Posted by: C.R. Mooney | April 12, 2011

The Future of Print Books – Christopher Hopper

Here is a great article by Christopher Hopper, author of six novels,  a recording artist, and a great friend.  Please visit his blog at http://www.christopherhopper.com/blog/

What do you think?  Are print books quickly going the way of the dinosaurs?

putting it in context

Vinyl.

I have very fond memories of sifting through my parent’s record collection as a boy, and my dad teaching me how to handle the large black discs “only touching the sides” – as if my finger tips had the ability to annihilate the music forever if I slipped and touched the center. Zeppelin. The Who. Peter, Paul & Mary. The Yard Birds. Earth, Wind & Fire. Peter Frampton. Cream. All subject to me touching only the sides.

But vinyl was on its way out (with the strange 8-track obsession quickly averted) and cassettes were in. Of course seeing tape made more sense to me as that’s all I saw in the studio. I watched my dad splice thousands of feet of tape for an album, all whizzing by at 30ips (inches per second). So shrinking a 2″ tape down into a hand-held version was nothing short of miraculous.

Then CDs came along, and the digital age was born. Even though I knew that I was trading true sine-waves for digital bits, there was something sexy about them. That, and I never had to use a pencil to wind the music back in. Sure, there was the whole scratch issue, but that would be solved in the next iteration.

Digital music files.

No tape to unravel, no plastic to scratch, and most of all, instant access and ultimate portability.

Perhaps you’re asking what this has to do with books? But you’re an intelligent audience: you’ve obviously gathered that the example of ingenuity, invention, and marketability played out in the music industry is exactly where the publishing industry is headed. And you’re right. In fact, most of my generation was willing to accept the digital transformation of books long before publishing companies did (and have yet to).

So is that as far as the comparison of music and books goes?

here today, gone tomorrow (or just later today)

If you’re even remotely interested in the book-world, you know publishing companies are scratching and clawing to make up for lost time (which most will never get back), and are being crushed beneath the weight of high overhead as they’ve failed to account for the consumer’s low tolerance of high price points and the author’s ability to take control of their own work – conception to delivery.

Amazon reported that Kindle sales exceeded hard cover sales last July, and just surpassed paperback sales in January. Likewise, digital ebook sales are exploding, with year-to-date percentages moving into the hundreds, and dollars amounts into the tens and hundreds of millions. Trends are changing so fast, numbers are being reported on a weekly basis.

And while traditional publishers are busy trying to push $15.99+ digital book price points to meet the needs of their bloated budgets due to an outdated means of mass production, new entrepreneurs are dropping prices to $1.99 – with others, like authors JA Konrath and Cory Doctorow, giving away certain titles in order to win readers who will be more likely buy the next book.

And it’s working.

Not only are the most affluent, highest spending demographic of consumers excited to ditch the cumbersome tomes in exchange for the sleek e-reading status symbol of their preference, but authors are making more money than they ever dreamed. By themselves. And they deserve it. [I’ll do a raw numbers break-out of my own accounting in a tell-all forthcoming post].

With what once was the trademark term of an author that didn’t have the goods to land a real deal, suddenly “self-publishing” is becoming the method of choice for the new era of writers.

from common to collectible

So print is on its way out and digital is well on its way in. But the question everyone wants to know is, what’s going to happen to books?

Most analysts I’m following say that by the time ebooks reach 25% of the market share (a figure that – according to current trends – will be reached in the third quarter of 2012), the traditional publishing industry will collapse. So does that mean the physical books all readers have a secret (or often times public romance) with will vanish?

My answer: no.

But their function will change. In essence, their purpose.

What was once a means of communicating written content will now become a collectible. And the music industry prophesies this perfectly.

In 2007 and 2008 Jon Foreman released 4 EPs (Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer). As I’m a huge Switchfoot fan, and love anything Jon does,  I wanted them right away. So I bought the downloadable digital version of each release as soon as it was available. 3 minutes later I had my iPhone plugged into my car stereo and was jamming to “Equally Skilled.” I actually did end up buying the physical CD version of Fall, but realized it wasn’t that unique in packaging, and I never played it once.

Then the vinyl collectors edition came out.

Signed. Numbered. Limited. Rare. And full of never-before-seen photos that Jon took himself.

And I had to have it. I easily parted with the extra money for it.

Now it’s interesting to note that I haven’t actually played the records. Nor do I necessarily plan to (though I’m not opposed to it). I listen to the music regularly on my iPhone or Mac Book Pro because it’s convenient. But I savor the art on the vinyl collectors set that proudly rests in my bedroom.

And this is the point.

Self-published authors (and publishers that manage to survive; that’s another post) will produce ebooks as the new means of media distribution. It is inevitable. But traditional print books will serve a purpose: the collectible. And with the most recent advents in POD (print on demand) services, running small numbers of a high quality product has never been easier and more accessible. In fact, I dare say printed books will become more sought after, but never more prolific.

The signed, numbered, dated, leather-bound, silver-plated, hand-embossed, wax-sealed, parchment-printed, collectors set, the tangible version of the book that changed your life that you simply cannot live without, that book will always live on. Even as sacrilegious as it may sound, I haven’t touched my favorite physical Bible in over a year, though it sits proudly on the bookshelf beside my bed, signed and dated by my father Peter. Instead, my iPhone and Mac Book Pro have become my sole source of daily Bible reading.

And now I feel vindicated for starting off with a music comparison: books and vinyl really do belong in the same post after all. ch:


Responses

  1. Wow, this is a really insightful article. I know I have watched the rise of the ebook with mixed feelings, since I love the feel of pages flipping through my fingers. However, I don’t think books will ever truly go out of print. Maybe this is wishful thinking… And I definitely will learn to embrace ebooks, since the market is exploding with them.

    I have heard that this is the reason Borders is doing so poorly now: they rejected the thought that online buying and digital books would be such a huge thing at first, then later learned their mistake.

    Thanks for this very interesting blog!

  2. Thanks for stopping by! I have a few short stories I’ve written, and will probably just publish them myself. It’s more than just the “i’ve been published” label I am looking for, I want control over my material. I didn’t write it just to give the rights to someone else.


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