"But will e-books make out-of-print history?"
The question (on twitter) came from Katherine Roberts, author of I Am the Great Horse and the Reclusive Muse blog. She is also the founder of Kindle Authors UK.
At the moment, everyone is in a honeymoon period with the Kindle, Nook and their cohort. They can do no wrong (unless you believe they will 'kill the book'). Perhaps this is because most writers and agents (and even publishers) embraced technology very late in the day. How many of you have a manuscript on a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk, written in WordStar or View? I have. That book is out of print. And, to be honest, it would be easier to scan it in, OCR it, and lay it out again than to work from the files. I'd have to dig around in my historic computer collection for all the bits and remember how to use them, and then find a way of getting the stuff off (no USB, no internet connection - we're talking things that were operated by a keen hamster in a wheel).
What did you do with your LPs? What did you do (if you're old enough) with your 8 mm home movies? What about those cassette tapes and video tapes? [Aside: I worked as RLF fellow in a university department where scriptwriting students had to submit their final pieces as audio cassette because that was what the rules still said. There was a healthy black market in C90s but a very long queue of people wanting to borrow the only known cassette recorder. This was 2008.] That's my first computer on the right: 1977. It used cassette tapes.
Just now, the iPad and the Kindle look shiny and new. Well, the iPad does. The Kindle, being mono, looks like a Z88 but relies on most people not remembering the Z88. Fast-forward 20 years. Actually, first of all, rewind 20 years. Let's line up our dinosaurs.
1991: No worldwide web (outside CERN); no text messages; no PDFs; no InDesign (1994); no Quark 3.3 (that was when it became real). We had email, of course, and the Internet for moving stuff. The book I published in 1991 was written (I think) on an Acorn Archimedes and delivered as a plain ASCII text file on a disk, with a paper print out. The book I delivered yesterday was written in Word, sent by email as a .docx file, and if I suggested posting any physical objects the publisher would think I'd gone mad.
Now let's go forwards. 2031: The Kindle will be a museum piece. Yes, of course data can easily be converted to other formats. Just like it's easy now to convert your WordStar documents. Ahem. You have to keep converting at every point of change or it gets hard. Try using your Quark 1.0 files now. It's always possible to write a converter - but as rule, it gets harder to use old files as time passes.
We will all be twenty years older in 2031. How much time will we be spending on converting our old books to new formats? Who will bother if we don't? Certainly not publishers, unless the book is a bestseller. Who will convert when you're dead? No one, probably.
If we write only for Kindle, we should consider those books to be more like magazine articles. Ephemeral, delivered for obsolescent technologies, ghosts of books. That's not inappropriate for many books, but some writers think they are writing for eternity (or at least for future generations). And as someone who has used a lot of popular culture for research, and found the copyright libraries lacking even in printed material, it will be a significant loss to future social historians. They'll have this year's vampire novels in 2211, but will they have whatever the craze is in twenty years' time?
We like to write post-apocalyptic novels. Post-apocalypse, none of the e-books will be available. We'll be thrown back on those old books and manuscripts that can be read by candlelight, and the Kindle-generation of literature will be lost. So no, electronic publishing will not make OOP a thing of the past. It makes it a thing of the future.