The Shatzkin Files

The printed book’s path to oblivion

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The “death” of the printed book has been under discussion for a long time. (I gave a speech with that subject as the title to publishers in Spain in 1997 — with a question mark after it and predicting correctly that the most immediate impact of digital change would be that we’d sell more printed books online and that the then-current interest in expensive-to-produce CD-Roms was a distraction.)

Nicholas Negroponte made headlines last week when he was quoted as saying that the printed book would be “dead” within five years. A deeper dive into what Negroponte actually said clarifies that he doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be any paper books anymore after 2015, but that the ebook would become the “dominant” form by then. I think even that might be going too far.

It seems reasonable to me (although not to every forward-thinking observer of the march of digital events) that by five years from now half of immersive reading — straight text novels and non-fiction — could have moved from paper to devices.

But for those who question the idea that the switch from paper to screens will ultimately be just about total, let me offer a way to think about it.

The critical thing to remember is that, indeed, the book was more-or-less perfected hundreds of years ago. There have been improvements in printing, binding, typography, and paper quality that are not trivial, but that also represent no quantum leap in user benefit. Indeed, defenders of the paper book and advocates suggesting it has a permanent role, point to that fact as support for their belief.

I think it argues the opposite.

The ebook, unlike the paper book, advances every month, if not every day. Screens and the reading platforms they run just keep improving: they get cheaper, lighter, more flexible, more capabilities-rich and there are ever more choices of them. Battery life gets longer. They develop the ability to take your notes, keyed in or handwritten. They develop the ability to share your notes or organize your notes automatically. They’ve had built-in dictionaries for a long time (a feature of the very first Kindle nearly three years ago) and now they often offer the ability to get to Wikipedia or a Google search in a click as well.

If facing pages or pages that are flexible and “turn” are your requirement, the beginnings of that have already appeared. Facing pages is a feature of the iPad’s iBooks app and just about every reader now offers a choice of “effects” for page turns. The challenge of delivering highly designed pages with pictures and captions and call-outs and on-page footnotes is being tackled, notably by Blio but they’re not alone. One of the reasons I restrict my predictions about ebook penetration in 2015 to narrative books is that it is harder to see yet how fast the development of that presentation capability and the corollary ability to make and reflow those pages for different screen sizes will be. But it will come.

Indeed, the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are.

The biggest tipping point mechanisms for ebooks so far have been the advocacy by the three most important retailers of books (Amazon, B&N, and, less significantly so far but still important, Borders) for dedicated ereading devices; the ability of consumers to download books just about anytime directly into those devices; and, to my mind most important of all, the availability of just about all the most popular straight text books as ebooks at about the same time the content is available in print.

I started reading on a Palm Pilot in 1999 or so. Until 2008, when the Kindle’s launch began to have a real impact on publishers’ digitization practices, I was compelled to read some print books because much of what I wanted to read just wasn’t available as an ebook. When Kindle took hold, that problem went away. I can’t remember the last time I looked for an ebook I wanted and didn’t find it available. That’s why I haven’t read a print book since late 2007; if publishers had moved faster, that date could have been as early as 2000 or 2001 for me.

Now, of course, we have the news (long expected in these quarters) that the availability question is being turned on its head. The announcement last week by Hachette that their Little Brown imprint will be publishing a short non-fiction title by Pete Hamill about immigration only as an ebook now means the print reader is denied. (It will be interesting to see what, if any, print-on-demand option evolves for this experiment.) Of course, this makes complete sense. Genre publishing, particularly romance fiction, has had ebook only publications for years. Maybe that’s why romance readers — which one would not expect are necessarily more advanced technologically or economically than most of the rest of us — have apparently made the switch to digital reading more quickly than book consumers at large.

Romance publishers were not the only precursors to the forthcoming Hamill publication. Simon and Schuster announced last November that they’d be selling books by the chapter for digital purchase, an option not being offered to consumers of print. And Perseus has a deal with the web site Daily Beast which pushes the ebooks out first in the interests of timeliness.

It is very hard for me to grasp why anybody would prefer a printed book 30 or 40 years from now. I’m sure by then screen technology will be able to simulate any aspect of the printed book that could possibly be of interest (except, perhaps, for the smell of the paper, ink, and glue, but, then maybe a companion air-wick would do the trick. I wonder if you can use the same aromas for all titles, or whether some customization will be required.)

This Hamill-Little Brown experiment will be repeated with increasing frequency. (And so will what Perseus and Simon & Schuster are doing!) The screens will get better and cheaper. The platforms will deliver more and more features. The opportunities to find and buy printed books in physical locations will diminish. However one sees the balance today between printed books and ebooks, it will need to be reassessed next month. And the month after that. Maybe it will take the waterproof ereader with pages that turn to drag some of the holdouts across the paper-to-digital line, but even that can’t be as much as a decade away.

The printed book will not “die” in our lifetimes: there are too many of them already around for that. And I don’t even think the ebook will be “the dominant commercial form” (Negroponte’s position) in as short a time as five years. But it almost surely will in ten and I’d say that in no more than twenty the person choosing to read a printed book will not be unheard of or unknown, but will definitely qualify as “eccentric.”

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  • There's a lot of truth to this. Many anti-ebook arguments are about technological limitations. These will change. And ebooks will allow new things not allowed today, like more “social reading.” The nostalgia factor will not save paper books.

    But you neglect licensing, which I see as the “real” change involved in ebooks. The change there is considerable, and I'm not convinced ebooks will continue to get better licenses. They may even get worse worse.

    There is a real lack of real conversation about this aspect of the transition. So I'l like to hear you address it. Here's what I think:

    I think the transition will be slowed by the fact that some people will continue to want to own their books “for real”–to lend them, give them, take them out from a library and pass them on. ( To the library argument, see… ). This issue has not yet come to the fore. I suspect it will.

    For what it's worth, I also suspect that objection will only slow adoption. People will accept limited rights*, especially if they can get the thing cheaper. Secondary effects, like the death of the bookstore and serious problems for the library, won't stop things.

    But I question how publishers and authors will respond when piracy assumes music-industry levels, and then worse. One solution would be a return to the physical. Another would be the imposition of ever harsher DRM. But the most likely result is that the book industry can't solve the problem, and we will gradually lose the “middle” of the author community–the majority of authors who who aren't Steven King (who could live on non-book revenue), but aren't doing it just for the fun either.

    So, ebooks get better, and, I worry, eliterary culture gets worse.

    * In some countries, rights will be very limited indeed. Ebooks could be designed to be sensitive to reader privacy and freedom, but that isn't happening. When the first Chinese dissidents go to jail for the ebooks they read, or the notes they took on them, I hope ebook proponents notice how their dreams went wrong.

    • I think the questions raised by licensing come up for only a very small
      percentage of the books transacted. I don't mean to trivilialize the issue
      for people who consider it an issue, but most consumers, for most books,
      don't. There are undoubtedly people *today *who buy print because they read
      about Amazon and 1984 and they're afraid somebody will take away their
      ebooks. Tales of people “losing” their books will be sales fodder for Google
      Editions. But it really won't push more than a minimal amount of sales back
      to print in the long run.

      I can certainly see the possibility of the granting of variable licenses in
      the distant future, enabling people at the point of purchase to secure more
      permanence, passability, insurance from format changes, etc. This probably
      already exists in professional publishing in some contexts or another. But I
      don't see if coming to the fore anytime soon because there will be more
      important fish to fry, most of them having to do with metadata and

      I agree that the library question is complicated and will take a while to
      thrash out. There are already publishers who are reluctant to allow digital
      downloads into that channel. It's hard to tell how this will turn out. On
      the one hand, libraries are a legitimate marketing device: they spread
      awareness and generate word-of-mouth. And they are also a real customer for
      publishers: they buy a lot of books. On the other hand, when a person can go
      to one website and get an ebook for free (except that it will disappear in
      two weeks) or go to another and pay for it, it is monkeying with the buy and
      borrow comparison for the shopper in a way that is a little scary if you
      want to sell to those who buy. There are a lot of potential compromises
      including per-loan payments (by library or patron), shorter lending periods,
      and fuller-featured versions for sale. This will play out over a long period
      of time.

