Sunday, April 17, 2011

Everybody is always wrong about the future (of paper books)

It's the truth. Every prediction I've ever read about the future either goes too far in a direction predicated on no major  paradigm shifts, or doesn't go nearly far enough. Okay, most predictions. Now a number of indie authors (and other interested parties) are making predictions about the future of print. Especially the future of POD. See here for a good example: A  great read, with a lot of useful information. But I think the prediction section is wrong.

My take: new print books will go nearly extinct within 10 years. Libraries and used book stores will hang on for a while longer. E-readers will hit sub $100 this year. Within a few years they will be available for $30 or less, and/or ad subsidised for free. This, plus integration of e-reading software with cell-phones and other portable electronics means most readers will have multiple, easy, affordable ways to read e-books. The explosion of self-published authors, the inevitable app store pricing crash, and the incredible ease of e-book piracy will mean an incredible variety of readily available, dirt cheap e-books available for these devices.

With that climate, who will want to read paper anymore? Collectors will, I'm sure (think vinyl LPs), Especially for special editions. Speciality applications like technical manuals and cookbooks may still see use. Children's books for those still teething maybe. And that's about it. There are very few things left that paper books can do better than e-books, and the technology to implement these features is just around the corner. Paper will be a very small market, likely best served by online outlets and used book stores. POD kiosks, or online services, or whatever, will be (relatively) expensive and superfluous, and thus not viable. It will never be cheaper to print a physical book than it will be to transfer a file containing an e-book. So: bye-bye paper.

Who won't want to print paper any more? The video game industry is abandoning paper manuals as costly and unnecessary. Most manufacturers of packaged goods will do the same, instead preferring to put up product websites. Authors are finding it far easier to publish (and revise, market, promote, etc.) online. Mapmakers will be driven out by GPS devices and apps. Comic books are going digital, and I expect a self-publishing boom for indie comics as well. Art books will be far more affordable in digital editions. And yes, you guessed it, Self-published art books are due for an explosion as well. Newspapers are getting closer and closer to figuring out a viable model for online editions (Okay, maybe I made that one up.)

A few years ago, the stand alone e-reader was an expensive, rare bird. Now it is a screaming flock of grackles shitting all over the big box parking lot. E-ink displays are one or two iterations from being as easy to read as paper, and maybe four or five from being as colorful as well. Prices have plummeted to mass market levels on readers and content, and will continue to drop. Paper is incredibly bulky, heavy, expensive to produce, and limiting (to the author) as a platform. Soon, for the vast majority of content providers (authors and artists, not publishers), paper will be unprofitable and untenable. So, again: bye-bye paper.

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