publishers will create file formats that deprecate gracefully. If you’ve ever tried opening old computer files you’ll know that file formats go obsolete. How will this work with e-books? I’m not entirely sure. But publishers will have to make sure that their file formats last and can be read down the road. It’s not just for their consumers. It’s for their own sanity as well. Imagine having to convert your entire backlist every five years and make sure the file formats are still compatible?

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