      Your analysis of the market bifurcation and that it will become harder for
      the second tier of authors to really make a living I substantially agree
      with, although for somewhat different reasons. It won't be piracy that kills
      those authors, it will be obscurity. You have a much better chance of
      getting known if you're one of 20 new authors being published by Harper or
      S&S on a list than if you put out your own ebook through Smashwords. The
      stepladder to authorial success will be much more accessible to more people,
      will have many more rungs, and will be very crowded near the bottom with
      very few people getting up high enough to quit their day jobs.


      • Andrew O Dugas

        I wonder if the library solution will be along the lines of renting a movie on iTunes. The “library” grants access to the ebook for a limited, predetermined period of time, after which the ebook is digitally “returned.” Similarly, publishers would provide a library with x number of keys (much as the number of software users were once limited on a common network) for the ebook.

        In short, the elibrary would function very much like its brick-and-mortar precursor.

      • The problem is not technology, but costs. In brief, libraries get a good deal now. They buy a book once, but rent it out many times. They pay roughly the same as everyone else, but get much more use out of their books. They can do this because physical objects can be loaned out whether publishers or authors want them to or not. To stop them requires a binding, viral contract, which has never been attempted in books or any other such product. By one estimate though libraries account for 45% of reading, they buy only 4% of books.

        Ebooks change that. They're licensed goods, not freely owned ones. The license is binding and virality isn't necessary because they explicitly prohibit transfers of any kind. This means libraries need permission, and with that sellers, publishers and authors can finally extract a value that more closely resembles the value libraries deliver. At present, libraries pay about $0.50 per read. That is, when you buy a book at a store, it costs $10 or $20. When you read it at a library you effectively pay $0.50 for it–a fantastic deal. These numbers are very far away.

        Ebooks also affect the key issue of opportunity costs. Though their costs were low, they imposed opportunity costs on borrowers sufficient to turn away many. The borrowers had to go INTO the library to get the books, again to return them, and the books suffered from other exigencies of physical objects (wear and tear, gross fingerprints, etc.) Libraries want to have systems where a patron can get an ebook from their local library when they're at home, as easy as getting the book from the Kindle Store. But if the methods are equally easy, and the objects are exactly the same, everyon will get the book from the library at $0.50 a read, rather than $20.

        The issue is much discussed, and quite vexed. It's not as simple as the technology would suggest.

      • Tim, thanks for a great summary of the library ebook lending issue.


      • Chris

        My local library lends out latest releases but for a price – $4 for 10 days!!

        I still haven't summoned the courage to enquire as to how 'legal' this lending is.

        I'm not talking about some remote outpost library, either. There are several libraries in the network servicing a population of almost half a million people.

      • Interesting about your library. That's a pretty steep price, actually. I
        would imagine this will become more widespread.


      • Andrew, thanks to the technology of OverDrive's “Content Reserve”, I believe
        that's pretty much the way it works now. The library “lends” you the book
        which disappears when time's up. And the CR system makes sure that the
        library can only lend the number of copies it has agreed to purchase, which
        is a slightly different control than you imagined, but which works with
        similar effect.


      • Matt Williams

        That's already happening.

  • The same way that the advent of computers has brought us to a completely paperless society?

    I agree that ebooks will probably become a dominant format, but there will always be people who prefer physical print for some types of reading.

    And… ebooks are “advancing” every month? Is that REALLY your best argument for why they're better than physical print? Print books have been advancing for 2,000 years. I would submit that aren't that many more improvements to make, because they do the job quite handily already. Ereaders are improving (becoming more book-like, which appears to be the ideal, doesn't it?) all the time, because there *is* still a great deal of room for improvement. Covers, for example– I want people to be able to see what I'm reading, and I want to see what they're reading. Non-exclusive formats. DRM. Color.

    But there are improvements I'm NOT seeing. I'm not seeing publishers race to let you own an ebook, for example– the first thing to go with ebooks seems to have been the right of first sale. That's where the physical artifact beats the electronic one all cold– no one can argue that I own that book, and that I have the right to sell it, share it, lend it, donate it, or pass it on to my heirs. Oh yes, and it's going to take something far more catastrophic than a computer glitch for me to lose my entire reading library– I've had too many friends lose their entire music collection when iTunes crashed to be eager to follow that route.

    I like the portability of ebooks, and I'd definitely buy a (hopefully cheaper) ebook copy of a title I didn't intend to keep. (You mentioned romance readers as early adopters– romance readers tend to swap or donate their books after a single read.) I'd love to have my reference books in eformat. But I don't see ebooks completely replacing my physical library in 20 years, or in my lifetime.

    Oh, right– that will make me “eccentric.” So much easier to dismiss people as crazy when they disagree with you, isn't it?

    • I consider eccentricity to be a badge of honor. It isn't necessarily a
      pejorative term and in many ways it is endearing.

      Human beings aren't any less likeable or any less smart because they do some
      things that don't make a lot of sense. Most of us do. And anybody reading a
      print book 20 years from now will almost certainly fall into that category.

      You shouldn't be so sensitive about an insult that may turn out a) not to
      apply (because you'll be reading on a screen by then) or b) not to be an
      insult (because you'll be happy, if you are by then, to see it as charming
      eccentricity yourself) by the time it is scheduled.


      • MatthewDBA

        I saw your tweet through Tim's retweet. My response tweet (condensed from two parts) – “I think I'll be one of @MikeShatzkin's “eccentrics”. Difference between ebooks and books is…You need a reader to read an ebook – you only need a book to read a book.” I guess I just haven't seen a reason to buy another piece of electronics. (Which is a bit odd coming from someone who's a web developer by trade and a self-confessed geek.)

        I don't have anything in particular against ebooks (it took a lot to get to that position, though); I just don't see myself ever buying one. I'd pay to have it printed. Or I wouldn't buy it.

      • Matthew, unless I'm way off base, you won't be paying for a reader. You'll
        wake up one morning and realize you already have two or three readers that
        you thought you'd obtained for other purposes!


      • Mm88008

        Well I'm still not getting into the bathtub with my iPad.

        Michael Metzler

      • Good idea. I don't usually read my iPhone in the shower either, but printed
        books wouldn't fare too well under those circumstances.


      • Eugene G. Schwartz

        I came to this blog late and it was well worth the time, benefitting as I have by the unravelling of the threads.

        This has to be one of THE classic book future blogs of all time – enriched immensely by the responses. My only add-in is that for many years I have kept a supply of candles and matches, flashlights and batteries in the event of power outages – and they served me in good stead. On one occasion my flashlight battery was dead — but the candles lit the way —

        I'm with you completely on your predictive grounding in human nature, marketplace realities, technology, eccentricity and physiology. For the latter two reasons, I think print will be around in one form or another anyway.


      • A really neat summation, Gene.

        And I agree that the comment exchange adds a LOT of value. It eats up a lot of my time, often more than the posts themselves, but I benefit many ways by having a very knowledgable readership.


      • You know very few men even take baths. Most men shower and maybe take a bath three times a year. I think you should be disallowed from raising the “book in the tub” argument if you have 3 or less baths per year or have not actually read a book in the bath in the last year. I think that would knock out 97% of the population.

      • Thanks, Troy, for a response I totally agree with and hadn't thought of!


      • MatthewDBA

        I understand what you mean (as, for example, that I wouldn't have a CD player if there weren't one in my car and another in my computer – neither of which, however, are used to play CDs). However, I'm trying to think of other things I might use to read books on. Phone? I don't look at my phone screen – it's only an inch by an inch and a half. Would I get a bigger one? Only if it were the only option available. iPad/something similar? No need for one, no desire for one, no plans to get one. I wouldn't even have a TV if it weren't for my wife convincing me to buy one 🙂 So, while I understand your point, I don't see it applying to me in particular.

