Print books are dying — maybe

Published 12:08 am Sunday, April 24, 2011

You’ve read the headlines. Borders books bankrupt: will close 200 of 642 stores. Publishers reduce staff while booksellers suffer under “the worst retail sales conditions in years.” Do these stories foretell the death of the 400-year-old print book publishing industry? Well, maybe.

First, I am not an expert in the publishing world and my opinions may not always represent those of Pamlico Writers Group. I do, however, read diverse sources: Internet-industry blogs, newspapers and magazine articles. I believe discussing timely book industry topics is of interest to area authors and readers. I hope to explore other timely topics soon.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux that may be loosely compared to the change from vinyl records to digital music. Remember record players that were replaced by CD players that were replaced by MP3 players? The change was about medium: from a physical medium (records and CDs) to a digital electronic medium.

A similar process is that legacy paper books are being replaced by the digital e-book. The tablet reader (Nook, Kindle, IPad) has gained popularity, in part, because users may instantly download e-books instead of making the usual bookstore trek to buy a print book.

But we should acknowledge that print books and digital books are different experiences.

We’re comfortable with the feel and smell of paper, glossy photos and fancy bindings. We read anywhere, write in the margins and crease the corners.

The e-reader mimics paper in electronic form and allows us to annotate and bookmark. Users of the device look up unfamiliar words in the online dictionary and may follow hyperlinks to Internet references. The e-reader is more than a book. It is a multimedia experience that can deliver quality photos, videos and music.

And we know print books are becoming less popular. Amazon announced in July 2010 that e-book sales had exceeded hardcover print-book sales. Then in February, it announced that e-book sales had exceeded paperback print book sales. At this alarming rate of print book sales decline, one would think print book sales will cease in the near future.

However, it’s not that simple.

The driving force of change is cost. Think of an overweight print book model that is shedding the high costs of materials, transportation, inventory and labor. Publishers are reducing costs with print-on-demand books that eliminate inventory costs and wholesale book returns.

The e-book publishing model is much cheaper because most usual costs are avoided. A single cloud server can store and distribute millions of e-books at almost no cost.

So, print book costs are declining while cheap e-books fight growing pains of poor editing, maturing e-reader technology and resistance by print-loving readers.

Publishers and booksellers are struggling to cope with change. Both print books and e-books are in the sales mixture, with print books rapidly becoming the smaller part. The trend will continue as brick-and-mortar bookstores decline and online e-book outlets expand.

What about the local bookseller?

I believe they will survive by selling antiquarian books, large-format books, specialty books and by providing personal venues for authors to meet local readers. As technology becomes cheaper, print-on-demand books will be produced at the local bookshop, slashing inventory and eliminating unsold book returns. Inferior quality print books will disappear, with remaining inventories featuring quality collectable treasures and local favorites.

Local booksellers will broaden offerings to include coffee, food and meeting space, music, art and specialty items not related to books. Personal service for the reader will command a price that will allow the bookseller to exist.

How will the local author survive the change?

Most print authors will not be affected by the decline of big publishers. Authors will continue to use independent print publishers to produce books at their own expense and market books through personal contact. Print-on-demand books will become a popular format so authors avoid large book inventories. Other local authors will embrace the e-book format and sell in larger quantities on big-box Internet sites. Eventually, all authors will offer books in both formats.

So, will the print book cease to exist?

No, not as long as a generation of print book lovers exist. The popularity of print books will slowly decrease as elderly print book readers fade away. Young readers will use digital media in school, their jobs and for pleasure, yet will appreciate exceptional quality print books. Home libraries of print books will fall out of fashion.

Then, when print books are really scarce, just imagine how young folks at grandma’s house will fall in love with those musty, old, leather-bound volumes, those pop-up children’s books and forgotten school annuals.

This week’s quote: “Books open your mind, broaden your mind, and strengthen you as nothing else can.” – William Feather.