The future of print books

Ed Driscoll’s blogging at Pajama’s Media about the latest news from Borders. Which isn’t good.

In the comments, no surprise, the conversation turns to the future of print books.

Here’s my prediction.

Print books are going to be around but as a product group they are going to split into several new categories.

There will be very expensive, “collector’s edition” type books that will be produced in limited print runs. These will include coffee table style books as well as limited run editions of books by best-selling authors or celebrities. They will be produced as hardcovers. By “very expensive” I’m talking well over $50 a copy. And they’ll be tricked out nicely to help justify the price. Think gorgeous, embossed covers, high quality paper, color plates, that sort of thing. Luxury market books.

Second will be a thriving market for used books. That’s going to be around for a long time. There are so many millions of print books in circulation; today a lot of them are nearly worthless (think boxes of books at garage sales, stacks at thrift stores, the books your local library throws away every year). Over time, these books will increase in value as print books become gradually more rare. But they’ll still be pretty affordable, for the most part, simply because there are so many of them, and as Boomers downsize & sell all their stuff they’ll continue to flood the market.

Third, there will be a new category of very cheap paperback. This category will emerge when publishers find they’re unable to keep the bottom from dropping out of ebook pricing, and they have to create a paperback category able to compete. Bear in mind that the pulp novels of the mid 20th century, adjusted for inflation, sold for the equivalent of a buck or two in 2011 dollars. So we know the publishing industry can do it–it’s just not going to until it has no choice. Many of these will be print editions of e-book releases. They’ll be sold primarily through channels like Walmart and Costco. The quality will be very low–expect the paper to be yellowed by the time you hit the denouement.

Finally, there will be one-off printed books that you will be able to buy at your local bookstore. Already available, but will become commonplace. Another option for peeps who don’t want to read on Kindles. Don’t expect high quality here, but moderate pricing and the ability to hold in your hand a copy of virtually any book every produced. Which is way cool. You’ll be able to order them from kiosks within the store or place orders from home. This will also chip away at one of Amazon’s advantages, which I blogged about an age ago — that it’s so much easier to search book titles via computer than hunt for them in a physical bookstore.

So what do you think? Does this make sense, or do you predict something different?

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2 Responses to The future of print books

  1. Sam Bauer says:

    It’s just my opinion as well, but I think your assessment is pretty close — with the possible exception of a “game changer” in the form of new technology. This “new technology” stuff cannot be easily predicted, nor can it be held back — when it’s ready, it will just happen — and there it will be. It will then be up to us to learn to deal with it and make the most of its utilitarian value.
    I’m speaking of the introduction of a “disposable” ebook — not an expensive piece of computer hardware like the Kindle — but something you can roll up and stick in your pocket. I’ve been watching the ongoing development of ePaper and eInk display technology for many years now, and I’m expecting a game-changing breakthrough any time. Remember when the greeting card industry first began to market talking cards that played music and obscene sound effects? I was amazing how much stored data could finally be packed into a miniature circuit board the size of your thumbnail — the battery was bigger than the brain. Well, that early “data storage capacity” has grown — way bigger! It is now possible to store the entire contents of a paperback book onto a single chip the size of your eye’s pupil. Attach one of these to a 4×6″ sheet of thin ePaper, and then connect it to a miniature rechargeable battery like those used in Bluetooth headsets, and you have a disposable ebook reader that costs less than 3 bucks. In addition to text, these ebooks can also support animation and sound — so they become self-promotional to catch the attention of readers. And they can be sold in racks at the store like birthday cards.
    Just thought you might want to visualize something like this — something that awaits in the not too distant future…

  2. Kirsten says:

    Like it, Sam, I think you are on to something and will definitely have that kind of technology on my radar . . . particularly the bit about who controls the publishing piece and how writers get paid ;-)

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