The short answer, in my opinion, is nothing, but I want explore how I may be proven wrong. Imagine you lived in 1938 and heard Orson Wells’s radio broadcast of H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds. It’s a great moment in history if you aren’t familiar with the story. A young man performs a radio broadcast, which is presented as a series of news bulletins, about aliens landing on Earth. Listeners think it is really happening. Pandemonium ensues. It must have been a horrific experience for the people who lived then, but the event elicits little more than a chuckle for later generations. However, it was a historical event. What if someone had recorded the same broadcast in his or her home? Would that recording become collectible? It’s highly doubtful unless there was additional audio from the listeners reacting to the broadcast that mirrored the hysteria later reported.
That potential recording would have little historical merit. Merit parallel to each copy of made of eBooks available today. Of course, there is a point where all old things and old technology begin to develop value, but even so, its value hinges upon its rarity and it is contained within a tangible object. No one bottled and sold Napoleon Bonaparte’s bravado.
In ninety years, we might buy broken laptops in antique shops just to feel closer to the history, which is unfolding today, but digital records lack the ability to mark a point in time or a place in history. The soonest possible scenario I can imagine a copy of an eBook creating real value is if it was placed and transported on a USB by a famous author. And even then, the USB is the object retaining the value. I do expect that the laptops and the USBs owned by the great writers of our time will be collected. While Johnny Depp might own Jack Kerouac’s typewriter, some future famous collector may boast possession of one of Stephen King’s floppy disks.
When I say that eBooks mean nothing to collectors, I meant that they mean nothing bad. If you read a
lot about the changes in the publishing industry, you may have noticed that the hysteric fear that physical books were going to disappear has stopped being a real issue. The classic stairs and elevators exist simultaneously argument seems to have won out. In the aftermath of these changes, we’re left with somber reality that there will be less physical books. That much can be said for certain. However, there will still be books and maybe if we’re lucky, the loathsome mass-market paperback will disappear. Perhaps there will be a rise in special editions or maybe paperbacks will just become fancier with more gold lettering. I’m still hoping fruit-scented books catch on during my lifetime, but I’d be satisfied with leather binding and fur trim.
Either way, less books is not bad for collectors- quite the opposite. Fewer books means the books that are printed will be more rare. I think it’s fair to say that collectors should hate digital media even if they don’t use it. Collectors should celebrate the eBook, because it might just mean that physical books are more beautiful and more popular to collect than ever before.