Ebooks are outselling print and garnering praise, while iTunes is the number one seller of music. It’s only a matter of time before movies and television become the next commodity: media out of thin air.
by John Bell

YOU KNOW THE FEEL OF it in your hands, the texture of the pages as you flip them, the smell of the new paperback thriller you got, or the heft of the hardback book you’ve been waiting years for? That romantic attachment to the printed page you have that makes you swoon at the collection you’ve amassed on your shelves… yeah, you know that sensation I’m talking about.

Well, guess what, buttercup; physical books are so two years ago, and you better get used to those old tomes seeming old and antique-like, because that’s what they’re becoming, along with your emo CD collection and mint-condition Twilight DVD set. To put it more succinctly: physical media is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.

Let’s look at some cold, emotionless facts. In 2008, iTunes became the number one music retailer in the world, outselling Wal-Mart, Target, and Amazon for total music sold. Movie sales through physical media have fallen a third over the past seven years. And Amazon – the largest bookseller in the world – announced last year that they are selling more Kindle than print editions of books.

Now, I can hear you saying to yourself, “…from my cold, dead hands,” but it won’t come to that; you’ll far outlive those dead tree packages. I’m here to tell you that this is a good thing. That’s right: learn to love your enemy, which is media made of thin air, cloud content, ethereal ephemera, whatever you want to call it. There’s a lot of reasons why this is a good thing.


Courtesy of Kevin Ouellette

  • Ethereal media’s better for the environment. It’s hard to argue against this one. That book (or Blu-ray disc) produces thirty times its own volume in waste. That means that the trade paperback you’re reading left thirty more copies of itself in the trash and in the air; much of the waste produced is in transportation, leaving more fossil fuel emissions in the atmosphere. While small amounts of electricty are needed for the delivery of Internet media, the environmental cost is a small fraction of that same delivery of a physical product to you.
  • The cost of non-physical media is lower. Talk about your direct benefit. The hardcover copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs was $35 at its debut in print; the same book on the iBookstore was $16. That’s less than half the cost of the physical version. Many New York Times bestsellers are only $9.99 on the major digital ebookstores, far underselling their physical counterparts. Movies are also generally cheaper on the iTunes Store than what you’ll find on sale at Newbury Comics.
  • It’s more convenient to shop for digital content. I love being in a bookstore as much as the next person, but sometimes you want to see what’s new out there without having to trek to the mall. You can shop and browse digital media whenever – and wherever – you want, even in your underwear on the couch (hey, dude, put on some pants already, will ya?). It also has the added benefit of being able to see what other people think of that thing you want to buy.
  • You won’t lose that special edition of Titanic you bought. I’ve lost countless books and movies over the years, between moving a dozen times and living with girlfriends who loan my things out without my permission. Not anymore. No matter what happens, I can get my stuff back with the click of a button. And sure, I can’t loan out my digital movies to friends, but that also means that the (inevitable) next time I move somewhere, I don’t have to drag heavy boxes of books with me. Besides, you can always come over and watch the movie with me. Social much?
  • Digital media means never having to say “I miss you”. Going to be away for a few days? You don’t have to decide what books – or magazine, TV shows, music, etc. – you want to bring with you. Having your stuff in the cloud means you don’t have to obssess over what you’re going to bring with you for the day, or month, or ever. This is true for most modern devices like Kindles, iPads, and even iPhones. If you can connect to the Internet, you can get to your stuff.

Now, those are just the best five reasons, but they’re not the only ones. Digital distribution also makes it easier for independents to get their work out there, and that goes for musicians, directors, and writers. While you might argue that this brings an amateur element to the professional humanities, remember that these fields as industries are a relatively new invention, and that the best of the oldest of each of them also started out as amateurs. Just because a big publishing house decides for you what books will become popular doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of other worthwhile voices to hear.

Listen, sweetheart, it’s only natural to be frightened. Change is hard. Just ask the publishers of all this physical content–they’re terrified. They would rather you keep buying your books and your DVDs and your CDs, because even though the digital versions are more profitable, they know–deep down in their green-lined hearts–that once digital distribution gets a major foothold, as it’s getting now, some of the control they’ve enjoyed slips away, and the door will inch open ever more so that they won’t be needed.

All you need for proof of this is the indie music scene. Gone are the producers, the expensive studios, and the cross-platform marketing plans. Instead, bands use their personal computers to record, mix and produce their own albums, and they can directly broker their own deals with iTunes, eMusic, and many of the other online distributors out there. Bands: 1, RIAA: 0. Indie writers have their own big breaks, as they’re able to write, edit and produce their own books, distributing them through the big online stores themselves. No agent fees, no publisher fees, and the author pockets most of the money from sales. Sure, a large portion of those folks will never make it big, but if it were up to Big Content, they wouldn’t even have the chance.

That – the chance for a shot – is the biggest and best thing to come out of the death of print (and physical) media. Embrace it, honeycakes. You can’t beat ‘em, so you might as well join ‘em.