Predicting the future of books

Over at the Rejecter’s blog she makes some interesting observations about the future of books.

She says Print on Demand (POD) is the way of the future. She believes that

  • Bookstores will still exist, but rather than warehousing immense numbers of books, the customer will buy the book and it will be printed in under an hour while the customer waits
  • Audio books will become more popular still
  • eBooks don’t really work (and implies that they’ve had their day, although she doesn’t explicitly state this).

I sort of agree with the first point, definitely agree with the second, and totally disagree with the last.

It made me think about the future, though, and it’s interesting to ponder the way things are going.

My first question is … is there a place for bookstores as we know them in the future? Many of the specialty bookshops have closed their doors already, and the proprietors work from home or warehouses. Slow Glass Books, the last of the specialty SFF bookshops I purchased books from by physically going into the store, closed its doors back in 2002, but I can still order books through mail order.

I also buy a lot of books from Amazon nowadays —not because I love Amazon (and the postage is a killer when you buy only one or two books) but because often it’s the only place I can buy specific books.

Print on demand in the format the Rejecter talks about would work well for these people. I imagine the cost of a decent printing press would be huge, but say Slow Glass Books gets an order over the internet (they use snail mail now) in the morning. They could forward this order on to a publisher in their area who prints the book for them and has it back to them in time to catch the post that night. Customer gets the book next day. Everyone’s happy. Customer gets an overnight delivery and the bookseller doesn’t store any more books than is ordered.

I could also see a big market here for personalising books this way.

What happens to the big bookstores though? I don’t see them going away, or not really. I think there will be less of them, and they will not hold as much stock. If they sell one book they might re-order the same (or might not), through POD to replace the one they sold.

Ebooks though … I think that as soon as you get a decent reader (and there are some good ones coming) ebooks will arrive with a vengance. There’s a whole generation now who are used to reading off the screen, and we’re a whole generation on more familiar with computers. I don’t think a non-paper format will bother as many people as it might have 10 or 15 years ago. Not only that, it’s instant. Instead of having to wait for a book to be printed, you can download it immediately.

No matter what happens, I think there is one positive thing about the future of publishing. It has to be better for mid-list authors than it is now, because so many of the high overheads that make midlist books so unprofitable will disappear.

Unfortunately, with that comes another burden. Marketing books. Authors can no longer rely on the publisher to do all their PR for them. It takes a different type of person to be new media savvy, and that might mean the difference between selling and not selling. Those of us who can network on the world wide web might have a better chance of doing something to sell our own stories.

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