Thursday, February 10, 2011

A brief history of the future of books

If I could see into the future (which clearly I can't because I would have invested in Apple and Tesla instead of Motorola and GM), it would seem to me the publishing industry is going to look a little different in a few years than it does today.

While some are swimming against the tide of digitalization of the written word, as is witnessed by the Portland area bookstore that will trade you real books for your Kindle and prides itself on low cost titles, it won't be long until the bulk of our reading material is distributed digitally.

How do I know this? Because it has happened before.

Just look at the music industry. It wasn't long ago that vinyl ruled the day. From the start of recorded music until the late '60s the only option was stax of wax. Then cassette tapes started showing up making it easier for people to take their music with them. This accelerated with the advent of compact discs, and when Napster and iTunes showed up, it was all over but the shouting. Almost.

You see there's a booming niche business out there in old school music technology. Some people still so value the vinyl experience that they're willing to pay significantly more than ever for turntables, records and other paraphernalia.

So what does this mean for books, magazines and newspapers?

Because the production and distribution systems for e-readers are so much more efficient than traditional printing, most people will shift from paper to pixels assuming those efficiencies significantly lower the price. But those who crave the experience of ink on paper will pay more and businesses that cater to those bibliophiles will create ever more interesting and special environments and products.

So Borders attempt to reinvent itself as a mass market bookseller will ultimately fail. If Barnes & Noble survives it will look much different than it does today. And the independent bookstores, rather than joining the race to the bottom, will find new life by catering to a small, passionate cadre of customers who are willing to pay a little more for their increasingly rare beloved tomes.


  1. This is a perceptive point of view for retail. The college book store takes it to a whole new level. This industry has been one of the slowest to react to change of any sort. That said, the collegiate book retailer will lose again to the first e-tailer that is able to acquire book lists from professors and can target the college student by region. .

  2. My guess is that as much as the textbook industry is fighting it now, it won't be long before a rogue publisher comes in and disrupts the entire market with e-textbooks that include video, animation, web links, etc. to provide a much richer learning experience. But right now, they're all hooked on their paleolithic economic model.

  3. I agree with your thinking and would add though that there is still a 900# gorilla in the room that answers to the name Amazon. The way, as I see it, for the small independent booksellers to survive would be to somehow align themselves with the aforementioned behemoth. I envision small book salons that maintain a niche following based on their market and interests that have a partnership with Amazon. This may give them the ability to buy from the giant at a price to allow for a profit margin(?)and to give those who want the feel of paper a community and a source.
    I also see the book industry starting to focus on smaller production, higher quality traditional books that are designed to become heirlooms of a concluding epoch.

  4. Great thinking Kris. I like the idea of using Amazon as a warehousing/distribution system for the independents, especially given how easy it is to ship books anywhere in the country. The key is for the bookstore to have a strong point of view that's relevant to a significant number of readers. I think you're right about the books as well. This fits with the vinyl analogy I was making. It's the same content, just in a format that's more collectible and more valued by a few people.

  5. The other thing about ebooks is that nobody is going to leave a Kindle or an ebook file at the laundromat and I've discovered some of the best books I've ever read this way.