Printed books as a niche market

For those of us who have learned to think of printed books as the default vehicle for writers of book-length works, the oncoming shift to ebooks can look puzzling and even implausible. How could the reading public possibly throw over all the qualities we’ve come to know and love about the printed page for the sake of a new format that is immature, awkward, and missing many important advantages? People have made similar claims for other technological innovations that ended up fizzling out. Isn’t this just one more fad?

In looking at ebooks I am not trying to predict, but only to identify the issues that are raised and think about how they might play out. I won’t feel stupid if ebooks never take off for some reason I haven’t thought of. But I will feel stupid if I turn out to be wrong about the relative importance of some issue I’ve identified, or how those issues interact.

I think folks who prefer their books in print can rest easy for now and for awhile to come. Printed books will not disappear anytime soon. However, this is completely consistent with the idea that ebooks will quite rapidly take over from print as the default delivery vehicle, perhaps in the next year. Here are some observations about the coming shift that should be comforting to those who like their books in print.

Ray Bradbury’s firemen will not be visiting your house. All those printed books you already own? They’ll be yours as long as you care to devote shelf space to them. Nobody wants to take them out of existence. And you’ll never need any technology to access them aside from a source of light, your eyes, and perhaps some eyeglasses.

You don’t have to give up printed books to read or own an ebook. I did not buy my Kindle to read ebooks. I didn’t expect to do that even for free, and I thought it was insane to pay $10 or more for one. I bought my Kindle to read long articles I found on the internet in a setting more comfortable than my computer. Which is what I did and continue to do. I did download some free classic literature for fun, glanced at it and found it to be fine, but haven’t read any yet (I wouldn’t have been reading a printed version either, due to lack of time).

After a few weeks I did decide to buy the ebook version of a traditionally published book, James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I bought it because (a) I have wanted to read it for about a year now, (b) the UK library has continued to let me down by not acquiring a copy, and (c) no used copies were showing up at AbeBooks. Finally I decided to quit waiting and just go ahead and pay the $10. I’m glad I did; it’s a very good book. And I was glad not to pay another $7 (plus shipping) for the hardcover.

I expect that for even the most ardent print lover there will eventually come a book or some other sort of writing (in my case, long magazine articles) only available in electronic format, something they want to read badly enough they will buy a cheap, functional reader to read those things in addition to their usual menu of print.

The shift to ebooks will create a huge bounty of discarded print books. Since I had no particular love for the publishing industry, I was quite happy when the tax laws changed so many years back and publishers started remaindering books rather than keeping them in taxable inventory. I bought many of them, and even developed enough patience to wait a year or so after a title I wanted was released because I knew I could have a hardcover copy for almost nothing at that point. I am also quite happy that libraries have bought so many books that nobody but me wants to read, since they are now in the process of clearing their shelves and companies like Better World Books are putting them into my hands for $4, shipping included.

This bounty is nothing compared to the coming flood. People who love books but are not particularly attached to print will begin to clear their own shelves once they are comfortable with this new way of acquiring and reading books. Those books will become available to those who want them, for next to nothing.

You’ll always have access to print. Back when personal computers first started to make inroads into corporate America, plenty of people were predicting a shift to the “paperless office.” But one wag claimed that we were far more likely to shift to the “paperless toilet.” And he turned out to be right. Computers led to more printed paper in offices, not less.

For printed books to go away print itself will have to go away, and that isn’t likely. Even now for some things there is a strong preference for the electronic version, e.g. email. But sometimes it is convenient to print an email, and when it is no one hesitates to do it, because printing it doesn’t cost that much and the printer is already there for other reasons. As long as you have a printer, you’ll have access to any book you acquire in printed form. Just print it.

Now, printing a book on a standard computer printer is far from ideal when it comes to things like format, binding, etc. And there are other options, though less convenient and more expensive. If you are dedicated to professional print quality, you can have one printed for about 50 cents—once you have paid an initial fee of around $2000 to have the press set up. It may sound absurd, but if you can get 1999 of your friends to go in on it with you, you can each have a copy for $1.50. This is how small publishing currently works.

