The Future of Reading (or…of Bits and Books)

It is true, and probably forever will be, that people have an affinity for holding a real paper-and-print book in their hands. Maybe it’s the simple comfort of something tried and true, but there is definitely a psychological allure to a bound set of pages that represent adventure and knowledge, like a treasure chest waiting to be opened. One glace at a bookshelf to see the title on the spine, and the book draws you in to relive the story. It is a downside of digital books that both the book and the shelf are more or less vaporware—as one person said to me, “One good EMP pulse…and poof!” Though I am a huge proponent of eBooks, for a whole list of reasons, I still believe printed books will always exist. As eBooks and eReaders become more prevalent, your library of physical books will simply become more valuable. But what is happening these days?

Dino cartoonJust as the computer revolution changed so many things that have become ubiquitous in life, there is no way to avoid what is going to happen now that smartphones and digital tablets are here. The majority of what you read casually is going to shift to digital, and eventually you will be practically forced to have some type of device on which to read it. The world we’ve made is, like it or not, based on money, and since all profit based business is based on the concept “Get the money (…repeat)”, simple cost saving is driving production of most written material quickly to digital. Authors and producers can now design their own digital content and, with the press of a key, make it available to everyone in the world with Internet access? What you read once and probably will not read again is already shifting to digital content because of the disposal and often time-sensitive nature of it. It’s direct from the producer to the customer—no shipping, no delays, no middlemen bleeding out the profits. Even the large online booksellers certainly must be seeing the eventual tsunami of self-published authors selling their own digital wares (hello J.K. Rowling.)

Still, it won’t be the end of conventional books and, in fact, I think you’re going to see printed books become much more collectible and hold their price. Why? Partly because most of what you buy will become digital content, which will end up saving you money and freeing you to buy only the hardbacks that you truly want to add to your library. After all, what DVD’s do you buy now? The vast majority of DVD’s are bought by people who already have seen the movie and it meant enough to them to be worth the investment. You might find a good used hardback but, as publishers begin to limit the number of actual books they print, the prices will hold and you will likely buy it while it’s available. What if the printed copies are only released as signed editions? The price will hold because it is even more collectible, potentially more expensive to buy it later. It will be strangely ironic if the digital revolution causes some dinosaur-publishers to die off, but smaller publishers grow to print what turn out to be far more valuable books. We may even see individual authors, or coalitions of authors, arranging directly with printers to print limited numbers of their own books to sell directly to their readers. They need only print what they know they can sell…and there are no ‘returns’ to send back to the publisher. The old school publishing businesses have been seeing the writing on the wall for years, but whether in this changing climate they can evolve fast enough…see some thoughts in the next article: Is the industry eating itself?