Let’s ignore eBooks for bit. We can all prognosticate as much as we want how electronic publishing will dominate the future of how books are produced. Or not.
The printed book is the real paradox of the future of books. Like radio, printing is not going to perish any time soon. The way printed books are produced though will change dramatically. Mainly as a factor of how printed books will get sold in the future.
There are three main players that deliver printed books to the end consumers:
- The online vendors which provide cheaper prices and infinite availability, but delayed gratification (like Amazon);
- The large chains which provide immediate availability for most books but typically at full price (such as Barnes and Noble); and
- The small independently owned bookstores that neither provide a wide spectrum of availability nor competitive prices, but an emotional hub in the community for people who are passionate about books. There are of course varying degrees of intersection amongst these three categories, like the medium-sized chain. The small book store that does lots of business online. And so on and so forth.
Like most people, I am guilty of walking into a Barnes and Noble, browsing for the books I want. Then even before stepping out of the store I usually place my order on Amazon using my phone. That is if I can afford to wait a day or two at the most to receive them. If I can’t, I pay the full price at the store.
The large bookstore chains are doomed, there is no question about that. It’s just a matter of when. Not simply because the online vendors are delivering books even faster, but because the number of books in print is increasing exponentially.
Barnes and Noble cannot and will not survive the Amazon threat.
But what if the future could provide an amalgamation of both the large book stores in in every neighborhood, and the competitive prices of online providers? The answer lies in a three letter word that’s so far has been an insult and telling of what sort of writer you are, but quickly gaining more respectability: POD. Print-on-demand.
Imagine this. You walk into a massive Barnes and Noble-like store where there are no physical books on display for you to buy. Just electronic pods as far as the eye can see where you and other customers can browse for books. Maybe there are no pods. You can use your own mobile device to browse. Even before you get to the store. When you’ve decided, you click on your screen or speak to a sales associate to place an order. Five minutes later after you’ve had a coffee or a bite to eat, the book or books you’ve ordered are ready for you: Printed, trimmed, laminated, packaged and ready to go back home with you. Even a little hot of the press. Just like a fresh baguette. At highly discounted prices.
I am talking any book you can dream of. In any language. In your choice of font size. You even get to choose the stock. Want to save a little money? Then print the cover in gray scale rather than color.
Behind the scenes, highly-automated, advanced print-on-demand futuristic robots do all the work. And the price of each book is based on complicated formulas that calculate royalty, your choice of physical specs, and how much stock and ink are used.
Still not convinced the printed book will last long enough for any corporation to invest heavily in the POD super store model I describe above?
Then let’s dream further and braver into the future.
Why do people love printed books? Mostly because they love flipping pages, and seeing each printed leaf visible in the same dimension, rather than a virtual one as in the case of eBooks. They love the artwork, and to hold a book in public and silently tell the world what they are reading. Readers also love to gauge how much they’ve read and how much they have left. It gives them an incentive to continue reading. And the progress bar of eBooks just doesn’t cut it.
Imagine if in addition to our eReaders, a new sort of book “vehicle” is invented. It looks and and almost feels like a printed book, but it isn’t quite so. It’s a hybrid between the printed and the electronic book. Let’s call it the “Pelectronic Book.” An advanced book shell made of an indestructible paper-like membrane with tiny electronic vascular circuits. Every time you want to read a specific book from your collection, you load it on your Pelectronic device through a USB like port on the back. Maybe even wirelessly. Within milliseconds the 400-500 blank pages of your device get populated with electronic ink that’s virtually indistinguishable from real ink.
Have a particularly long tome like War and Peace that will not fit in your standard 400 leaf Pelectronic book Frankenstein? Have no fear. You can buy page expansions in modules of 50-page units. Install them for the duration of your long read, then remove them when you are back to standard length books to avoid lugging around a heavy device.
The future of book production is coming. And it will be in far more shades of excitement than what the proponents of eBook vs. print would like us to think. We just have to be open and ready for it.