What's Up?

There’s a Bob Dylan song, whose title I don’t remember, with a line that goes like this: “Something’s happening/But you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”

That’s how I felt this morning after I fed the cats and sat down to read the New York Times. There were several important articles today relating to electronic books that I found fascinating. They definitely fit together into some kind of pattern. Something’s happening. I just can’t figure out what it is. Maybe I should change my name to Jones.

First, Google is negotiating with publishers for the right to distribute ebooks on an open platform. In other words, anyone with a computer or a reading device with the proper software ought to be able access them. The implications of this are enormous. Goggle has been steadily digitizing every book it can get its hands on. It’s managed to get the Authors Guildd to come aboard. The Justice Department still has reservations about how this would affect copyright law. Assuming they can get by those hurdles, think of this: potentially every existing book ever written in any language would be accessible from your ebook reader or laptop computer at any time!

The publishers raised a legitimate question: how do we make money? Google will allow them to set their own prices for ebooks distributed on its network. That means three giants—Google, Apple, and Amazon—all competing for my ebook dollar. As an author I’m not sure how that will work out. As a reader, I love it! Competition brings prices down, not up.

The media companies discovered that in another article that I read online. Online sales of digital music are down by half! What’s happening? For one, they raised the price of best-selling songs on iTunes from .99 to $1.29. A lot of music lovers must have felt that .99 cents was their limit. More than that, and they could get it for free.

Readers think the same way. This one does. I love my Kindle and I’ll pay $9.99 for a book I really want. Most of the time I pay a lot less. There are tons of ebooks available for next to nothing, or for very good prices. If I’m buying an actual book, I’ll take my business to my favorite local bookstores. If I think the book looks interesting but I’m not sure if I’ll like it enough to want to own it, I’ll get it from the library. Publishers can charge all they want. That doesn’t mean I’m going to pay it.

Another interesting article caught my attention as well. Twilight has just come out as a graphic novel. This may point the way to a new development in publishing. Books are morphing into different forms. There’s the initial hardback; then the quality paperback; then the cheap paperback; then the ebook; now the graphic novel.

Think of this: the Kindle and other ebook readers don’t handle illustrations well. But the new Apple iPad is built for them. If the tablet idea catches on, you’ll be able to read books AND graphic novels on the device. If it can handle graphic novels, it can do an even more spectacular job with picture books.

Right now the picture book market is aimed a young children. I can’t tell you how many times editors have told me, “Keep it simple. Keep it young.” My friend Rafe Martin, an outstanding storyteller, writer, and folklorist, tells me he’s putting his energies back into the storytelling world. I know the feeling. I’ve experienced the same disappointment myself.

But the iPad may change that picture. I don’t know many people who will let a six year old play with an $800 device. If there’s an audience for graphic novels, why not for beautifully illustrated picture books telling exciting stories. Why shouldn’t picture books and graphic novels merge? After all, the main limit on the size of picture books has to do with the cost of printing. Take away paper and ink and these limits don’t exist. In the digital world, the only limit is the imagination of writer and artist.

So I’m excited. Rafe is, too, after I encouraged him to think about the iPad and its implications for the future.

Something’s happening/And you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Kimmel?

No, but I can hardly wait to find out.

(Hit this BUTTON if you’d like to share your thoughts to comments with me. I’d love to hear what you think of this post and any others.)

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