There has been a lot of discussion about the future of printed books. Since the advent of Amazon’s Kindle, the market for “e-books” has risen steadily, if not explosively. Some say that it will be the end of the printed book. I disagree.
The market for books is changing. But, the market is always changing. In today’s world, to operate your business the same as you did just six months ago may be the kiss of death for your livelihood. We booksellers today are faced with unprecedented market competition on one side and ever-rising overhead on the other side. What will happen?
I would like to offer up some of my ideas about where books and the business of selling them is headed. I have always been a great fan of Alvin Toffler and Thomas Friedman, two writers whom I would label as futurists. A futurist looks around the world as it is, then tries to predict what the world will become. Maybe I am a futurist of sorts too. So, here goes.
There will always be a demand for printed books. Especially those printed before the digital age, and especially those for whom there is a limited audience. Almost without exception, these will be scholarly works of nonfiction. Classic literature and popular works of any age will be available in a digitized format. Eventually, all books, fiction and nonfiction will be released in a digital version. However, there will still be room for the printed book. And there are still millions of printed books out there which will never be converted to a digital format.
Unless they rethink their business model. the large publishing houses will eventually wither and die for lack of demand for printed books. In order to survive, they will have to split their parent company apart into specialized houses serving a particular subject area. There will also be more companies specializing in better quality books. They will offer books with more durable bindings than is the case in today’s mass market world, where a book binding falls apart after one read. There will be more better-quality books available. The mass-market paperbacks will still be be printed by the specialty houses, but in smaller runs.
There are some people like myself, for whom the feel of holding a book is part of the reading experience. Most of the younger folks who grow up using an electronic reading device may not be able to understand this, but I bet that there will be more and more converts going to the printed book for it’s feel of permanence, if nothing else. Yes, a printed book is, for most intents and purposes, permanent. Does anyone remember seeing Thomas Jefferson’s Kindle? And thankfully, Plato or Shakespeare did not save to a hard drive or to the internet cloud.
Technology itself is the Achilles Heel of the electronic book. Today, you may have purchased several hundred books for your electronic library. However, your reading device can only hold a few at a time. The rest are kept in that electronic limbo called the cloud. If you disable your reading device by dropping it, leave it on the roof of your car as you speed off to work, drop it in the water or fill it with sand at the beach, or the battery is drained, you will have what amounts to an expensive paperweight. And you will be unable to read any of your books until your device is repaired or replaced. True, a book will not emerge unscathed from such treatment either, but it will most likely survive in a readable condition. Last, but not least, your e-book is yours and yours alone. You cannot sell it to anyone else, and you cannot take it to a bookseller to sell or get trade-in credit. You are stuck with it. You can’t even donate it to the local library for a tax deduction.
The electronic reading devices themselves are still evolving. I have looked at some of the reviews for various devices and have read about the litany of problems of the devices themselves: Battery life, battery charging problems, problems connecting to the internet and other devices, delicate screens and other hardware as well as cranky software which cannot be repaired by the user. The e-reader is just one more device needing constant maintainance in today’s electronic world.
So, I think that even though digital books are a major presence in our world, booksellers should take heart. The printed book will outlast any form of electronic media, and is in no danger of extinction.