The future of publishing: will books disappear?

The old rules of book publishing (Credit Flickr Phoenix Dark-Knight)

The old rules of book publishing (Credit Flickr Phoenix Dark-Knight)

Books won’t disappear. We’ll cherish our favourite novels and pass our children’s picture books on to subsequent generations. But we’ll also throw out many types of books: travel guides, reference books, maps, business guides etc…

Disposing of books is a new phenomenon and books were previously not disposable items but permanent fixtures in the house. Like old music albums, they said something about a person. Like albums our favourite books will stay with us, in ever decreasing numbers, as memorabilia that we get out for a nostalgic moment of intimacy.

Some books will disappear in printed form because digital technology is teaching us to read differently and think of content differently. We pay to consume some content via the tap, from a common source rather than think we need to own our own: it’s cheaper, les wasteful, makes more sense, is more convenient and saves space. We pay for faster Internet and mobile access but we own fewer books. Books will sell as print on demand for those that want an entire printed copy.

Traditional barriers that existed between books, magazines, newspapers and video (broadcast) are blurring. We’ve grown to enjoy media that is discoverable, searchable, interactive, sharable, and that’s a far cry from the static experience of printed books.

New social pleasure and new conveniences in the digital reading experience are also driving change. We are social by nature and we like to read what other people have to say about the stuff we read. We like to feel part of a global community of interest, which is made possible by the Internet. Technology is changing the way we read and our relationship to content and to each other.

Buying books suddenly feels slow, inconvenient and expensive. We’re conscious that buying a book to look at once and to put on the shelf is not suited to modern day living. Ownership is somehow odd in this new era of post digital media.

Penguin said in their interim statement on 28 April: “we continue to adapt the business to significant industry change driven by the growth of both digital sales channels and digital books and by the resulting pressures on physical bookstores.”

Reading between the lines (so as not to sound alarmist) one can can see that what Penguin is describing is a new physics of business that is driven by digital change and consumer behaviour. Like the railways, digital media “upsets all conditions of location, all cost calculations, all production functions within its radius of influence and hardly any ways of doing things which have been optimal before remain so afterwards.” This was said about the railways in 1936 and borrowed from a recent book called Creative Disruption*.

In the UK printed books are fighting a losing battle with downward spiraling sales of UK fiction, decreasing by 8.8% in the first 3 month of 2011 with sales of Non-Fiction in similar decline with only food and drink books showing any resilience (largely because these sales are linked to premium TV or celebrity brands)

Waterstones, our biggest book selling chain (part of HMV) is struggling to keep book shops open and has announced the closure of 60 stores.

Our British Bookshops and Stationers chain is in receivership.

Where does publishing go from here? Do you believe it reinvents itself? I firmly believe that online communities need to flourish within every media business if they are to continue trading and justifying their existence into the future. Here’s how.

The quote I used above about the railways came from a book called Creative Disruption by Simon Waldman. I recommend all publishers read it.

2 thoughts on “The future of publishing: will books disappear?

  1. Robin Pearson

    Books were the major data storage and presentation devices for hundreds of years. They contained the ideas and information that fueled the incredible story of human development and they allowed these ideas to be transferred and shared amongst people who searched for specific information or looked for interpretation and understanding. The internet is the natural successor to the book for information storage, and digital has given us all access to a vast library of content and connections with millions of like-minded people who can help us filter and process this material. If a book can be replicated online in its purest form, i.e. the transferal of ideas or information, then it can easily be replaced by digital.

    However, there are those books whose attributes cannot be replicated digitally because their tactile qualities, their innate usefulness or their expression of personal ownership (either as a gift or something to have and to hold). You point out that cookery titles still work well, and this is a good case in point: Foodies love to own and collect cookbooks, they are far more useful in the kitchen than an iPad (have you tried swiping a screen with dough on your hands?) and they make a great gift. You could find similar examples in art and photography books, graphic novels and many other categories that are linked to people’s interests and hobbies. In these cases, the book is a physical object, something to own and enjoy leafing through away from the backlit screen.

    So, there are books that need to move online and books that will continue to bring people a lot of pleasure in the printed form. People do seem to be prepared for pay for books when they come across them – they just don’t seem to want to go into overstocked bookshops looking for them anymore. Supermarkets or Amazon are quicker, easier and cheaper and, dare I say it, less threatening for the average person. The challenge for publishers is in keeping the value of the book alive both in print and online in an environment dominated by loss-leader discounting and piracy.

  2. Brian Bordenkircher

    While I agree that books, magaines and newspapers will always be around in there physical paperback form, I think that 90% of books will be purchased as e-books rather than paperback in the next 10 to 20 years.

    But what will happen when more than 90% of a books sales are in e-book form? I’d imagine that due to the low quantity of paperback books produced and shipped that there may be a bit of a luxury tax added onto the book by the publishers. After all, if there are only a few people that wish to purchase the “classic” form of a book, the cost to produce each paperback book would likely rise.

    It will be very interesting to see were the publishing industry will be in 10 to 20 years from now

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