The medium isn’t always the message. In his 2000 best-seller, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, the American pop sociologist Malcolm Gladwell described a “tipping point” as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point" when change becomes unavoidable and inevitable. But Gladwell didn’t use his Tipping Point – a printed book that was mass published and sold through both traditional and online bookstores -- to either discuss or execute fundamental change within the publishing industry.
Today, almost ten years after the publication of the Tipping Point, the medium has finally caught up with the message. Till now, of course, while the Internet has savaged the newspaper and recorded industries, it has had much less impact on the book business. But in 2009, one big thing and many little things in new media have conspired to bring the traditional publishing industry to a boiling point. Writers, publishers and readers have collectively reached that moment of critical mass, at a threshold of fundamental change from which, like it or not, they can’t retreat.
That one big thing is digital book technology. Till now, the e-book has been more breathless theory than digital practice. But now with the growing popularity of the second generation Amazon Kindle (only still available in the US), the Sony Reader and persistent rumors of an imminent digital reading device from the dominant American book retailer Barnes and Noble, the idea of replacing the bulky print book with a convenient digital device is becoming increasingly attractive to more and more readers.
Digital has even begun to revolutionize the printing process itself. A couple of weeks ago, publishing industry professionals at the London Book Fair were treated to demonstration of the radical new Expresso Book Machine – a digital contraption that prints books on demand in under five minutes. This so-called “ATM for books -- the invention of ex Random House publisher Jason Epstein – changes everything about traditional retail bookstores. With the Expresso Book Machine, book retailing has suddenly gotten very flat -- the tiniest bookseller now having access to the identical inventory as the megastore.
But it’s the little changes in the publishing industry that are really making all the difference to the publishing business in 2009. Some of these changes are connected with the ecosystem of the e-book. Take Apple’s iPhone app store, for example, which is featuring more and more digital applications -- such as Scroll Motion, Short Covers and Classics -- for reading e-books on the telephone. Indeed, the Apple store has become so popular with readers that Amazon last week announced its acquisition of Lexcyle, the company behind the most popular iPhone app -- the Stanza e-reading interface.
Then there are the increasingly innovative changes to the way in which traditional publishers are packaging and selling digital books. A couple of weeks ago, for example, Random House UK launched BookAndBeyond, an enhanced ebook initiative which provides consumers of ebooks with interactive audio and video interviews and features from popular authors like James Patterson, Lee Child and Marcus Zuzak.
And so, without huge fanfare, Gladwell’s tipping point has caught up with the book business. The age-old reality of distributing centrally published print books through retail stores is being replaced by a new reality of interactive e-books and an evolving ecosystem of supply and demand. 2009 might, therefore, be remembered as one of those rare moments when the paradigm really does shift; it’s the year that the medium seems to have finally caught up with the message.