It’s hard to imagine that something as ubiquitous as the printed book could disappear quickly. But part of the difficulty is that such transitions come not as sudden shifts but overlaps, and although we’ve experienced several of them in the recent past we don’t remember them as dramatic events. CDs existed alongside vinyl records for quite awhile, and suddenly they were gone—but no one perceived their disappearance as sudden because their attention had shifted to CDs long before. Same with cassettes. About eight years ago I was publishing a series of spoken conversations both on CD and cassette. For quite awhile sales were split 50/50 between the two formats, and then literally within the space of two months it shifted 90/10 in favor of CDs. (I assume that was the year when CD players in cars became standard equipment.) Believe me, we perceived that as a dramatic shift. But it wasn’t, really. Cassettes had long before become a legacy format, useful only to people who had players in their car.
An important thing to keep in mind: when ebooks take over, paper books will not disappear. But at some critical point ebooks will become the default format, and from that point print books will be a niche market, although a fairly large one as people adjust to the new reality. Konrath and Eisler put it well:
Joe: In the history of technology, when people begin to embrace the new media tech, it winds up dominating the marketplace. CDs over vinyl and tapes, DVD over VHS. The Internet over newspapers. Even Priceline over travel agents–
Barry: Yes! Sorry to interrupt, but this is something that interests me so much. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “But paper isn’t going to disappear.” That isn’t the point! If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you. So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that paper is being marginalized. Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.
Now, some new technologies really have completely displaced their forebears. For example, there’s no such thing as eight-track tape anymore. And yet some people still do listen to their music on vinyl, despite the advent of mp3 technology. The question, then, is what advantages does the previous technology retain over the new technology? If the answer is “none,” then the previous technology will become extinct, like eight-track. If the answer is “some,” then the question is, how big a market will the old technology continue to command based on those advantages?
Joe: You’re talking about niche markets.
Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.
Barry: Agreed. Lots of people, and I’m one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc… those are real advantages, but they’re only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight–but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.
So how quickly could the landscape change, whether or not we notice it? Consider the example of video and record stores:
Dean, in particular, seems to think bookstores will remain valid for the next decade or two, whereas I foresee a collapse on the order of what happened to video and record stores.
In our little college town of 15,000 students and about 10,000 full-time residents, we had seven video stores and four record stores five years ago. Today, all we have is Blockbuster, which is a chain on the ropes, and one niche store that combines videos, books, albums, and CD’s, eclectic art for the discerning college hippie. Ironically, we have one other “record” store—and all it sells is classic vinyl albums, mostly on eBay. I think that’s the Bookstore Future—towns might have one weird shop that thrives on nostalgia and the personal touch. We do have a neat indie bookstore owned by former M*A*S*H writer Karen Hall, but it recently cleared away a section to put in a yarn store, not a good sign of the health of paper sales in spite of our recent Waldenbooks closing.
I certainly noticed that the advent of Netflix killed the video store. Quickly, but not instantly; Blockbuster still seems to have delusions that their stores will become relevant again. Meanwhile, Netflix prepares for its own imminent demise at the hands of streaming video—by creating the first and best streaming video service. Record stores I’m less familiar with in everyday life, but I do remember noting with interest as companies like Tower Records suddenly closed all their physical outlets.
And books? Perhaps its telling that there is so much talk these days about how the e-reader experience could never compete with the look, smell, and touch of a real book. Not interested myself in anything but the content of a book, such talk always struck me as insane. Nearly every book I’ve owned has been a shoddy physical product, printed on cheap wood pulp, badly bound, misaligned, smelly—none of which bothered me, since I wasn’t interested in paying more money for a higher quality delivery vehicle. Books were to be read, marked up, and shelved. But the defenders of print are now starting to sound like foodies in their rhapsodic appreciation of books and (independent, always independent!) bookstores. When snob appeal is your main line of defense, you have become a niche market.
For those who move on, it will be a vague process, as it was when the world moved from thinking of cell phones as an extravagance to thinking of them as, well, phones. For staunch defenders of the niche, there will come an afternoon when they look around and wonder: Hey, where did everybody go?