      • Matthew, I think you've just allowed yourself to be qualified as
        “eccentric.” Or, at the very least, “somewhat unusual.” Ain't nothing wrong
        with that, but a person would go broke counting on your habits to become


      • I've been reading almost solely on my phone for about 3 months now. I have to flip the page more often, but the text is actually bigger than most books, and I have my “books” with my anywhere I go. It's so convenient. At first I thought it would hurt my eyes or be uncomfortable after a while but I have found that isn't the case. I really see no reason for an e-reader.

      • Toychristopher and I are on the same “page”. I talked to an old friend this
        weekend at my high school reunion who reads on his iPhone and said about
        people reading on Kindles and iPads: “I want to read on something SMALLER
        and LIGHTER than a book, not something bigger and heavier!” Everybody
        applies their own logic…

        But, whatever your logic is, the screens will catch up to it some day.


    • >>Covers, for example– I want people to be able to see what I'm reading, and I want to see what they're reading. Non-exclusive formats.

      I don't want you to see what I am reading. For me ebooks bring back some privacy that paper books took away.

      • They do sell plastic book covers that can solve the problem of concealing
        what one's reading for a paper book.


  • judi weinstock

    Excellent post. I am going right out to patent an aroma stick that smells like binding glue and aged paper.

    • If you do, I'm going to rub it all over myself and go out on the town. Pheromones for bibliomaniacs!

  • Warren Cassell


    What is your view on the near term and future for used books? Will bricks and mortar stores have a slightly longer tenure by dealing with used, until of course, the books themselves no longer exist?

    I take the old-fashioned (and romantic) view of “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.” Cloth books were never a problem—like the egg, they were designed perfectly and didn't need a change. Unfortunately, you can't stop progress.

    From your friendly dinosaur,


    • I think used books are a huge and unmeasured part of the current equation.
      Amazon participated in one study of the market a few years ago but have
      declined to do so (for thoroughly understandable reasons) since.

      Yes, used books should be part of any store's plan for survival. But it is
      really a different business — sourcing and pricing bear no resemblance to
      what any bookseller is used to. That means it is risky. But I think it is

      As for your remarks about the “perfection” of print books, I guess that's in
      the eye of the beholder. I find ebooks far superior because they're lighter,
      always with me, and deliver pretty much instant access to the marketplace
      for new ones. They're also cheaper while possibly delivering better margins
      to author, publisher, and bookseller. I consider those improvements.


      • Andrew O Dugas

        What people do today with used books is considered piracy in the digital realm. Lending, reselling, trading.

        For all the fear mongered about the napsterization of e-books, in reality copyright stakeholders will recapture revenue that is currently lost to used book sales.

        How much revenue? Who knows but just consider how many print copies of “Catcher in the Rye” are read in high schools and universities in the USA every year. What percentage have yellow “Used” decals on them? A lot!

        Fast-forward twenty-five years: what percentage of the e-version will be used? None!

  • @kicktheball

    Provocative post, I am glad you spoke up, and grateful to @MichaelHyatt for tweeting the link.

    It certainly does seem to be a matter of “when”, not “if.” I can recall a college professor at UConn in 1986 saying that digital technology would make books “3 dimensional.” Hyperlinks in the text could take the reader to myriad related articles and media. It seems technology is catching up with that vision. Of particular relevance is the text book, “Computer Mediated Communication” by Thurlow, Lengel and Tumic, with its accompanying website.

    As to copyright, after recently reading “Free” by Christopher Anderson (which technically I listened to!) copyright will become more and more difficult because once something is digitized it really is free. Authors will need to be more creative in monetizing themselves. My friend who is an author is not real happy about this.

    Like many who have responded, I lament the loss of paper and the simple pleasure of holding a book. Could it be that there is a sensuality, an intimacy if you will, that is formed between the book and the reader through touch, dog-eared pages, underlined sections and notes in the margins?

    Thanks for the post!

    • If the paper book is worth it to you — and as long as the paper book is
      worth it to you or anybody else — you'll almost certainly be able to get
      it, printed on demand and sent to you to arrive tomorrow. I just think the
      allure will fade over time.


      • Mike, it's not that the allure will fade over time, but rather the extra cost of a printed book and many of its other disadvantages (e.g., weight, space, inability to search for a phrase or store it in the digital cloud so that you don't lose it when your house burns down, etc.) will make physical books less alluring.

        In short, people will always love the benefits of books; they just won't be willing to pay much for them.

      • Moonshadow

        Speak for yourself, Mike! The “allure” will not fade for some of us….

      • I never try to speak for anybody *except* myself!


  • Funny how no one mentions that kind of musty moldy smell books get after a while.

    I'm about to move home again, and as I start to figure out how to pack my stuff, I say a little thanks to the Universe that I don't have four books shelves worth of books I feel I have to move around.

    • Perry, I think you're the bleeding edge of what will be a very fashionable
      point of view a few years from now when some people will really scratch
      their heads at how much sheer weight and bulk other people lug around with
      them that they never touch. The people that lug the stuff around will be
      thought of as a little…well…eccentric. (Right now you are!)

      The moldy smell? You don't like the moldy smell?


    • “Funny how no one mentions that kind of musty moldy smell books get after a while.”

      With respect, books don't get a smell if you store them with the care you'd store anything else. If your books are moldy, you left them in the basement. If you leave your Kindle in the basement it will smell too.

  • Mike,

    The chosen title of your post is incendiary: perhaps by design. I’m sure the comments will pour forth and most of them will resemble the ones you’ve thus far received. I could go and grab comments from any number of other blogs that have posited that “ebooks will conquer print” or alternately that “print will prevail” and just cut and paste here and save your readers (and some newcomers, apparently) the trouble.

    Discussions about ebooks would be ever-so-much more enlightening if commentators, analysts, journalists, vendors, and all the writers & readers in the world (who have I left out?) would stop putting printed books up AGAINST digital books, as if this was a hardcore wrestling Deathmatch (that's the ones “with a heavy emphasis on the usage of foreign objects to induce bleeding”).

    Print doesn’t have to die for ebooks to succeed. Ebooks have already secured a solid place in the market without destroying print publishing. The only people who NEED to know about the balance between print and digital are your paying clients, the publishers and resellers, who must make informed business choices surrounding the delivery medium.

    For writers and readers it’s immaterial. They’ve never had it so good: hardcovers, paperbacks, digital, excerpts, AND lower pricing with solid margins and royalties. These are heady days to be a writer, as digital invigorates the reading market. And readers find themselves at a bountiful buffet, constantly replenished, with all sort of new ways to experience and share in the creativity of authors.

    I won’t recall the timeless words of Rodney King here, but I think that lovers of print should be reassured that the latest technological advances in book printing essentially ensures that their shelves need never be bare. And for the fast-growing cadre who love ebook accessibility, portability and more, they are certain to find ever-improving technology and access to feed their unslakable thirst for well-told tales.

    Oh, heck: Can’t we all just get along?

    • Thad, mostly right but on nuanced points with substantial impact, I don't

      As the ebook growth eats into print book sales, it adversely affects
      bookstores (and shelf space outside of bookstores.) Bookstores serve two
      vital functions in the ecosystem. They are, by far, the most efficient
      marketing mechanism publishers have. And they are, hands down, the path to
      the market for the biggest publishers that pay the biggest advances and
      develop the careers of the most authors.

      So while it is true that, for now, ebooks simply represent incremental value
      for everybody as you described, in the long run they will be very highly
      disruptive. Think of it a bit like global warming. The short run
      consequences are anecdotal and, for just about everybody (in the planetary
      sense), quite tolerable. But it won't stay that way if present trends
      continue and there is no reason to think they'll do anything but accelerate.
      Just like the situation with ebooks and print.

      Of course, if global warming accelerates enough, we won't have to worry
      about the lack of bookstores.


    • Moonshadow

      Thad, you are right! If people want their e-books, then more power to them. People have thought me “unusual” (at best) for years for having a lot of books. My feeling is that with POD, those of us who can't be parted from our printed books will always have an option. I treasure many of my books like they are children. Let anyone try to wrestle them from my cold, dead hands! Just sayin'….

