More than once in reading the more-than-too-many articles about e-books that I've read, someone has brought up the music industry and its parallel slide into electronic territory. I always feel vaguely encouraged by this, as someone who has been an enthusiastic partaker of digital music and who has not shed many tears for its effect on the record industry. There are big differences, of course, between the sort of switch over that industry endured, and the one publishing is in the process of dealing with. However, because I am in a good mood, here are some positive conclusions to be drawn from comparing the two, and looking thusly into the future of publishing.
1) Probably most often mentioned is the way in which e-books, like mp3s, level the field a bit and allow indie artists to succeed where previously blocked by the bloated edifices of label stars. The change in medium alone didn't accomplish this, but the factors that contributed--the impact of internet reviewers and communities rising as the impact of store presence and traditional marketing wanes, perhaps a more indefinite culture shift--should apply to books as well. So maybe indie presses will have more time in the sun. I'm no would-be David--I read mostly big-press books, I like what they put out, and I have no Goliath-slaying wish--but I think this would be nice. And I don't see it, as it did with music, seriously diminishing big publishing's stake. It would just mean more selection, and a better chance for those scattered, overlooked geniuses.
2) Is is just me, or are there fewer carbon copy bands sprouting up? I remember a time when one successful band would immediately engender five lackluster knockoffs (Backstreet Boys-->O-Town), but now there seems to be more of a focus on finding the next totally weird, unique thing that turns into a huge hit. Even among the big labels. Maybe this is related to the changed culture of digital music, and would happen in a similar way with books. I can't say I'd miss the umpteenth celebrity bio, or the next not-so-intelligent DaVinci Code retread.
3) It seems likely that the switch from obtaining music in stores to obtaining it online encouraged the development of the online music community, and we all know how important the internet is going to be to the future of book publicity (and creation), so anything contributing to a more vibrant online presence must be good.
4) The world didn't end. Even though Napster existed, even though you can still get illegal free music all over the internet, just as I suppose you can or will be able to get pirated e-books, people continued to buy music, settling into the dollar-a-song mode. So I don't think GoogleBooks will kill publishing, and e-books don't have to mean utter destitution. I know there are massive differences--a song is nothing like a book, really. And yes, there will be contraction, painful contraction. But change rather than extinction.
Oh, how little caveats have tried to bubble up--the way one listens to a song being nothing like reading a book, and taking much more easily to the changed format; the fact that, even in the less patience-demanding arena of music, attention spans have been severely weakened and habits changed from whole-album listening to buying to obsessive leaping; the fact that musicians can rely on tour income besides album sales, which have decreased a lot, I know, even including digital sales, whereas authors don't usually have such an option, etc. But enough! Things will happen as they happen, and if there's one big thing to learn from the music industry, it's to not try to fight it and to get on board as soon as possible.
Of course digital music has had purely and partially negative effects, but I don't think we need to look to another industry to find doom and gloom with publishing's future.