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Have books become 'misfit toys'?

Michael Hyatt tweeted that it happened faster than he had anticipated; and that’s something, coming from the chairman of Thomas Nelson publishers. Hyatt is one of the gurus of modern publishing.

When the Association of American Publishers revealed recently that publishers now bring in more revenue from ebooks than from hardcover books … well, that is an earthquake of sorts.

Almost 1,200 publishers were queried, and overall, more than $282 million was brought in during the first quarter. That translates to a 28.4 percent increase in ebook sales. Tellingly, ebooks for young adults and children shot up 233 percent, and this shouldn’t surprise anybody (by comparison, adult hardcover book sales were up, slightly, 2.7 percent).

As Publishers Weekly reported: “What’s driving the growth? The proliferation of ereading devices, from tablets and smart phones to dedicated ereaders, has a lot to do with it. Research published by Pew in April found a strong correlation between the spike in sales of ereading-capable devices and ebook adoption over the holidays.”

Interestingly, ebook sales rocketed past paperback sales 18 months ago, so anybody who still wants to diss e-publishing and stay in the 20th (or 16th) century is welcome to do that; the trend, though, certainly lets us know that new and exciting innovations await publishers and readers.

In their brief report, PW asked readers how their own “book consumption habits” have shifted over the past few years.

For writers and readers, the possibilities are growing.

My MacBook Air’s Kindle has 27 books, and I am adding to that at an accelerated pace. As a writer – and this might seem trivial to some – this has produced a psychological shift, because before, I wrote from a fixed location and when I wanted to reference a book, I hunted for it, looked up the page, and sat back down.

Now, I make use of the Kindle, which allows me to make notes and highlight passages for easy reference. I am also, of course, typing on the keypad so that, in effect, I have a mobile office. What are the practical benefits of this for the writer?

Let’s say I want to travel to Dauphin Island, Ala., and check out ghost stories to write about (oops, gave that away). I simply put my computer in a bag – it weighs almost nothing – and I travel. Photos I take can be downloaded, notes put in my computer, etc. More than anything, it frees up my mind to know that I can travel lightly for more convenience.

I can even think about putting all my information together and produce my own ebooks, which, again, can be done via the computer.

I noted with interest this past week that TED Books (from the conferences of the same name; sort of a confab of thinkers and innovators) is now doing well with ebooks.

As they explain on the website: “Welcome to TED Books: an imprint of short nonfiction works designed for digital distribution. Shorter than traditional books, TED Books run fewer than 20,000 words each – long enough to explain a powerful idea, but short enough to be read in a single sitting.”

In this further description, the TED staff points out some important concepts, particularly one: “The mass adoption of new e-book technologies like Kindle and iPad has changed the rules of the game. We suspect the traditional length of books has been dictated as much by the constraints of the physical medium of print as by what a modern reader actually wants. (Publishing wisdom is that 20,000 words in print feel too small to sell, so authors may be encouraged to write much more expansively, even if the idea itself doesn’t require it.) But just as iTunes allowed people to build new listening habits around individual music tracks, instead of albums, so the new reading technologies allow instant distribution of books of any length – facilitating new, more focused reading habits.”

Did you pick up on that? Ebooks now make it possible to rid oneself of an old, evil publishing secret: Many books are the size they are because publishers had to justify a certain retail price, especially for hardcovers.

The result? In the past, I’m convinced that many books were never finished by readers because what began as a great idea became bogged down in … word count.

In other words (pun intended), ebooks are free from that constraint, and so the idea attempting to be communicated is now the star, not the bulky package.

I consider this, of course, to be a boon to writers and readers. I’d much rather have shorter ebooks available for people who will absorb the concepts written about than have millions of titles sitting on shelves, much like those unwanted toys on The Island of Misfit Toys in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

So, let’s continue to embrace that which is good in the publishing world. These are ideas whose time has come.

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