      • Yes, anybody who wants print will be able to get it from POD sources.

        But, as for print versus e and whether it is a “battle”, just look at the

        facts. Print is declining, ebooks are rising, Inexorably. Does somebody

        think this is suddenly going to stop?


  • Now I'm a 100% hardcore, booyah, ebook cheerleader and have been for many years now (so much so that I dedicated my academic career to researching ebooks and interactivity before leaving for the real world after my PhD).

    So most would expect me to agree with you or Negroponte.

    But I don't. At last not with all of your points.

    Any prediction beyond, maybe, a year is risky. Especially when it comes to something as global and distributed as technological development.

    To wit, ongoing technological progress is an article of faith not fact. given a thirty year timetable you have too many variables that can't be predicted or accounted for. Peak oil. Other recessions or even depressions. Political upheavals.

    It has to be said that in face of crisis or even temporary collapse, the printed book is *more*, not less, resilient. A week long power outage would render ebooks temporarily extinct. Iceland, my home country, is connected to the outside internet via a single fiberoptic cable which can, and does, disconnect for no apparent reason. Infrastructure disruption of this kind can be caused by anything from deterioration due to further financial down-cycles, war, embargoes, sabotage, resource depletion. Ebooks are built on a complex, globalised infrastructure and supply chain and this makes them more fragile, not less.

    Also most of the progress needed in ereading isn't technological but political in nature. Ebook layouts, design and the capabilities of ereaders are today roughly where the web was ten years ago. There's no technological reason why it should be so, other than the fact that many of the principals in the industry decided that ebook's should not match the web in capabilities (epub standard is full of arbitrary differences from the web as a platform).

    Even if you do believe that technological progress will continue unabated there's nothing inevitable in social or political progress and as I said, most of the issues that are holding epub back in terms of graphics, design and rendering are social and political in nature.

    All of this isn't to say that ebooks aren't the future of publishing or that they won't be the dominant form of publishing in a few short years.

    What I'm saying is that we don't know what happens after that, that it's dangerous to assume that history goes along a constant forward vector, and that we can't rule out the possibility that the era of ebooks might only last a few decades before economic and environmental circumstances return people to print.

    I don't know. You don't know. And Negroponte has an atrocious track record when it comes to predictions. People should refrain from making long-term predictions because the course of a single industry can be affected by so many outside factors that are invisible and unknowable by any single person (or group of people).

    Anyway, my two pence.

    • I agree that predictions — particularly about the future (irony intended)
      — are quite unreliable. Mine as much as anybody else's. And, in general,
      short-term predictions are more reliable than longer-term ones. But not
      always. Think again of global warming.

      I think that, with your attitude about long-range future thinking, you'd
      probably find your time better spent in places than other than this blog. I
      am happy to have your readership and I am happy to have intelligent comments
      that don't agree with me, but if you think people shouldn't be making
      predictions about the future, all hanging around here is going to do is
      annoy you!


      • That's one of my points (prediction). How about the other one?: Ebooks are held back by politics and economics, not technology.

        Speculating on the future impact on publishing of improved tech is meaningless as long as we don't know how the restructuring of the publishing industry is going to play out. The economic and social structure of the industry trumps whatever technological capabilities future developments might present.

        The publishing industry won't ever be capable of leveraging fantastic screen technology, for example, if it locks itself in on tech that's more than ten years behind the curve (mobi & epub).

        It's not that people shouldn't do long term predictions about the future, just that they should realise that they're not predictions, they're plausible fictions. They can OTOH be valuable as “if … then” thought exercises just as long as everybody realises that they leave out all of the unknown and unknowable events that will actually take place in the as history plays out.

        I'd prefer long term thinking from the perspective of risk instead. (e.g. “What are the risks, long-term, if we do X?”). But, then again, I have been accused of being a pessimist.

        And by the by, you do a lot less long-range future thinking on this blog than you seem to believe. Most of your posts are current event and near term (1-5 years) analyses that are informed by a very (very!) thorough knowledge of publishing history, which I enjoy a lot. I don't think you've done a “let's make stuff up about the long term future” kind of post since sometime in the spring, I think. At least, that's if my memory isn't failing me.

        Anyway, I made my point and it was acknowledged even if disagreed with. Can't ask for much than that so I'll let you guys carry on.

      • Thanks Baldur. You have rendered any contribution from me unnecessary, for which Mike surely would thank you!

      • Moonshadow

        I vote with you, Andy–Baldur is right.

      • If you go back to my End of Trade Publishing Houses speech of 2007 or the
        Shift speech from 2009, you'll see that I do have the long-term arc as
        overriding thesis about where things are going. But most people, and most
        practical problems, are shorter term.

        If the current publishing industry can't make the use of technology that the
        public demands and will buy, they will be replaced by a new publishing
        industry. The barriers to entry are going down, not up, and I expect
        publishers to have increasing competition from other content producers and
        from other brands.


  • fscott924

    I wonder what the average age is of the people commenting here. Over 40 I'm guessing? This revolution will not be driven by the older demographic, of course people who grew up with print books will always feel a sense of nostalgia about them. It's like black-&-white movies. We who grew up with them cherish them, but sit a 12-year-old down in front of a black-&-white movie and watch the eyes glaze over.

    The next generation who grow up with digital books will feel zero nostalgia for print. It will take 10 years or longer, but the changeover from print to digital will happen because today's teens will be coming from a college experience where all their textbooks are digital, all their bookmarking and highlighting and note-making will be digital, all their media consumption will be digital. I also believe young people will be much more environmentally conscious than previous generations and the print book will be looked at with some condemnation, literally as a dead tree artifact that belongs to an environmentally careless 20th century mindset.

    Change isn't technology driven, it's human driven, and for better or worse it is the youth culture that drives the economy for media. This is the most compelling reason for predicting the death of print. Print is to young people what the horse and buggy was in 1910. Young people will only know the internal combustion engine, and have no use for the horse and buggy. Except, that is, for a romantic ride around Central Park that evokes a sense of the past. Thus, like the horse and buggy, the print book will cease to have a practical function in society.

    The good news is the art of writing and storytelling is not going anywhere. As someone else mentioned here, digital will reinvigorate the interest in a good story well told. And this follows the Golden Rule that technology is only a delivery mechanism, be it via a printed page or an LCD screen; it is the content wherein all the value lies.

    • I saw it reported (not sure by whom) that senior citizens were big Kindle
      buyers because the page-turning on the device was easier for arthritic
      fingers and, of course, because the ability to change to larger fonts is
      exactly what old eyes need!

      It would be appropriate following your post to say that this isn't
      “black-and-white”, but you are certainly largely correct. I'm sure far fewer
      20-year olds are stubbornly clinging to print than 50-year olds! And today's
      5-year old will wonder what the fuss was about when they're old enough to
      understand the argument!


      • Chris

        I'm 37. I rocked up to my local library for a Kindle/iPad showing two months ago and discovered a library full of retirees. I live in a popular coastal town full of oldies, so it should have been expected but never-the-less every single participant was desperate to get their hands on the ereaders.

        I think you will find a large proportion of the older generation are very receptive to the coming revolution. In fact, I'd be willing to be they are less sentimental than people my age.

      • Makes sense to me, Chris.


  • Matt Williams

    Thing is, the eBook is improving but it is still not up to the level of a paper book. When the eBook reaches that level and then keeps improving then your argument will make sense.

    • Better is in the eye of the beholder. Some beholders don't think it is
      better yet. Some do. But the printed book is a fixed target; the ebook is
      improving all the time.


  • Great discussion but I am puzzled by the push back against what seems like inevitable shifts in behavior and economics. The printed book grew out of a desire to have easier access for all to content. I am sure there were grumblings back in the day that it just wasn't as much fun as waiting for the storyteller to light the fire, start the sermon etc and listen to the powerful oratory, but better it most surely was.
    If its in the interest of every player on the production side of the ecosystem to move away from paper as the default, then its going to happen. The ability for readers to share, re-sell and otherwise re-distribute a book will be a critical shift that will come eventually.

