To create a context for what will happen in publishing in the next five years, it is necessary to describe what I would call the inevitable future of book publishing, which could be less, but not much more, than 20 years away.
In that inevitable future, the printed book is an artifact or a rich person’s toy. No books are centrally printed and most of what we now call books are viewed on a variety of electronic readers. Die-hards will be able to print and bind a text to read it if that’s what they want to do, and art books will be printed 1-at-a-time for coffee table use or for collectors of printed archives. But those collectors will primarily occupy themselves with the hundreds of millions of books that were printed in the couple of hundred years before this inevitable future arrives.
This world will require an infrastructure which is scarcely yet invented, let alone in place. We have an investment of well over 100 years of work building the current infrastructure for book manufacturing and distribution. It includes pieces that have undergone dramatic change in the past decade or two, such as in typesetting and in retail bookselling. It also includes arrangements and practices for printing, warehousing, selling, and shipping which have changed much less since World War II.
But the change required to build a whole new paradigm is much greater than we’ve experienced. In the inevitable future I’ve described, printers and shippers are obviously in peril. Publishers, wholesalers, libraries, bookstores must certainly change form, even to serve the same purposes they serve today. The expertise at the logistics of moving physical goods which is so critical to make our current value chain work will be less highly valued.
Even those aspects of the future paradigm that are already invented have critical deficiencies that will need to be addressed before the new infrastructure can really be put into place.
We can ship digital files around, but at painfully slow speeds. To reach the new paradigm, we will have to move more bits at much greater speed. And we will.
We can execute Print-(and Bind)-on-Demand at a minimally acceptable quality and price for 1-color; affordable 4-color capability is said to be near, but it isn’t here yet. And the price of POD will have to come down to make it commercially viable. It will.
E-book readers need to get better, cheaper, and faster. They will.
Other parts of our future paradigm are much more of a mystery to us today.
We really don’t have a clue about how to manage rights in a much more decentralized world; nor do we have a handle on how pricing will be affected, except that we know any pricing practice based on unit manufacturing cost is irrelevant. Similarly, we can assume that the division of the revenue will change from today’s conventions that the distributing intermediaries get about half and the author gets between 5-and-15 percent of the retail price. But we don’t know how they’ll change, or how to change them.
We don’t really have a clue about content accessibility in an online world, which means metadata. We are struggling at the moment to generate standards for metadata to permit machines to interpret what they’re told; only when we get past the stage of standardizing what we now know must be presented will we deal with the harder question: what should we be presenting in the new infrastructure?
And we don’t really have a clue at the operating level about content agility: generating digital files when we make each and every book that will give us output as needed for any of the new distribution forms.
In the next five years, all of these components of the infrastructure will develop perceptibly.
Of course, the most critical piece of the new infrastructure that requires great development is the ebook itself, and, most of all, it will be necessary for people to start using machines to substitute for warm, fuzzy bound-up paper.
I agree with the Luddites who think that nobody, or the publishers’ marketing equivilent of nobody, will choose to read books on an ebook in the next few years. Some younger, more tech-oriented people may think using them is cool, as they now exist, but we all know that market doesn’t buy many books anyway. But the ebook readers will insinuate themselves, and this is how.
Institutions will distribute the ebook readers to reduce their own content distribution costs. Corporations and schools will be the primary distributors initially, so most of the content read on the first wave of ebooks distributed will be proprietary. In time, the number of users created by institutional self-interest will generate a market worth it for some publisheres to be marketing to.
Alongside this trend will be another one as widely-distributed personal digital assistants like Palm Pilots are drafted to double as ebook readers. While Microsoft’s new ClearType, which will deliver more readable text on screens, may help that trend, I don’t believe multi-use machines will be as powerful a market-builder for ebook files as institutional distribution. But as an adjunct, it will have an impact.
It is what happens next, though, that propels us to our inevitable future. Before long, more stuff will be available for ebook consumption than in print, simply because the elimination of the first printing cost barrier, combined with the increasingly ubiquitous ability to print one on demand when necessary for those without ebooks, will attract a lot of product to a new value chain. This will create a powerful force to coerce additional adaptees to ebooks who were not delivered by institutions or were previously uninterested in using their Palm Pilot as a reading device.
That change should take us to about ten years from now, by which time the physical experience provided by the ebooks will be much improved and the cultural barriers to acceptance further weakened.
And, at that point, the greater content availability and the sheer economic fact that a file can be offered much more cheaply than a printed book, will create what I call the “ebook flip”, leading to the inevitable future.
This transition does not suggest a highly profitable next five years for the book publishing business. Infrastructure creation is expensive, and there is also a cost in retiring pieces of the old infrastructure as they become vestigial. On the one hand we’ll spend to develop print-on-demand capabilities and a digital infrastructure to manage inventory more efficiently. On the other hand, what will we do with all the warehouse space we invested in to support our present ways of doing business? And for a heritage of some millions of titles to be accessible in the new context, they will have to be digitized, no small feat although many of the best minds are working on it.
With the context now established, here is a series of predictions of what we’ll see over the next five years, as we evolve to the inevitable future and build the capabilities it requires.
Print-on-Demand will become a routine capability inside the book trade, but won’t gain a foothold outside the book trade in this time period.
Ebook readers will become ubiquitous through corporate and institutional distribution. That means everybody will know lots of people who use them.
Personal digital assistants will become multi-use; some will also be phones, others will include the ability to be ebook readers.
Over the next five years, consumer take-up of ebook readers will remain minimal.
There will be a sharp increase in cross-border commerce between publishers and intermediaries facilitated by the Internet; an important component of that infrastructure, PubEasy, is growing into its place.
There will be a huge increase in the number of available titles, fueled by out-of-prints brought back to life, new smaller producers enabled by new technology, and globalization, which will make everybody’s books available everywhere.
Print-on-demand will accelerate the distribution of English-language books into non-English countries because English-language books will be “loaded” into the POD systems faster than books of other languages. This may well reveal more fully than we now realize how large the market for books in English has grown outside countries where English is the first language.
But print-on-demand will also create an increase of non-English books available to pockets of other-language-speakers in English-speaking countries, by eliminating the stockholding barrier.
Publishers will make internal use of POD to reduce stock-holding requirements, particularly in the educational and professional segments.
We will see almost all transactional communication — ordering, customer service, royalties — move to the Internet.
We will see almost all editorial communication — submission, editing — move to the Internet.
We will see virtually all publishing marketing efforts, including of course the distribution of content for reviewers, move to the Internet.
Intermediaries of all kinds, and particularly infomediaries, will mushroom in number. There will be more and more “accounts” for every publisher and wholesaler to manage, but many will be small volume and require a systematized approach to be profitable.
The comforting thing about the next five years is that we get to retain our cherished form, the printed book, and actually even see more and more of them more widely available than they have ever been before. But the book itself is about the only thing that won’t change much between now and 2005; everything surrounding it will change more than it has since 1905 as the foundations of the information revolution continue to be put into place.