Of Inflection Points and eBooks

“Inflection point” is an interesting concept.  Originally a term from calculus, it signifies the mathematical point where a curve changes from convex to concave or vice-versa.

When I was at Intel, Andy Grove, the CEO, spoke of inflection points as key moments of transition in the life of a business or industry.  Here is a good definition of that usage from Investopedia:

“An event that results in a significant change in the progress of a company, industry, sector, economy or geopolitical situation. An inflection point can be considered a turning point after which a dramatic change, with either positive or negative results, is expected to result.”   http://www.investopedia.com/terms/i/inflectionpoint.asp#ixzz1kdT0EAcg

I don’t think we can clearly see inflection points until after the fact.  We can sense the importance of an event, but not be sure until we see the results.  Apple’s introduction of the iPod was such an inflection point, but even if Steve Jobs sensed it, the rest of us didn’t how thoroughly the way we listen to music would change.

A sadder inflection point became clear last week when Kodak filed for bankruptcy.  That was the moment, in 1975, when Kodak invented digital photography, but then chose not to purse it.

I spotted something last night that made me even more certain that Amazon’s introduction of the kindle will be seen as such an inflection point.

Last week I wrote about hearing a talk by Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords.  http://wp.me/pYql4-1DD.  Last night I saw that Coker is one of two keynote speakers, and is presenting three workshops, at one of the better writing conferences, the 28th annual San Diego State conference, taking place this weekend.

I attended the SDSU conference in 2007 because I’d met someone who sold her book there.  In 2007, one speaker talked about Print on Demand.  Ebooks were not even mentioned.  This year there are the same number of seminars on traditional publishing as there are on ebook publishing, and this in a conference that draws a lot of agents and editors. http://writersconferences.com/index.htm

I did a rough count of seminar topics, judging their their emphasis as well as I could by the titles:

39 seminars on craft of writing
8 seminars on how become traditionally published
8 seminars on how to e-publish
8 seminars on marketing or other topics
1 seminar on social media

To me, these numbers do not signify an inflection point; they signify an inflection point that has already passed.  Last week I heard an established writer say “the jury on ebooks is still out.”  I don’t think so.  I think the battle is already over.  When new technologies affect traditional media, be it music, photography, or writing, they always carry it toward greater democracy, toward putting ever more powerful tools in everyone’s hands.  This does not appear to be a reversible trend.

We all miss certain artifacts after they’re gone.  Some music lovers swear by the sound of vinyl, and while I don’t miss the darkroom, silver prints could be beautiful, and I love old kodachromes.

I hope we don’t see a day when paper books become collectors items, but nostalgia will not hold back the tide, especially when it’s grounded in both a sense of personal freedom and economic reality.  To paraphrase what a Zen teacher said about change:  we can be okay with it.  Or not be okay with it.  The one thing we cannot do is stop it.

Yep, thats me. How many artifacts of the past can you count?

10 thoughts on “Of Inflection Points and eBooks

  1. I live in NYC and I measure the change by hardcover vs. Nook, Ipad etc. I still sticking with hardcover because looking at computer screens is ruining my eyes. I also love books. I know it will change however, because you are correct. I live near the Brooklyn Public Library, which is a great library. What will become of it. Too much space for ebooks. I once heard art changed with the invention of photography. The latter did realism, so art moved on. Kodak going is a generational memory, missed by those who are younger and never knew. Where will art and literature go now that we are passed the inflection point?


    • I tend to go with ebooks for things I am not likely to read twice. Most mysteries for example, though not Sherlock Holmes. The Complete Sherlock Holmes (with facsimile illustrations) is an old friend I like to hold in my hands.

      You’re right about the way photography moved painting away from realism. What can paper books do that ebooks cannot? I’m afraid any predictions right now will soon seem as silly as those old movie futuristic movie fillers that showed traffic zipping along, accident free, in air cars…


  2. I would agree that the inflection point has passed, and you could make the argument that the exact inflection point was the mass closing of Borders over the past several years.

    I did a post a while ago debating the merits of Hardcover, Paperback, and Audio books. I’ll have to go back in a couple of months and do another post adding eBooks to that discussion. Perhaps I’ll look into examining it from both the reader’s perspective as well as the writer’s and publisher’s perspective.


  3. (Sorry about double posting, but as I reread your post something else crossed my mind.)

    The introduction of the iPod wasn’t as big of an inflection point for the consumer as it was for the producers of music. One big reason that the iPod caught on so quickly is because it didn’t change the way that we experienced music, it just made it easier for us to have more music available in a smaller device than a cd player. Once the iPod came out, portable cd players were immediately made obsolete.

    The difference as this relates to books is that eReaders are a different way of experiencing the product in comparison to traditional books. This is largely why eReaders haven’t overwhelmed the market in the way that the iPod and other mp3 players did.


    • These are very good points Adam. I don’t claim precision in these points. A while ago there was a fun series on PBS called, “Connections,” with James Burke. He would look back and say because X happened in 1450 on one side of the world, Columbus’ ships were able to sail the Atlantic – that kind of thing. But he had the advantage of several hundred years of hindsight.

      I don’t think we can be precise about shifts like this because they are still going on. It will be for historians in 50 or 100 years when things are sorted out enough – or enough details forgotten – that coherent stories emerge.

      Another reason I think the growth of ebooks has not been explosive is price. Once it’s formatted an ebook costs nothing, but publishers keep prices high so they won’t undercut their hardcopy business. The other day I saw an ebook priced fifty cents higher than the hardcover (the paperback had not yet come out). Now I buy ebooks for instant gratification, but I was so outraged, I said “No way!” Realistically, $0.50 buys about a quarter of a cup of coffee, but I was not about to be “gyped.” Intuitively, we feel an ebook is not as valuable as a hardcover. At a certain price point however – say $2 or $3 off the hardcover price, the ebooks would leave the hardcover in the dust.


  4. Love the photo. I never thought of you as a suspenders kind of guy. I’m a little surprised you didn’t bring writing into your discussion of inflection point. I think it could well be used to describe a certain point in story structure.


    • I never thought of myself as a suspenders kind of guy either. I probably repressed the memory.

      As far as story structure goes, I’m kind of reorganizing my thoughts and terminology in the wake of “Save the Cat,” so that’s in flux. Besides, the usage in this post implies a certain kind of inevitable trajectory – maybe fitting for Thomas Hardy, but certainly people, and some corporations (Apple, Ford, GM) can reinvent themselves. Of course then I started thinking about nations, and inevitable trajectories after inflection points, and that line of thought is rather depressing.


  5. Pingback: The Wheel of Time « Reviews and Ramblings

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