    Alas, I fear that the ability ogle a friends physical bookshelf and admire / mock their good / poor taste in literature, will become a lost art form.

    • Yup and you can't see what the person on the subway is reading.


  • I'm generally a fan of ebooks but there are few things that still a few unsolved technical and social issues around the ongoing switch to digital books. The bathtub/beach/lake, etc. issue is a real one in that if I drop a $5.99 paper back in the pool, it will eventually dry enough to still be readable. Even if it doesn't, I'm out $5.99, not $150.

    Secondly, there has been little or no progress with libraries. The few ebook options for libraries are just terrible. Things like checking out an ebook for only 3 days and not allowing disconnected reading make ebooks from libraries all but useless. Ultimately I suspect that there will be a Netflix model for cheaper ebooks but libraries provide important access to books and ebook sellers appear to have little incentive help libraries.

    Finally licensing is a real issue. Today I can do any number of things with a book that I own including passing it along to friend and making a little dough at a garage sale. Music went through a similar shift with DRM providers shutting down and people losing access to their songs. There will need to better protection for consumers, not just providers.


    • Mark,

      The library issue will persist for reasons explained very well by Tim
      Spaulding in this comment string. The rights issues will remain confusing
      for a long time too, partly because there are so many legacy contracts and
      because the rights are passed along from author (thru agent) to publisher to
      others (sometimes other publishers) and get confused and restricted along
      the way.

      And I think if all the bathtub reading time is devoted exclusively to paper
      books, it won't change the overall curve of adoption terribly much.


  • Maggie

    No one has commented on the fact that many in the world – even in this first world country – remain “unconnected”. As many as 37% of people in the United States do not have access to high speed internet or computers. If ebooks did actually replace all print those people will be even more removed from social discourse. Fortunately, it is most likely that both formats can and will coexist. Computers and conenction ar still far from ubiquitous.

    • I would say that connectivity is far from *universal*, but it is already
      ubiquitous. And the people who have no internet connection probably often go
      to libraries to read books anyway (an internet connection is a far cheaper
      way to acquire content than buying books, magazines, and newspapers) and
      they can read ebooks there too.

      Ebooks will not solve the problem of poverty, but I really think it is a
      stretch to suggest they make it worse.


    • Maggie, first of all, nobody is destroying paper books or mandating them out
      of existence. They will become obsolete (over the next 10 to 20 years, which
      is a *long* time) because people don't choose to consume them anymore, not
      because they aren't available.

      I agree that many people aren't connected and I agree that's a tragedy. And
      I'll bet you'd agree, though you didn't suggest it, that making Internet
      access available to everyone as a right would make a lot of sense.

      However, I don't think your point carries much weight. I'd hazard the guess
      that most of the people without Internet connections don't buy very many
      books anyway. If they read books from a library (and, frankly, the reality
      of demographics suggests that the group you've chosen doesn't do much of
      that either), then they can read electronic books in the library too. I
      guess the hangup would be those who *borrow *the books from the library,
      have no Internet connection, and aren't covered by any library that lends
      devices (ereaders) as well as books. I'll never say there aren't or won't be
      any such people, but I don't think you're talking about very many either.


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  • Bruno Beagle

    sad that you are unable to see the delight in enjoying the fusion of text, typography, paper, book design, and book covers … Reading text is one thing – but there's also LOOKING at books, art books, poetry – where the order is important, the ability to flip serendipitously and not in some linear fashion, formats (not everything is A4 thank God) ….
    I buy more books as time goes on – and try and spend less time in front of a screen, of whatever size.

    • I appreciate your compassion for my limitations. But I'll admit to being
      more of a fan of the words an author writes (and an editor edits) than the
      package those words are put in (most of the time.) You're right that art
      books and poetry are less amenable to ebook presentation (today) than
      straight text narrative. Most of what I read is straight text narrative.
      (Most of what most people read is straight text narrative.)


  • Libraries – places of respite – wherefore?!!

  • Jeff RoseMartland

    I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with much of what you have said, yet disagreeing with your conclusions. No, I won't be defending the smell of glue, except in a broad sense, but more of that later. I see ebook platforms steadily improving, and the huge competition increasing, until the inevitable collapse. Just like home computers, home video games, and various other bit of technology, there will come a time (I'll go out on a limb and say withint 5 years) where a) the market will be glutted with perhaps 100s of platforms, b) because of this competition, platforms will start to be sold at a loss, just to keep the companies visible, then c) companies will fold in rapid succession until there are a handfull left with little difference between them. Generally, this process takes 5 years as well, so look for at least 10 years before ebooks stop fighting with themselves long enough to pose a serious threat to printing. Meanwhile, I completely agree that print has achieved perfection in its form. However, progress is continuous; new bindings and specialty print materials are developed constantly. Look in the toddler books for examples. Those books receive the most abuse and the harshist conditions and so are continually redesigned. There's even some printed on Tyvek (DuPont's housewrap) which is almost indestructable using hands or teeth. I also agree that ebooks will snatch a share of the market: newspapers & magazines (which ebooks will save), certain textbooks (thereby saving many students from shoulder injuries), and disposable reads (AKA airport novels) such as most mysteries, romances, trendy business books, etc – those books purchased, read once (or not) and tossed away. These books will likely go to ebook. However, we must remember that the paperback was supposed to replace the hardback almost 100 years ago… and hasn't. There are still books that people treasure, not just for the content, but also for the sensory feel of the paper, binding, yes and even smell. Despite cheap paperback alternatives, people are still willing to pay for expensive leather bound, gold embossed, hand illuminated editions of Moby Dick. Classics read for education may be read on an ereader. Classics read for pleasure will still be print, and expensive print at that! Besides, I don't think this has to be an either/or scenerio. Both platforms – print and electronic – have their benefits and liabilities. It seems more likely that each will survive and bolster the other. Afterall, despite centuries of type and keyboards, we still have pencils and chaulk. All the best, Jeff Rose-Martland Author of Game Misconduct

    • Jeff, I find myself in the mirror image if your position. I agree with a lot
      of what *you* say but not with your conclusions.

      I think the missing link in what you're saying is what the movement of sales
      on the books ebooks are clearly best for *now *– straight-text narrative —
      will do to bookstores. And then, in turn, what the damage to bookstores will
      mean for the sales of those books you describe which are both better in
      print now and the focus of production progress.

      As for platform wars, they're definitely coming. Amazon is digging in with
      Kindle. Blio is doing something necessarily different to do a better job of
      presenting complex book pages. Copia is building in unique social networking
      (although Copia's platform is compatible with some epub files sold by other
      platforms.) This could well have the effect, over time, of having each
      consumer choose one to be loyal to, so that the books they buy are all on
      the same “shelves” and are compatible with the same reader.

      On the other hand, it hasn't had that effect on me personally…yet. I have
      four ebook readers loaded into my iPhone (Kindle, B&N, Kobo, and iBooks) and
      I am still roaming around the four different stores to make purchases. After
      all, they're all on my phone, so what's the difference?

      And it is not clear what percentage of the ebook business a platform needs
      to be viable. I haven't seen clear analysis of the cost structure of an
      ebook retailer and platform, and many of them (certainly Kindle, Google, and
      iBooks) are part of larger strategies to sell devices or search advertising,
      further complicating the picture of what's necessary for survival.

      Mike Shatzkin
      [email protected], 212-758-5670
      Founder & CEO
      The Idea Logical Company, Inc.,
      Co-founder: Filedby, Inc.
      Conference Chair: Digital Book World

    • Moonshadow

      I like what you said, Jeff. And I WILL be one of those “eccentrics” in the years to come– and quite proud of it too! I don't care how much can be achieved electronically, reading a book on an electronic device will NEVER replace the sensual experience of reading a printed book. I think Mr. Shatzkin made the remark, that he doesn't re-read books. Well, guess what–some of us DO! If I love a book, I will re-read it many, many times. Why? Because I am a writer myself, and an intellectual–I like to “mull things over.” I think that's a trait that is disappearing in this instant-gratification society. However, I do think this article is great–because it proves at least some people still do care about reading…

      • There aren't hundreds of platforms. There really are two formats: mobi

        (Amazon) and epub (everybody else.)

