The Kindle. The iPad. The Nook. Not to mention at least thirty other reading devices or Google Editions, which promises anyone with a browser the opportunity to read digital books. Millions of these devices are selling around the world.
Earlier this summer, as booksellers and publishers left the annual BookExpo America conference in New York City, it was clear that the book industry is on edge and worried about the future of the business. Many are proclaiming printed books will vanish as relics of an old era, collected only by dedicated enthusiasts. With the demise of the printed book, profits will evaporate. Cheaper digital versions will threaten to erode author royalties, collapsing a system where a bestselling author subsidizes the new, up-and-coming writer. Comparisons to the music industry make their way into every discussion as fears mount that physical books will go the way of the CD. All of this gloom and doom only adds to other dismal facts for the industry—the steady decline of reading in America, massive cuts in public libraries, and the recession’s shuttering of hundreds of bookstores.
I foresee a future when all of the electronic devices will have a button to press when you decide you really want that hardcover or paperback copy mailed to your home.
Against this dark canvas, is there any hope for books, for authors, for publishers? To paraphrase Robert Lowell, is the light at the end of the tunnel a ray of sunshine or the approach of an oncoming train?
I reject the detractors and doomsayers. I think this is the most exciting time to be involved in the book business. Not only are books receiving more media attention, the new technologies offer an unprecedented opportunity to engage readers. Audio and video enhancements offer authors the ability to reach a reader like never before. Social networks allow readers the chance to discover books they would never have found. Touch screens let children interact with books or play games related to the story. Educators find that reading assignments come alive as all learning modalities can be engaged. Three-dimensional graphics and spoken text transform plain words into dynamic new worlds. The book itself is being reinvented. The future is here.
Last week, Amazon.com announced that for the last three months, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, and Apple revealed that in the first quarter of selling the iPad, more than 3.25 million have been snapped up by eager technophiles worldwide. All of these new devices and capabilities will engage a new generation of readers. I believe the market for books is not fixed, meaning for every e-book sold, one less print book would be sold. Instead, the entire publishing pie can grow as books regain mindshare and embrace new ways to attract readers. Maybe somewhat surprising is that even with the onslaught of e-books, hardcover sales are up this year with double digit growth according to The Association of American Publishers.
A shifting landscape will undoubtedly cause disruption and challenges. Some businesses, unable to adapt quickly enough, will fail. There is, unfortunately, no fundamental right to survive amidst such industry change. Jobs in the publishing world will shift away from old-line manufacturing and warehousing to technology, editorial, and creative. Skills in social-media marketing will be in high demand. The good news is that publishing is already filled with some of the most creative minds around, and this talent can easily be applied to the new media.
New forms of content creation will emerge, and new businesses will start to support this shift. Traditional publishing roles may change—publishers as booksellers or literary agents as publishers—as we’ve seen the Wylie Agency’s recent announcement that it will publish digital versions of its authors books rather than sell the rights to a publisher. Digital books may push prices down, but more compelling content can also offer publishers the chance to charge a premium or grow huge audiences faster than ever.
Authors will survive and thrive. Thousands of years ago, some creative individuals painted the caves of Lascaux and began the art of storytelling, which has survived far more than the introduction of the e-book.
Finally, Johannes Gutenberg can relax. Long into the future, the printed book will continue to survive because of its portability, durability, and flexibility. Many readers will prefer to read printed books for a variety of reasons that will endure. Though massive print runs will decline, today’s print technology allows a book to be manufactured and delivered within 24 hours of placing an order. I foresee a future when all of the electronic devices will have a button to press when you decide you really want that hardcover or paperback copy mailed to your home. Because no matter how exciting the world of enhanced media books becomes, I suspect there will be some like me who want it both ways. I may love my new iPad, but I still look forward to reading that relic of the past, the good old-fashioned, printed book.