There is no doubt that the industry is in a period of significant transition. What can we expect 10 to 15 years from now?
Someday, all data and applications will be “in the cloud”—that is, existing independently from, but accessible by, digital devices. All the devices most used every day will then need almost no memory. When we say “screens” in that context, it will mean the same thing as saying “devices” or “computers.” The screens of the future will all connect to all the information and all the computing power all the time.
So, media consumption will take place by people choosing from a wide variety of screen configurations, the way they have always chosen from a wide variety of printed formats. That is, you’ll pick up one kind of screen/device to read a memo you’re working on, another one to look at the work of your favorite photographer, and pull a rolled-up one out of your back pocket to read a book or newspaper on the subway or at the beach. And those don’t include the ones on your walls for a movie, or for a piece of art.
Books don’t have to immediately disappear from a world like that. Print-on-demand (POD) technology means that anybody can have anything they want in book form, down to a press run of one. David Worlock of Outsell, the sagest digital (and longest-standing) guru I know, once told me, “Surely, in time, the number of books created within the network (by individuals via the Internet) must exceed the number of books created outside the network.” If you look at what SharedBook is doing now—enabling personalized books to be created and displayed as flipbooks online, downloaded as PDFs, or printed on-demand—you see the down payment on Worlock’s vision.
Also over time, Wikipedia, Facebook and Google will morph into looking like each other in many ways (that is: search, community and information will all come from the same sources) and the new, meaningful sorting of sources will be vertical: by communities. This is complicated and evolutionary, but here’s a way to think about it: The bookmarks of the person who is your age and also a Yankees fan are a more useful navigation tool for you than what you’ll be offered at ESPN.com or SportsLine.com.
We’ll all be joining lots of communities online, chosen by our interests and values, and by referrals from our friends. And these will ultimately become the hubs of marketing. And of publishing.
The End of an Era
But we’re describing a world that is probably more than 10 years off. How far will we get in 10 years?
Ten years from now, there will still be more books sold that were printed centrally and warehoused for sale than all other ways combined, but the end of that era will be in sight.
Barnes & Noble will be the only full-line brick-and-mortar bookstore. It will sell used books as well as new ones, and we’ll be far along the road to it becoming one of only five organizations that really distribute consumer books nationally, although certain big, niche players, like Wiley, will maintain their own sales presence in the diminishing consumer printed-book market. Two of the others will be two of what are today’s “Big Six” general-trade publishers. The two left standing will have absorbed the other four. (This might be more than 10 years away.)
Another national distributor will be Ingram, which will be making most of its money on POD and digital distribution of publishers’ content through various Internet channels (what today we call “Web sites,” but which will have grown to be a large and extremely complex business, customizing information for a wide variety of displays).
One national publisher will enable entrepreneurial, niche publishers to take a gamble on bigger distribution on a title-by-title basis. Outside of B&N, brick-and-mortar sales will be going to only a handful of independents, libraries, mass merchants and specialty retailers. And, of course, there will always be sales direct to members of niche communities who, for whatever reasons, prefer bound paper.
In that future, B&N and the “Big Two” will almost entirely publish books that have already been created and published—test-marketed, in effect—by small players within niche communities. In those circumstances, books will be delivered by POD and electronic files with almost no retail distribution. They will be low-investment and aimed at very targeted audiences. Amazon will be a dominant player in that market, but the industry will have learned the transcending promotional effect of retail display. When B&N or a publisher makes a national publishing arrangement for a book, sales will jump everywhere, including at Amazon. Ingram’s remaining wholesaling business mostly will serve what remains of the library book market and specialty retail.
Almost every book that goes “national” will have been incubated through the niche-publishing farm system first. Agents and packagers constantly will survey the niche-publishing landscape, looking for projects that might warrant much more expensive marketing and distribution through one of the big distributors.
The robust e-book market—more than 50 percent of the sales of many titles (also a bit more than 10 years off)—will have been fueled by features built into e-books that can’t be replicated in print versions. For example, e-books will frequently use moving images as illustrations, rather than stills. And, of course, e-books all will have links, which will be consistently listed as the No. 1 deficiency responsible for the rapid abandonment of paper books.