        Apps are actually more likely to cause platform issues.

        As for the notion that people need printed books in order to re-read them,

        if that's what's implied, I don't see the logic. The fact that I don't

        re-read books and I do read ebooks are not logically or necessarily



  • Susan

    I don't think it's either/or. It's possible that the way printed books are created and distributed will change, and the quantities will drastically decrease (the overprint/ remainder model won't work). I think there is a lot of squirming now because the changes signal the death of a comfortable income associated with publishing. Is it possible that Manhattan may not be the center of publishing in the future because the salaries and rents are out of line with the income generated?

    • The printed book's fade will be a very long one, I agree. And by the end of
      the decade, your conjecture about Manhattan's importance to the overall
      scheme of things might be looking prescient as well.


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  • Vertrauen

    My problem with the ereaders, as you've mentioned in your article, is the current technology around them. So, the screen isn't as highly advanced as I'd like it. I guess we're looking at 5 years (I'm not completely au fait with what Amazon/Sony/Apple are up to) before they really get it right (touch screen with no glare, please). Add-ons like dictionaries and taking notes aren't really what I'm interested in (they're add-ons, after all). It's great that there are the beginnings of facing pages and/or flexible pages. That's a plus as that's what I'm more used to. I would guess another 5/10 years before that becomes standard. And you mention that well designed pages with footnotes and everything are on the way. Brilliant. Same goes for different sized pages, as this would include cookery books, kids' books, art books, etc. I guess this would be longer, but maybe the 5 years I'm giving everything else is a bit pessimistic, so we'll say 10 for all that. The mention of people liking the smell of books is not really an argument (either in your article or from the people who may offer it) as the smell only really lasts when the book is brand new. The dropping in the bath is a moot point too, as is sand in the machine as I'm sure that technology is being developed or will be developed soon. The e-ink technology is great, as this won't strain my eyes and will make me able to read for long periods without having to take a break (maybe this doesn't affect other people, but I have very bad eyesight and have to take a break after reading a computer for 1/2 an hour or so). You mention that availability is being sorted, fantastic that means I can get any book published (well, within reason: I guess smaller publishers who can't afford to go down the technology route will go under, but well if they're no longer publishing then their books aren't available).

    So, now I have a device that is just as easy to read as paper, has managed to avoid any of the pitfalls that many electronic devices have (damage due to water, sand etc), all books are available in its particular form, and looks exactly like an old printed book. So we're looking at 5-10 years for technology to replicate what a book is already giving us? Well, not quite replicate: You'd have to add on 150/300 euro (or whatever currency from wherever you are) for the particular model, not including adaptors, memory sticks, leather covers, lighted covers and so forth. And then wait three years before the new model arrives (you may want to stick with your old one, but it always seems that technology only ever lasts until the new model arrives, what is it with that?)

    Having said all that, I think you're right. If the companies market this right, people will look aghast at printed books and think 'what were we thinking'. Ebooks are here to stay, not because of the advances you write about (although they have to be developed in order for people to want to buy them) but because of the huge profits technology companies are putting behind them.

    So the initial investment is say 400 euro for everything every three years, and you're ready to buy the book. The book will cost the same as the printed version (more if there's not too much in the way of competition available). And no, I'm not a luddite, I have a mac, an ipod, hell even in the day I bought into minidiscs. They made sense. This doesn't.

    • I'm going to limit my response to your lengthy objection to three points:

      1. You assume that your preferences will mirror other people's preferences.
      Your post reads as though nobody is buying ereaders or reading on them
      already. This, you might have noticed, is not true.

      2. You arbitrarily assign five and ten year development cycles to things
      which strike me as not only too long, but wildly too long. You pulled the
      numbers out of the air; I'd just throw them back up in the air.

      3. You assume that the content, after the purchase of the reader, will cost
      the same or more as it does now. This is contrary to every piece of
      available evidence, from what has been the price of ebooks or from what has
      been the price of anything else digital.

      I'd say this is a very impressive example, and textbook definition, of


  • Chris

    Hi Mike,

    Just some quick questions, somewhat off topic:

    1. Which retailer do you predominantly purchase from?
    2. Which device/s do you read off?
    3. If it isn't a smartphone/kindle/iPad how do you access Amazon's storefront with ease?

    I'm also interested in hearing your thoughts about Amazon's continued desire to stick with a proprietary format now that the ereader market is being saturated with competitors to the kindle. I originally thought Bezos was a prick for not supporting epub (yeah, I hear the kindle will support, I'm talking the site storefront), but now I think his reluctance is a very smart business move. He is, essentially, protecting the Amazon retail environment while expanding the app take-up on other devices – which provides more incentive then ever to lock up the format.

    Personally, I've not bought a single title from any store other than Amazon and I think it has more to do with ease of use and list of titles.

    • Chris

      Apologies, Mike, I see you have answered my device question in an earlier comment.

      I jumped the gun a little!!

  • Chaasil3

    eBooks are absolutely the way things are going. Amazon currently is giving away new author Henry Perez's 2nd novel MOURN THE LIVING as a free download and it's skyrocketed to their #1 download. He's getting great publicity, and now has thousands of new readers. Thanks to eBooks.

    • Sure is easier and cheaper to give away sample books with e than with print.
      But it's a little dicey too. As publishers and booksellers start giving
      books away, they'll open up an opportunity for many people to stick to free
      and promotional and avoid ebooks for sale.


  • Vilate

    I always find posts like these interesting. A little frightening, too, to be honest. I hate the idea of my beautiful, printed books becoming obsolete (which, to me, they never will anyway). I certainly don't think printed books will ever go away completely, but there are a lot of people who do like the e-readers better.

    Your point about the e-reader technology being updated and improved so much, though, is exactly why I don't want to bother getting one any time soon. It's the reason I can't stand to open iTunes – there's always a version or whatever that iTunes wants to download. It's more annoying than it's worth.

    Printed books are consistent. I don't open my copy of Fellowship of the Ring one day to find that it wants me to download version 3.5, which will give me more realistic fight scenes or pages turning.

    It's a beautiful thing for me to get away from the ever-changing technology and go with something that will always be the same. I think the world will find that attitude in a lot of people.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • I can see your point about always changing technology (although I pretty
      much always ignore iTunes when it wants to install new software. Once in a
      while I find that I want to do something with my iPhone that requires it,
      and then I get it, but I have probably skipped the installation of three
      interim versions in the meantime.) And the period of rapid change of ebook
      readers we're in won't last forever.

      My opinion is that, in the meantime, you're missing out on some good reading
      time, lightening your load, and enjoying the convenience of instant
      downloads. Each of us has to decide on our own tradeoffs, though. I am not
      advocating a particular point of view here; rather I'm trying to divine what
      will be the collective results of millions of individual decisions as things


  • All those eccentric weirdoes walking around sniffing paper books…I can hardly wait! I tend to agree more with the five-year outlook than the 10-year, because the revolution is happening exponentially faster we all predicted six months ago, when it was 20 years.

    Scott Nicholson

    • I have a good friend with a big brain who keeps saying the speed of change
      hits a wall at some point. We'll see.


  • I'm watching with interest as the rise of e-publishing smashes the economic viability of the traditional means for distribution of print books. (Witness the decline of B&N, etc.) Thanks to POD, however, the physical printed book itself will, though no longer dominant, far outlast the chain bookstore or, for that matter, distributors such as Ingram.

    • Absolutely right. People will be able to get their content in book form for
      as long as they want, regardless of the fate of press runs, bookstores, or,
      for that matter, publishers.


