Deep Thoughts #2: Farewell to Books

I should clarify that I mean non-electronic books.  You may argue if you must. But, just like what happened in the music industry, denial will only make the transition more painful.

Of course, this will mean a fundamental change in the business itself. Currently, the author is at the mercy of the publisher: they fund the printing, distribution and marketing.  It's not a viable option for any author to put up that kind of money (and obtain the various retail connections, etc.) on his or her own.  However, the advent of the Nook, Kindle, iPad, and other book platforms has rendered the "printing" aspect of the publisher's role obsolete.

The distribution and marketing can also be accomplished without help of those big time publishers.  For instance, I could start a promotion for a Retrospace coffee table book and have tens of thousands of readers aware of the product within a couple days.  And if the book is worth a damn, people will pay money for it and a fan base of ten thousand can turn into hundreds of thousands in a very short time.

Of course, there's going to be those that just prefer the mental and physical gratification of a real live book.  Much like lovers of vinyl (myself included), there will always be a marginal market, but the vast majority of profits will be pouring in via Amazon, B&N and thousands of other sources of online reads.

You may recall when publishers all jumped on the CD-ROM bandwagon a while back to "keep up with the times".  It nearly bankrupted several big publishing houses.  The lessons learned there are (1) don't spend millions of dollars to make a book and (2) whistles and bells are not the answer.

I have always been a bit of a bibliophile.  I own thousands of books, and my entire family enjoys trips to the library and bookstore literally every week.  So, I am by no means in favor of this whole trend, but I also can read the writing on the wall, and it's very clear: the days of paper are soon over.

And I must admit to you, I do have a Nook, and I have found myself reading an awful lot on my phone.  Waiting in line at checkout or a long layover isn't so bad when you've got access to a good read in the palm of your hand.  And I don't read bestsellers - I'm reading old trashy paperbacks and magazines.  You'd be surprised at what's already available!

So, I say farewell dear dog-eared paperback, you've been an integral part of my life.  But I fear my grandchildren will look at my books the same way kids today look at my records.  They'll scratch their heads, and wonder what is that?



  1. Sad, indeed, but I grudgingly admit you are correct. Paper books will become a novelty. Maybe I should start stocking up! :)

  2. I own several hundred books myself--but I have to admit that the last few years my bookreading slowed to a crawl until this past January. I own both a 'Nook Classic' & 'Nook Color', and while I wrestled with some initial guilt (why??) my reading has increased tenfold. There's a slew of discounted books and freebies out there, and both the e-ink & lit backscreen tablets have made it a real pleasure to read again (I don't need my reading glasses & don't have to be crouched by a good light source!) However, I still have issues with ebooks (the rules about lending, no 'real' ownership, the price of a non-physical product). So for my favorite authors (like Stephen King) and that big glossy Retrospace coffeetable tome, I'll buy the paper. :)

  3. You probably saw that I wrote about eReaders a couple of weeks ago. They may be convenient but they won't be able to replace a big, colorful coffee table full of photos.

  4. Sadly, we are gravitating to a paperless society. Even my office is looking into going paperless, by scanning everything rather than archiving or filing the papers. Magazines can now be found and read online instead of having to go to the newsstand. The Borders bookstore near my work is going out of business and this morning I sat next to a woman who was reading on her Kindle, while I pulled out a ratty looking paperback book out of my handbag to read.

  5. Paperless society? They've been saying that for a good 20 years. As for e-reading, devices like the Kindle and Nook are making people read more, not less. Yes, this means the demise of paper books, but I'd like to think that sometime not too far in the future we will be able to easily print our own high quality books from an electronic file in much the same way we can burn our own CD from MP3 files.

  6. I don't buy it. I just read a survey that the majority of current college kids still prefer real books (though they prefer journal articles online).

    When's your (e)book come out?

  7. I think book fetishists like you and me, Gilligan, will always provide that niche market you're talking about. But I actually also think advances in printing itself, especially print-on-demand, will adjunct itself to the ebook future rather nicely. It's getting cheaper, and the devices both better and smaller, to print small, or even one-off, print runs.

