Exact Editions Blog

For Librarians & Publishers


Books and will they always be Printed on Paper?

Richard Charkin (Exacutive Director at Bloomsbury and – to declare an interest – friend of many years standing) is quoted in the Guardian on the permanence of books:

‘There will continue to be a market for printed books for a very long time. I believe the bulk of people will still prefer to hold, feel, treasure, give, receive, display and read a printed book.’

Although, in some moods I am inclined to agree with Charkin: what if he is whistling in the breeze? Here are five reasons why print books may (mostly) disappear from the publishing scene (I agree that there will still be a market for second-hand printed books even when most people prefer to buy a digital book):

  1. Moore’s law. If/when an acceptable and popular form of digital book arrives, the digital channel will benefit from Moore’s law:- in this context this means that digital will become more attractive with respect to printed books at a rate approaching 50% per annum. Just before the Charkin comment, Gail Rebuck is cited to the effect ‘e-book competitors will not kill the book but happily co-exist with it in a bright new bi-literary environment.’ (Its not a direct quote). But that surely will not happen, because a digital solution will be getting better so much faster. How publishers can respond to a distribution channel that gets better (cheaper, more profitable. more capacious, better value) at 50% per annum is another matter…. but it will make it very difficult for printed books to be in a steady-state of peaceful co-existence, as it were ‘always with us’ like hardback and paperback editions.
  2. As more of our cultural environment migrates to the web (photos have gone with a flicker, music is going with an iTune, radio is on its last FM and TV is on the way via YouTube; film will certainly go digital), do we think that books alone of our mass culture formats will remain primarily analog in print? On the contrary books will be and are being sucked on to the web because those who live and work in a web environment, need digital books to be on the web.
  3. Energy. Books are heavy on energy. Are we sure that printed books will still be so popular when they cost £50/$80 or £15/$17.50 for mass market paperback. That may happen if oil goes to $300 a barrel.
  4. Digital editions will at some point begin to be perceived as better/more useful than print books. At that point, publishers, authors and designers will invest a great deal of effort in making them even better, in providing functions that print books cannot. And at that point Moore’s law (or perhaps its Metcalfe’s law) will come in with a vengeance.
  5. Libraries are going digital with enthusiasm and digital libraries will be much better than we can currently envisage. Digital literature will be the golden age of the library and we will all use digital library services.

At the moment CEO’s and captains of publishing houses feel the need to be cautious and to reassure their markets and their audience that change will be gradual and not disruptive. But if the change is disruptive and imminent the publishing houses who have already geared up for digital distribution and marketing will be at an advantage. I think most CEO’s in the business know that, and they also know that they are not too well prepared for it.

A lot of this is generational. I also like printed books and I am sure that I will still be reading them in 10 years time, but I suspect that by then most of my purchasing will be of digital books and my children will think it a bit odd that I still like reading from print editions.


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  1. Great post, Adam, you’ve really nailed several of the reasons it’s reasonable to expect a lot of reading to migrate into digital (and more importantly, web-connected) forms. While I do agree with Richard that people like to hold, feel, treasure, give, etc. printed books, I know that I certainly don’t feel that way about all the books I own. A good number occupy my mind and my shelf only briefly, and those are just the kind I find myself buying on the Kindle. More often than not, I’m buying the wine, not the bottle.

  2. Interesting to think that some books are more suitable for the Kindle than other books. The kindle is still not available in Europe, but when I think about music and the ipod/itouch. I havent transferred everything to the ipod, but have representative samples of all my taste. There is no music that I am only likely to listen to in the full room version, and not want to have on the ipod. Its quite hard to think of a type of book that doesnt need to be on the web, even though I might be more likely to read it in the paper edition. So although poetry and fiction are forms of literature that (for myself) I probably would not read at length on my pc, it would still be very handy to have those editions on the web (eg for reference/search). So I guess this argues that really it all will go across to the web, even though there will still be good reasons for picking up an old fashioned book!

  3. There is no doubt that soon the mass digitalization of books will be all the craze. Amazon’s Kindle is rumored to be the up and coming iPod of digital books after a few tweaks. As a college student I am obviously excited at the prospect of being able to leave behind the era of lugging around several heavy textbooks (and paying an ungodly amount for them) and instead viewing them online or on an electronic device such as the Kindle. Nevertheless, I personally think the buzz may be overstated. When it comes to reading for pleasure I can’t quite wrap my head around reading from a digital device. I can’t lend someone a copy of my favorite book, I can’t write in the margins, and I can’t dog-ear a page I found particularly interesting. I travel pretty frequently and when the pilot tells customers to turn off all electronic devices for the first and last 20-30 minutes of the flight, I may have to put away my iPod and my portable DVD player, but I can still read. A book won’t run out of battery, break, or randomly stop working. I already spend the majority of my day in front of a computer- it’s nice to get away from that for a while. Plus, an electronic device just doesn’t convey the art, the look, and the feel of a novel the same way a hard copy does. And finally, when I think envision my future study room filled with the collection of books I’ve been accumulating since childhood, a single digital device just doesn’t do hardy copy books justice. There are other obvious problems such as the issue of piracy (déjà vu from music piracy to which we still haven’t found a solution) but these aren’t even my biggest concern. I may be growing up with a generation that thinks iPods and smart phones and are the norm and reads all of its news online but I don’t want to give up on books quite yet.Juhi Hedawww.brilliont.com

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