  • Robert M. Case

    This one of the first mentions of images I have seen discussed: “The challenge of delivering highly designed pages with pictures and captions and call-outs and on-page footnotes is being tackled, notably by Blio but they’re not alone.” Publishing took a big jump in the late 1920's-early 1930's with the adoption of the CMYK halftone method for pictures, and soon e-publishing will too. However, current image formats are exponentially larger than ASCII or Unicode character files, causing an overload of the digital infrastructure (iPhone/iPad/AT&T). The beauty of “pictures of pages,” as with the rich content reproduction of the printing plate, is that any font, any language, and any drawing or photograph is rendered as the publisher/designer intended.

    • But the *problem *with “pictures of pages” is that they don't adjust nicely
      to different sized screens! That's the magic of straight text with epub; it
      gives a useful presentation on any screen on any device.


  • James Nuttall

    I have dyslexia and must have every thing read to me. I earned my Ph.D. by having students read to me. Today, I now have technology read to me. This means that everything I read must appear in digital form before I can read it. I spend quit a bit of time scanning books so I can have my computer read them to me. I am glad that publishers are finally putting out digitized books. I find that many books I'm interested in are now finally available to me to read. What a joy to simply download and then start reading.

    • James, I think you have just presented a very stark reason why digital books
      are better than print books. With your indulgence. I will start pointing out
      to the print book defenders that they are being unsympathetic to people with
      challenges that can be readily overcome.


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  • Mike, I love your blog. This post is great too, but it leaves out something that perhaps is worth discussing on a future post (since I'm not sure if you've brought it up before): how will all this impact authors?

    Specifically, are you seeing authors who are telling agents/publishers: “I want to retain 100% of the digital rights?”

    It seems that authors would be fools to give sell them for cheap. It takes an author just over one hour to post his book on Smashwords, Google Editions, Amazon, and scribd. That short investment of time would give the author about 70% commissions for life instead of the 10% or whatever he gets after the agent takes his cut.

    An author would be a fool not to take the do-it-yourself route for eBooks! Imagine if Dan Brown got to keep his digital rights: he would make 5 times more money by keeping his agent/publisher out of the deal.

    Imagine if Stephen King said, “Sorry, no more digital rights for you guys. I'm keeping them.”

    What could the publishers/agents say? He'll just take his business elsewhere and find a publisher/agent who is happy to make money just focusing on the print version of his books.

    Are you seeing this happen? If not, when do you think it will?

    Of course, the publishers could buy the rights by offering a massive advance, but the economics are against them. It would only work if the author doesn't think the eBook will sell well and the publisher believes it will. Such cases would be rare as authors tend to think more highly of their books than publishers do.

    I envision a world where authors hire agents to sell: print rights, foreign rights, movie rights, merchandising rights, etc….

    Do you agree? It seems that this subject deserves a full post and discussion. The implications are enormous. It would disrupt publishers and agents. Ultimately, it would bankrupt many of them as the shift to eBooks reaches 70%+ of the market.

    • Francis, I have thought about exactly the scenario you anticipate and I have
      raised it with major trade publishers. It is the reason I have focused on
      how much of the business moves online (print and electronic) rather than
      simply how much moves to digital books because that is the key metric to
      determine when the floodgates open on this problem.

      Yes, it is going to happen. It has only happened so far on a very small
      scale (thriller writer J.A. Konrath being the leader here) so far. The big
      houses mostly believe they're protected by their ability and willingness to
      pay big advances, but I don't think that will protect them when the
      situation develops as you describe it. It is one of the reasons I think
      general trade publishing houses are the most highly challenged. What an
      author will need from a publisher in an ebook-centric world is *marketing*,
      and vertical publishers are much better positioned to provide it than
      general trade publishers in the years to come. Getting from manuscript form
      to customer's hands will require far less organization and scale and
      complexity and, with the extra margins, you're quite right that at least
      some big branded authors will think “I'd rather just do this myself.”

      One other barometer here. A major agent told me at Book Expo this past year
      that he was working hard to learn about self-publishing because he had many
      clients telling him they wanted to consider the option.


      • I agree with you 100%. Your comment about marketing being the key value-add reminds of of an ah-ha moment I had yesterday.

        Someone asked me who are the most important people that determine the success of an author. After much thought, I said, “The cover designer and the publicist.”

        I left out the editor, because a good writer can do well by outsourcing the editing to his fans, who can review the manuscript. For example, I've got 50 Beta Readers who are commenting on each chapter of my book as I write. They catch typos and advise me on editing out parts. It's crowdsourcing your editing.

        I'm also crowdsourcing my book cover by sponsoring a contest ( I've got many graphic designer friends who will compete for designs.

        So that just means I have to hire a publicist.

        Since an agent does basically zero marketing and publishers do near zero (except for their superstars), publishers will have to promise heavy marketing support. If they don't, the publisher-agent ecosystem will go extinct.

        That's because the smart authors of the future will invest in a good publicist and a good cover designer.

        Unfortunately, most authors don't have enough money (or guts) to spend $5,000-10,000 to hire those two people.

        Hence, publishers and agents evolve into venture capitalists: placing bets on authors who don't have the capital (or courage) to do it themselves. However, if they don't bundle heavy marketing support with each offer, then authors will question why they need them. Because at that point, publishers only have one real remaining benefit: making pretty covers (which will still be important for eBooks).

        Lastly, even if publishers promise marketing, they will still have to share more of the digital pie with authors if they want to viable. If not, the list of authors walking away will only increase. (Steve Covey did so recently.)

        Glad you liked the post on Seth. Here's another good one:

      • Francis. LOTS of authors hire publicists. Ask any freelance publicist in or
        out of town and they'll tell you that the author is paying them as often as
        a publisher is. But you're right that very few hire cover designers. As the
        business becomes more and more digital, of course, the importance of cover
        design diminishes in relation to metadata. And it is VERY hard for an author
        to control metadata around and through a publisher.


    • PS: I finished that reply and then checked this link. Author Seth Godin, for
      reasons that go far beyond the ability to capture more ebook revenue, is
      through with regular publishing houses!

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  • Erudite analysis Mike. 100% agree on your timeframes. The digital evolution takes a lot longer than many think and one need only look at digital/physical revenue split in even the most technologically literate recording companies to see that truth.

    Interesting in your comments that the trade houses think their competitive advantage is an ability to pay big advances. That's dinosaur thinking, unless of course they really mean they are able to make big investments in an author's career and that is a very different think.

    • I am sure they conflate the ability to pay big advances with the ability to
      make big investments. But they also see, accurately, that being able to pay
      big advances gives them leverage in the other aspects of the negotiation.


  • Robert Collings

    I meant to write “very different thing”, but of course different thinking is the name of the game 🙂

  • Mccabemartha

    Yes, Mike you are ahead of the game as usual. Perfect predictions of what is to come for the reading public. Will we still have a reading public in 40 years? Maybe a chip in the arm will tell us what is going on and entertain us in 3 dimensions.

    • Martha, that chip in your arm (if that's where you want to place it) will
      not only inform you in 3 dimensions, it might also make you understand it in
      3 new languages! Oh, the changes the next generation will see…


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  • Give up my printed books? Never! They are firmly ensconsced in my bookshelves, right between my eight tracks and my BETAMAX tapes.

    What's interesting to me is that readers will defend, often very vociferously, their position on digital vs. print, but when it comes to music lovers the conversation is usually much more passive. “CDs, iTunes, eh, as long as I get my music.”

    Loyalists like me, who have both their entire music collection on their iPods as well as a wall full of CDs, well we know that there is plenty of room in our lives for both print AND digital.

    • The attachment to the printed book is, I believe, much more powerful,

      sentimental, and visceral than the attachment to CDs and even to records

      (which deliver a different sound and come with considerably more interesting



  • Charles Toftoy

    By 2020, bookstores will be like curosity shops, having eye-catching gift items, plus large ebook sections, some printed books and a nice cafe. Publishers will be narrowed down to just a few. They've done it to themselves by being greedy, offering the author very little. Some fourth graders in Va are using iPads, so the furure is clear. The tidal wave of transformation is on its way. Charles Toftoy, Va

    • I think the bookstores will be like curiosity shops and I think they'll sell

      *mostly *used books. But I don't think they'll sell ebooks. Can't say any

      point to ebooks being retailer-driven.