    There are also archival issues to contemplate, since electronic media aren't as inherently stable and long-lasting (under the right conditions) as physical books. In ten, twenty years, will we even be able to READ Kindle file formats? Everyone put everything on floppies twenty years ago, but how the hell can anyone read them today? Will a new Adobe necessarily be able to read an old PDF? And what about ownership, not just of works like the rights issues with Google Books, but about ereader files themselves? You know, technically, Amazon owns everything you buy from them on your Kindle, and can delete, or even change them, when it wants. There are some chilling implications right there. Some hypothetical evil future government wouldn't even need to build a fire of 451 degrees Fahrenheit, they'd just press a button to get rid of books they didn't like. These are big issues that I know a lot of people in the library and archiving business are giving a lot of thought to.

  8. sure, like everyone thought vinyl would stop being pressed. There will be those who won't support print- mainly due to the lack of appreciating print or the lack of space. But, there will always be print. I am of support of digital- don't get me wrong. However, not one nor thee other is going to replace each other. It is just another form of media. Check-out the spring11 issue of Eye mag-in print, you'll know what I mean. Then again maybe only novel type books will become extinct- They usually don't have pictures, can be rather boring. Cheers!

  9. Interesting post. One observation: publishers don't just tend to the production of books; they also commission and edit the texts, provide legal assistance to authors, marketing, etc. While e-publishing does have advantages, the aforementioned publisher activities should be considered. (I've read some self-published books, and frankly a good copy editor/proofreader would have improved them no end).

  10. For the artist, I agree that e-books, much like digital music for musicians, will be a benefit. Production and distribution is much easier. For the consumer, I think, the translation to digital will be harder for readers than for music listeners. I mainly "consume" music as a background activity. If I'm not watching TV (which I don't watch much of) I'm listening to music. But I'm not curled up by the stereo reading the liner notes on an album cover. I'm usually doing something else either working around the house or doing something on the computer. But you can't really consume a book that way. I often listen to book CDs when I driving but not in the background, you have to pay attention. In bad weather or bad traffic the book CD is turned off. Is there a fundamental difference between curling up with a good hardcover book or curling up with a good e-book on a Kindle. I don't know since I've not tried a Kindle or any of the readers out there. There is, for me, some satisfaction of having a bookshelf full of books I've read but I rarely buy books these days, I mostly get them from the library. I suspect that if the library can figure out how to lend e-books easily, I get me a reader and plunge right in. I guess my ideal would be to be able to download a book from the library directly from the Internet and when it was due, it just erases itself from the reader.

  11. If enough people still want physical books, there will still be physical books. That's all there is to it. Even if they have to be printed by the end user (as other commenters have suggested), they will still endure.

    Think of people who write online comics. Many of them offer print compilations and sell enough to make them a viable sideline of business. But it's all free online, right? Yes - but, even in these days it's not easy to lug around a touchpad everywhere to read whatever you like, or to keep it fully charged all the time. Sometimes it's just easier to have the hard copy, which needs no batteries, doesn't go obsolete in three years, and can't suffer a crash or virus. So long as nobody does physical harm to the hard copy, it will endure for centuries.

    It's also easier to leave notes in the margins of a book, or on slips of paper inside its pages.

  12. I would love to totally disagree with your post, call you "out-of-sync" with the reality of the world, and dismiss you as another doom sayer in a world of spoiled baby boomers.

    Unfortunately, I can't.

    While I believe that there are 100 things wrong with electronic books (No covers for example) I am afraid that you are correct and that this is the way it will have to go.

    What I am curious about though, is wondering if this was an argument make in the 16th century when the printing press became practical and books could first be mass produced.
    Was there this hue & cry over the loss of crafted, hand written, volumes? Did the readers of that era lament the change and how it meant the loss of real literature?

    Your comments on "publishers" was also correct if not more scary.

    As I get older and as I see the Internet "Democratizing" literature, I find myself fearing no guards at the gates. Someone needs to say, "trash" and "good" becasue not everyone who can write should be a writer.

  13. AnonymousMay 20, 2011

    For me, it's stone tablets or nothing. Forever.

  14. AnonymousMay 24, 2011

    Libraries can already lend e-books and e-audio, but it's not very user friendly and it's pretty expensive (3K plus/year for classics only, last we looked at it.) But Amazon is supposed to be moving towards partnering with Overdrive and allowing Kindle books to be accessible through libraries, who knows what the future may bring.