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The printed book’s path to oblivion

Posted by Editor on August 17, 2010

Posted by Mike Shatzkin on August 15, 2010 at 11:47 am on

The “death” of the printed book has been under discussion for a long time. (I gave a speech with that subject as the title to publishers in Spain in 1997 — with a question mark after it and predicting correctly that the most immediate impact of digital change would be that we’d sell more printed books online and that the then-current interest in expensive-to-produce CD-Roms was a distraction.)

Nicholas Negroponte made headlines last week when he was quoted as saying that the printed book would be “dead” within five years. A deeper dive into what Negroponte actually said clarifies that he doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be any paper books anymore after 2015, but that the ebook would become the “dominant” form by then. I think even that might be going too far.

It seems reasonable to me (although not to every forward-thinking observer of the march of digital events) that by five years from now half of immersive reading — straight text novels and non-fiction — could have moved from paper to devices.

But for those who question the idea that the switch from paper to screens will ultimately be just about total, let me offer a way to think about it.

The critical thing to remember is that, indeed, the book was more-or-less perfected hundreds of years ago. There have been improvements in printing, binding, typography, and paper quality that are not trivial, but that also represent no quantum leap in user benefit. Indeed, defenders of the paper book and advocates suggesting it has a permanent role, point to that fact as support for their belief.

I think it argues the opposite.

The ebook, unlike the paper book, advances every month, if not every day. Screens and the reading platforms they run just keep improving: they get cheaper, lighter, more flexible, more capabilities-rich and there are ever more choices of them. Battery life gets longer. They develop the ability to take your notes, keyed in or handwritten. They develop the ability to share your notes or organize your notes automatically. They’ve had built-in dictionaries for a long time (a feature of the very first Kindle nearly three years ago) and now they often offer the ability to get to Wikipedia or a Google search in a click as well.

If facing pages or pages that are flexible and “turn” are your requirement, the beginnings of that have already appeared. Facing pages is a feature of the iPad’s iBooks app and just about every reader now offers a choice of “effects” for page turns. The challenge of delivering highly designed pages with pictures and captions and call-outs and on-page footnotes is being tackled, notably by Blio but they’re not alone. One of the reasons I restrict my predictions about ebook penetration in 2015 to narrative books is that it is harder to see yet how fast the development of that presentation capability and the corollary ability to make and reflow those pages for different screen sizes will be. But it will come.

Indeed, the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are.

The biggest tipping point mechanisms for ebooks so far have been the advocacy by the three most important retailers of books (Amazon, B&N, and, less significantly so far but still important, Borders) for dedicated ereading devices; the ability of consumers to download books just about anytime directly into those devices; and, to my mind most important of all, the availability of just about all the most popular straight text books as ebooks at about the same time the content is available in print.

I started reading on a Palm Pilot in 1999 or so. Until 2008, when the Kindle’s launch began to have a real impact on publishers’ digitization practices, I was compelled to read some print books because much of what I wanted to read just wasn’t available as an ebook. When Kindle took hold, that problem went away. I can’t remember the last time I looked for an ebook I wanted and didn’t find it available. That’s why I haven’t read a print book since late 2007; if publishers had moved faster, that date could have been as early as 2000 or 2001 for me.

Now, of course, we have the news (long expected in these quarters) that the availability question is being turned on its head. The announcement last week by Hachette that their Little Brown imprint will be publishing a short non-fiction title by Pete Hamill about immigration only as an ebook now means the print reader is denied. (It will be interesting to see what, if any, print-on-demand option evolves for this experiment.) Of course, this makes complete sense. Genre publishing, particularly romance fiction, has had ebook only publications for years. Maybe that’s why romance readers — which one would not expect are necessarily more advanced technologically or economically than most of the rest of us — have apparently made the switch to digital reading more quickly than book consumers at large.

Romance publishers were not the only precursors to the forthcoming Hamill publication. Simon and Schuster announced last November that they’d be selling books by the chapter for digital purchase, an option not being offered to consumers of print. And Perseus has a deal with the web site Daily Beast which pushes the ebooks out first in the interests of timeliness.

It is very hard for me to grasp why anybody would prefer a printed book 30 or 40 years from now. I’m sure by then screen technology will be able to simulate any aspect of the printed book that could possibly be of interest (except, perhaps, for the smell of the paper, ink, and glue, but, then maybe a companion air-wick would do the trick. I wonder if you can use the same aromas for all titles, or whether some customization will be required.)

This Hamill-Little Brown experiment will be repeated with increasing frequency. (And so will what Perseus and Simon & Schuster are doing!) The screens will get better and cheaper. The platforms will deliver more and more features. The opportunities to find and buy printed books in physical locations will diminish. However one sees the balance today between printed books and ebooks, it will need to be reassessed next month. And the month after that. Maybe it will take the waterproof ereader with pages that turn to drag some of the holdouts across the paper-to-digital line, but even that can’t be as much as a decade away.

The printed book will not “die” in our lifetimes: there are too many of them already around for that. And I don’t even think the ebook will be “the dominant commercial form” (Negroponte’s position) in as short a time as five years. But it almost surely will in ten and I’d say that in no more than twenty the person choosing to read a printed book will not be unheard of or unknown, but will definitely qualify as “eccentric.”

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