      And I think there will be a lot of publishers, but there won't be a lot of

      general trade publishers.


  • prwins

    From the perspective of a book reader its all good if you don't look behind the curtain.Who controls those pdf files you are downloading and paying for.? This will eventually tip the scales at certain point in time and the same Amazon(s) will be in full control what and who is allowed to be plugged into their own pdf information highway.They will probably own the publishing, much in the same way the television networks are usurped today, if you can see beyond the advertising smoke screens.When you buy a printed book you do have something in hand and its yours to share however you want.

    • I think you focus on things that, while real, don't matter much to most

      people reading most books. We don't usually re-read them. There are

      circumstances where having them change (or even disappear) might matter, but

      they're a sliver minority of the cases. If owning the physical book matters

      to you, almost all the time: you can.


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  • Moonshadow

    I would like to make a comment, the likes of which I really haven't seen on here yet. And that is–the experience of being in a bookstore, surrounded by books. Now, I know that many chains are disappearing fast, and will continue to do so. however, my favorite bookstore in the world is Half Price Books. You can spend HOURS in that store, browsing, drinking coffee, talking to people. It is a haven for book-lovers, and I do NOT mean e-book lovers–because the experience could not be the same with e-books. They don't have enough substance, they can't sit on a shelf and be perused. They distance people from one another, if anything. Pardon to those who don't agree, but the e-book just does not have the same power to allow fellow book-lovers to get together in an atmosphere of artistic aestheticism and socialize. And that, my fellow readers, is to me one of the greatest values of the printed book….

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    The convenience, portability and screen lighting of the
    e-reader could lethally diminish the demand for printed books, rendering the
    argument about where readers prefer to buy their paper page-turners irrelevant.
    Furthermore print book production, distribution and storage is not eco-friendly,
    and e-books eliminate the middlemen between the author and reader.

    On the other hand, regardless of how pervasive technology
    becomes in our literary lives, readers will continue to long to feel the
    seductively tangible turn of each page, flip rapidly through a book, take notes
    in the margins, have covers autographed, pass them on to the next generation
    and display their literary inclinations for all to see on bookshelves. Even
    before considering the added luster of book clubs, café-book store and plush
    seats in reading areas, bookstores already offer personal attention, the ease
    of browsing other nearby books and the civic opportunity to support local
    businesses. Online booksellers could be seen to offer a complementary (though
    impersonal) service for books that are not available locally. I am convinced
    that the argument needs to extend beyond the future of paper books to the
    future of reading itself, in our fast-paced distractible world enthralled to
    the allure of the moving image and social networking possibilities offered by
    ubiquitous handheld screens.


    • There are people (not here…) who think more about the “future of reading” than about the “future of books”. I’d look at that as the difference between deep scientific research and technology. One is of largely academic interest in the immediate world, but has a longterm payoff. The other is about using what we know to change things *now*. Few people do both. I don’t do both. I mostly leave the “future of reading” conversations to others and try to figure out how what we already do will port into the future. No doubt the one sometimes impinges on the other, as I’ve noted is the case with illustrated books. To the extent that it affects immediate commerce, I’m interested.


    • There are people (not here…) who think more about the “future of reading” than about the “future of books”. I’d look at that as the difference between deep scientific research and technology. One is of largely academic interest in the immediate world, but has a longterm payoff. The other is about using what we know to change things *now*. Few people do both. I don’t do both. I mostly leave the “future of reading” conversations to others and try to figure out how what we already do will port into the future. No doubt the one sometimes impinges on the other, as I’ve noted is the case with illustrated books. To the extent that it affects immediate commerce, I’m interested.


  • A key consideration that favors the e-book over its print
    cousin is that no tree is sacrificed for the considerable number of printed
    pages of the tangible read. Several liters of precious water are required to
    make one paper page. No printer ink is required for the e-book, and none needs
    to be bleached out of the printed page during recycling. This reduces harmful
    ink permeating the environment. Libraries are fast running out of room to host
    the burgeoning growth in published books, and space and resources are necessary
    to house and maintain them. It is resource intensive to ship books from a
    printery to the buyer. The aesthetic satisfaction of the touch, feel and smell
    of a book is a pleasure we can ill-afford if we are to limit the negative
    impact of the printing process and book distribution on the natural world. Most
    of us in the developed world are attuned to reading and scrolling through
    documents on a computer or small hand-held device screen; with that in mind,
    let us extend our repertoire to Kindles and Nooks.

  • Russian Colonel

    The ebook has several disadvantages that everyone has failed to see. EMP can wipe out it’s content. It consumes energy continously when accessed. IC chips lasts 4 to 5 years. Software and hardware formats compatability changes making older data impossible to access. Ebooks will only show what you want from it only because you know what’s in it. Ebooks can be electronically tampered and censored by BIG BROTHER, just look at what is happening to the internet, so many websites are missing or altered of their original content which removes the certainty and originality of information. In short ebooks is the path toward the ‘DIGITAL DARK AGE”. On the other hand ink on paper printed books cannot be EMP wiped out. Printed Books only consumes energy temporarily when being made and printed. Printed Books can lasts for decades up to a thousand years. It’s ALPHABET-BASED FORMAT will last forever and it’s paper-based hardware format will last for decades up to a thousand yrs. A printed book, once printed cannot be tampered or censored by BIG BROTHER and cannot be detected or located electronically which means it cannot be confiscated. 2 decades ago many prominent writers and scientists heralded the age of the paperless offices, schools, libraries, etc because of the introduction of the computer on a chip and the mini-computer in the 1980s which evolved into many of today’s different computers and YET WE ENDED UP USING MORE PAPER THAN EVER BEFORE! The French tried digitizing their National Library but after going through many software format changes and hardware format changes which caused them a fortune they all gave up and continued with INK ON PAPER PRINTED BOOKS! A book-based library will show you not only the information you have asked but also the information you needed to know but did not asked for. Not only that, as you browsed through a book-based library looking an specific information, other books containing other articles will continously show and advertise their presence to you whether you are interested or not, whether you have ask for it or not, so that you can be made to be aware of other articles that may and might aroused your interests in them which in turn makes you a more well rounded person. An ebook does not have that advantage. And ebooks leads you to the digital dark age and of unbridled BIG BROTHER CENSORSHIP!

    • When nervousness crosses the line to paranoia is not for me to say, but I will say I’m less nervous than you are.

      I don’t think the things you talk about are what most people think about when the make the decision about whether to read on paper or on screens.

  • Russian colonel

    If the ebooks had been in existence during the time of ancient sumeria up to the time of ancient egypt we would have no information about such civilizations since IC chips lasts just a few yrs whereas cuneiform and papyrus lasts for several thousands of yrs we still have access to information about such civilizations. E-Books = The Digital Dark Age.

    • Maybe true, but forensic tools will be better a thousand years from now too.

  • Russian colonel

    The ebook has several disadvantages that everyone has failed to see. EMP can wipe out it’s content. It consumes energy continously when accessed. IC chips lasts 4 to 5 years. Software and hardware formats compatability changes making older data impossible to access. Ebooks will only show what you want from it only because you know what’s in it. Ebooks can be electronically tampered and censored by BIG BROTHER, just look at what is happening to the internet, so many websites are missing or altered of their original content which removes the certainty and originality of information. In short ebooks is the path toward the ‘DIGITAL DARK AGE”.
    On the other hand ink on paper printed books cannot be EMP wiped out. Printed Books only consumes energy temporarily when being made and printed. Printed Books can lasts for decades up to a thousand years. It’s ALPHABET-BASED FORMAT will last forever and it’s paper-based hardware format will last for decades up to a thousand yrs. A printed book, once printed cannot be tampered or censored by BIG BROTHER and cannot be detected or located electronically which means it cannot be confiscated. 2 decades ago many prominent writers and scientists heralded the age of the paperless offices, schools, libraries, etc because of the introduction of the computer on a chip and the mini-computer in the 1980s which evolved into many of today’s different computers and YET WE ENDED UP USING MORE PAPER THAN EVER BEFORE!

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