The End of Print?

I keep seeing reports of how far print sales have fallen and how ebooks have exploded.  What  inevitably follows are predictions of how long it will take print to disappear.

I am not convinced print will disappear, at least until my generation (the currently 25-35 crowd) is gone.  I think that ebooks are convenient.  Ebooks are great for people who read a lot of books once and want something at a low price that won’t take up room in their house.  But if tablets become the dominant form, I think print will make a comeback.  I sit at a computer all day at work.  By the time I get home my eyes are exhausted.  I cannot read on a backlit screen—I’ve looked at an ebook on a friend’s iPad, and there is no way that could ever become my dominant reading method.  I would stop reading if all devices were backlit like that.  It’s why I prefer my plasma TV to the same friend’s DLP-screen TV. 

Even if eink devices stay common and popular, there is still an appeal to reading a physical book for a lot of people.  Some will continue to prefer print books, or use a mix of print and ebook depending on what kind of book it is.  For example, deep history books, or books being used for research purposes, might continue to be more useful in print.  I know you can bookmark passages in your ereader, but for me there is a certain visual ease of looking at 500 stacked pages and seeing the physical notes stuck into them to mark my place. That immediate image helps keep it all straight in a way that a digital file with 50 “notes” does not, not for me. 

But what I want to know is, are the people who are buying ebooks the exact same people who were buying print books, or are some of them customers only of this new market?  And if it is the same people, are they buying at the same rate?  Does a 160% increase in the digital market mean print has fallen by the same rate, or are people buying more ebooks than they were print books?  My guess is that the latter is actually the case.  If I can buy eight $.99 ebooks for the price of one mass market paperback, I just might buy eight of them.  Or even if we’re looking at publisher offerings—some of them are sitting at $4.99, which is two ebooks for just over the price of one print book. That seems like a decent deal to me, so why not?  I would buy more books if I could afford them, and I think the cheaper digital prices allow for that increase in numbers because suddenly I can afford them.   

The other question is ease of access. The Borders store that was in my city closed, and it really closed me off from regular print book buying. I have always preferred to buy my books at a bookstore, even if Amazon was cheaper, and I would only go to Amazon for things I could not find locally. I do not do that any longer, because I no longer have a bookstore on my way home. I am a busy woman. I work a full-time job, maintain my household in food and clean clothing (we have to go to a laundromat right now so that is a significant time investment), and try to put in 20 hours of writing every week. I do not have the time to go out of my way to buy a book. If I can stop on my commute home, run in for five minutes to buy the book, and be on my way, I will do it. If I have to drive 20 minutes (one way) up the highway to reach the Barnes & Noble still emailing me about replacing that closed Borders, I am not going to do it. It’s significantly out of my way, and my time is more precious to me than any loyalty to my local economy or the joy of entering a building full of books.

I think I am not at all unique. We are a culture of people who overextend themselves, for whom leisure time is the most precious commodity of all. If I can take 30 seconds on Amazon to buy a book AND get the immediate gratification of having it to read RIGHT THEN–which was always the main reason I preferred bookstores, getting the book I was in the mood for right then rather than in three days–then suddenly, I can buy books and read again.  Since Borders closed I think I have bought two books in print. Before that I bought two a month. Ease of access matters. That was my number one deciding factor.  I bet a lot of the people driving this explosion of ebooks are people for whom print sales were just not an option, either financially or physically.

So, that being said, do I think we are going to become ebook only any time soon?  Not really.  My guess is that print will bottom out, that a certain percentage of book readers will continue to prefer print to digital, at least for certain favorite authors or certain kinds of books. 

Will that percentage of readers, or that percentage of book types, be enough to keep Barnes & Noble and indepenent bookstores afloat?  Will the sales be enough to keep the big publishers alive with something at all like their current business model?  That I don’t know.  Perhaps all printed books will go to print on demand.

If they do, perhaps you will be able to customize your book the way Lulu (the only POD service I have used) does.  Want a mass market paberback because it will fit in your pocket?  Here’s that option.  Want a trade paperback or large-print paperback?  Here’s that option.  Want a hard back with the heft and feel of longevity and acid-free pages?  Here’s that option.  And in each case maybe there is a breakdown of what part of the cost is the physical processing fee and what part is the royalty paid to the author and what part the money going to the publisher (if it’s not a self-published work).  Very transparent, very flexible, and ecologically responsible because it’s not wasting paper on a print run of 15,0000 for a book that flops and where 10,000 of those end up as remainders to be pulped.

Bear with me for a brief tangent:  I saw an interesting point in an article about our “green” and “sustainable business” culture about the ridiculousness of print newspapers.  Think about it. Every day you print thousands of pages and then drive them all over the city—perhaps the country, as in the case of the big papers—and people read them once then dispose of them.  Holy crap.  Imagine someone proposed that business model now.  They would be call rapers of the rainforest and crucified by the environmentalists.  News should be consumed online, if you can access it online. 

Now imagine someone is proposing to run a print book business in the traditional way.  Print the number of copies the publisher thinks might sell, and distribute them all over the country, and then take them back and dispose of them if they don’t sell in six weeks.  Um.  Holy crap.  That is NOT sustainable. So why cling to the old model?  Surely there is a better way to run the publishing business.

Here’s a suggestion for a modern model.

As a publisher you pick manuscripts you think will sell, polish them up, get a package together.  Then you submit the digital file to a print on demand service—or all the print on demand services.  People who stumble onto the books on Amazon can buy them from Amazon and get them in the same time frame they usually do.  People who want the digital version and/or instant gratification can buy the ebook. 

What does that mean bookstores will become?  How about print on demand centers?  The bookstores might have a physical inventory that is tailored to the people in their area, what they are most likely to like, with several copies printed.  Maybe for the rest of the books they have available to purchase, they put only one copy out to be perused.  If a customer wants that book, s/he puts in an order for it, and the store will print one up.  Right there.  Maybe it takes 15 minutes–go browse some more or have a coffee in the cafe.  Maybe it takes an hour, and you come back like you do for a prescription or photos at the drugstore.  Maybe you take the shelf copy and the store prints another one to replace it. 

That model gives people the tactile experience of browsing shelves, picking up books and reading not just the opening but part of the middle (for those who like to spotcheck that way), and it is a sustainable business model, both ecologically and economically because it eliminates the useless inventory that may or may not sell, not to mention the costs of physical warehousing and shipping.  College course supplements have been done this way for years, and it works just fine. 

The only question is whether enough people will still come to buy in person to make a profit.  That may depend on the community, and on the store owner’s savvy for arranging events that bring people into the store.

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the digital revolution in publishing.  I welcome any comments, links, dissension, and, of course, if you liked the perspective please check back for future installments!  I plan to blog about this at least once a week for the next couple months.  Thanks for stopping by! ~Lily 

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