More realistically, you can get a Print On Demand publisher to make you a copy. Here the startup costs are lower but still there. I sell a couple of books by Jerome Lange, printed by Keystone Digital Press. They are very nice, books a print lover would have no objection to. KDP will print you as few as 50 copies of a 160 page paperback with full-color cover for $187, or $3.75 a copy. So now we’re down to needing 49 friends!

You may think this is silly. What you want is the current arrangement, a nicely printed book at a reasonable price obtained simply by handing a cashier some money. Unfortunately, that arrangement exists because enough other people think the same way that it is worth a third party’s time to cater to that thinking. Once enough people start thinking differently, those third parties will evaporate and you’ll be on your own to cobble together a solution. (I’ll be writing about this phenomenon in a later post.)

But this does not mean that a new cost-effective solution will not present itself. Just to prove a point, To make a point, back in 2002 Brewster Kahle (of Internet Archive fame) created the Internet Bookmobile, a van carrying a high-speed printer and a binder, which could create a book for you for $1. People who want books will always be able to have them pretty cheaply.

Enjoy the free ride we had, don’t begrudge the free ride that’s coming. I’ll write more about this later, but the short version is that for the past 150 years print lovers have been free riders on a remarkable confluence of technological and social trends that are now diverging. Prior to 1850 a personal library was a rare luxury, restricted to a wealthy and sophisticated upper class who liked it that way. If you read the intellectuals who wrote between 1850 and 1950 you will be struck by how contemptuous and worried they were about the fact that mass production was putting books in the hands of common people. Fifty years later it is easy to forget that it was exactly that mass consumption of books that made it possible for those of us who like obscure writings to get hold of them at a more than reasonable price. A well-stocked bookshelf is not an entitlement, and we should all be grateful for the free ride that industrial presses, national distribution, and mass consumption of books has given us.

The coming shift to ebooks poses some challenges to print lovers, but I hope what I’ve written above persuades you that print lovers can rest easy, at least this generation of them. And after breathing a sigh of relief, I hope you will open your heart to the new possibilities that ebooks create. Writers can now reach their readers directly. A writer need only collect together a few thousand fans to make it possible to write for a living. And perhaps the most heartening observation I’ve read so far about ebooks:

When the children of 2011 look back, they will not see this as the year their local libraries were taken away. This will be the year they all got libraries of their own.


5 thoughts on “Printed books as a niche market

  1. Somehow I missed this post before.

    I have to admit I’m excited about the bounty of discarded print books you are predicting. I enjoy finding expensive but beautiful copies of books that I plan to keep, and it is encouraging to me to think that this might mean there are more of them for me to dig through and find some treasures.

    I have to admit that I also use my books as decor. :)

  2. Angela,

    Will Cumberland Books still be around for awhile?

    Now, that is a perceptive question! In an important way Cumberland Books is a also a free rider, dependent on a thriving print publishing industry. So I need to be sure and address that in my upcoming post on free riding. Thanks.

  3. Rick, I’d also be interested to hear how you think Tim Challies (relatively) new Cruciform Press fits into this (if at all). I believe they release one new book per month, and you can choose from two different subscriptions–one for paperback and one for eBook. I thought it was an interesting concept, and I don’t know if it is part of the direction you think things are moving or not.

  4. I’d also be interested to hear how you think Tim Challies new Cruciform Press fits into this.


    I think they are smart to charge such low prices. But I also think Cruciform makes a mistake in trying to establish itself as an intermediary between writers and readers.

    Writers will soon discover that they are better off paying a one-time flat fee for editing, formatting, covers, and so on, rather than giving up the bulk of their future book income to a publisher.

    And I doubt that readers will find the subscription model attractive, preferring instead to choose their own books based on recommendations from many different sources—friends, “Customers also bought …” lists, even a review site such as Tim Challies already runs for free.

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