THE JAZZ SINGER AND THE KINDLE

When the first feature-length “talkie,” The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, it represented a half-million-dollar investment in a movie that could only be shown in two theaters in America. Nobody was wired for sound.

But Sam Warner, the visionary who spearheaded the production despite his brothers’ objections, correctly assumed that once the public had a taste of a full-length sound movie, they’d want more and more. . .and more. Movie theaters would catch up quickly enough.

He was right, of course, even if he didn’t live to see it–tragically, he died of an infection several days before The Jazz Singer’s premiere.

Once The Jazz Singer debuted, however, it started what amounted to a nuclear reaction in the film industry, exploding away the old ways of making films, and with them, some of the people and professions associated with silent movie-making.

While this upheaval progressed, some folks remained in denial. Irving Thalberg went so far as to say, “sound won’t last,” calling it a “passing fancy.”

Even those who saw sound’s audience potential still believed that the silent picture market would continue to flourish–due to its great artistry and ability to be marketed worldwide (no dubbing necessary).

Nonetheless, within two years, talkies became the dominant movie form. In that time, directors who didn’t know how to work effectively with speaking actors lost their careers (such as Fred Niblio, who’d made the silents Ben Hur and The Mask of Zorro) while mere speaking coaches imported from the New York stage would see their directing careers begin (George Cukor among them).

Actors who couldn’t capture audiences’ imagination with their voices lost their livelihoods (John Gilbert, Mary Pickford) while new stars were born (John Wayne, for one, who was hired by Raoul Walsh for The Big Trail). Even second-string movie companies like Fox and Warner Brothers were able to speed past their “quality” company brethren (such as Paramount) by jumping on the sound bandwagon fast and furiously.

Denial wasn’t just a river in the Egypt of film actors’ and directors’ minds, though. It also flowed through film journalism. The Film Daily didn’t utter a peep about sound in their yearly editorial about the business in 1927. And the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s 1927 list of important events in cinema only included the release of The Jazz Singer at the very end, “behind DeMille’s The King of Kings and the movie industry’s contributions to flood relief,” writes Scott Eyman in his book The Speed of Sound.

Denial is a powerful thing. But we witness it today in the midst of another great technological upheaval beginning to send shock waves through. . . the book industry.

Like Thalberg, some in publishing and beyond haven’t quickly seen the potential of e-reading devices such as the Kindle. Quick, who’s the famous utterer of this bit of nonsense, spoken a mere two years ago:

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product (e-reader) is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

That would have been Apple’s Steve Jobs. Two years later, he metaphorically ate those words when his company released its own e-reader of sorts, the iPad (which in many ways is just a slimmed-down version of a Mac computer) in order to keep up with Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, who, like Fox and Warner Brothers back in the day, were speeding past Apple in this area.

What else will happen in publishing as prices of e-reading devices come down and more consumers read books in that format?

The author Joe Konrath, a pioneer in bypassing publishing houses entirely and putting his own material for sale in e-markets himself, lists his predictions at his blog here. They’re worth a look. The ones that jump out at me are these:

“Ebook readers will be available in stores for less than $99.” — Although Konrath included this in a round-up of predictions made several months ago, it’s already on the horizon. Kindle is now available in Target, and prices have been falling dramatically. Once ebook readers are widely available at reasonable prices, that part of the book market will explode, just as the market for sound pictures exploded once the technology was in place.

“A bestselling author will self-publish an original ebook novel” — I wholeheartedly agree with Konrath’s prediction here. After all, bestselling authors have a following. They don’t depend on marketing strategies to sell their books. Their name on the book is the marketing strategy! By self-publishing an ebook novel, however, they get to keep all the profits.

“Bankruptcy” — Konrath predicts that some major publisher or bookseller will go out of business. I don’t follow the financial news vigilantly enough to determine the merit of this prediction. But if publishers act like the old moviemakers of the silent era, it could happen. (UPDATE: Since I first wrote and posted this on my old blog, Dorchester Publishing has announced it will cease producing mass market paperbacks and go to digital books.)

Added to Konrath’s prediction, I have one of my own — I think hardcover books will disappear eventually, except perhaps for the library trade where durability is a concern, or for those books people will want to own as objects in their own right–art books, for example.

And, another sad prediction–just as silent film directors lost their jobs in the late 1920s, so, too, will some editors today as publishing houses move to ebook markets. If you follow the publishing world, you can see this already happening as houses try to streamline and save money.

But I think market pressure will drive personnel shifts in the future. Right now, publishing is curiously immune from some market responses. Because of the book returns policy — where bookstores can return unsold books to a publisher for a refund — publishing houses aren’t able to respond with alacrity to the reading public’s market desires. They don’t know quickly enough, in other words, what is selling (except, of course, for the megasellers). For many books on their lists, they are groping in the dark for a long time before seeing precisely how well or poorly books did.

Epublishing changes that. Sales are immediately known and can be tracked. It becomes apparent pretty quickly if an editor has chosen wisely.

Meanwhile, authors will continue to bypass editors and publishing houses completely, going to the ebook market directly, as Joe Konrath has done (and as I have done as well).

Back in the days when films moved from silent to sound, it took the movie industry two to three years, starting in 1927, to adapt and start down a stable money-making path in the new world of sound. By my reckoning, we’re probably at the 1928 mark in the parallel shift in the book industry.

____

Sloane Hall by Libby Sternberg, a story set in old Hollywood and inspired by Jane Eyre, tells the tale of troubled chauffeur John Doyle, who falls in love with his starlet employer Pauline Sloane, only to be repulsed by secrets she hides from the camera and the world. It is available in hardcover for preorder on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, among others. It will be available on Kindle within the year.

Check out other posts on my blog for more related to old Hollywood, Sloane Hall, and its inspiration, Jane Eyre.

Several of my books, including a Kindle-exclusive mystery novella, are available in ebook format. Look for books by Libby Malin and Libby Sternberg.

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