Today I had the honor today of serving as the guest speaker at the Oakland Rotary Club on the topic of ebooks and the future of publishing. I've shared some of my notes below.
When the organizers first contacted me several months ago, they asked I address the cultural importance of books, and how ebooks and self-publishing fit in that mix.
I've summarized my talk below, and added some additional points for clarification:
Books as Emissaries for Greater Cross-Cultural Understanding
I spoke about how books are critically important vessels of knowledge and culture. With our world shrinking by the day, books are more important than ever for promoting cross-cultural understanding. Our very survival as a species depends upon everyone learning to understand and respect one another.
We in the U.S. often think cross-cultural understanding involves other people better understanding us (i.e., reading our books). I imagine other countries share a similar outward-facing view of culture. Clearly, the need for greater cross-cultural understanding cuts both ways, and books can play a role.
How Paper Limits the Promise of Books
I talked about how I believe the greater mission of books is stymied by the limitations of paper. Paper books are expensive to produce and ship, and as a result they're not affordable to the vast majority of literate people around the globe. Print-on-demand self-publishing, of which I'm an enthusiastic supporter, faces the same challenge with cost.
Paper books also take a long time to publish. Via commercial publishers, most books take 12-18 months, not counting the time for agents to shop and sell the book, or the time it can take an author to find an agent.
Next, I spoke about how ebooks offer the potential to achieve the full promise of books as conveyors of cultural understanding and knowledge. Because they cost essentially nothing to print and ship, authors and publishers can price their books dramatically cheaper while still achieving greater per-unit profits. Cheaper books are more affordable to a greater number of people, thereby creating a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle for books, authors, publishers, readers and culture.
I talked about how ebooks can help unlock the wisdom and culture of the ages by breathing new life into out-of-print books.
When you add Smashwords into the mix, where any author or publisher anywhere can start publishing, promoting and distributing ebooks in seconds, things get even more interesting for books.
The audience's response was so inspiring I walked away from the presentation more excited than ever about our mission at Smashwords, and Smashwords comprised only one of ten slides.
The 120 or so Rotarians in attendance really "got" Smashwords and the potential for ebooks. I've never seen so many hands shoot up during a Q&A, and the questions were spot-on brilliant.
Maybe the topic resonated because the Rotary is a community and world service organization first and foremost, and worldwide literacy is a big cause of theirs.
I was especially touched that at least one Rotary member, a proud owner of a Kindle 2, brought his wife and two young kids to the presentation because the entire family is so excited about ebooks. Another member brought her son, an aspiring writer probably of high school age.
What do you think? Will ebooks help books achieve their full potential?