The Death of Traditional Book Publishing

In 2000 or so, Microsoft launched Reader, a simple software application designed to enable users to read books on their computers. Most of us in the book publishing world braced for what we thought would be a major shift in our industry. It didn’t happen.

In recent years, it has become fashionable to defend the traditional book. Many have argued that you would be hard-pressed to improve on the user-interface and ergonomics of a book. Jokingly, I have said, “You just can’t beat the battery life of the traditional book!”

While most publishers will admit that reference content is better accessed on the computer, almost all believe that the traditional non-fiction book or novel will never be replaced with a digital equivalent. I say, “baloney.” It’s coming. The sooner publishing executives get their collective heads out of the sand and face the future, the better prepared they will be to meet it.

I am convinced that we are only one device away from a digital publishing tsunami. Consider what happened when Apple launched the iPod in October of 2001. They provided an end-to-end solution that made downloading music easy, portable, and fun. Now, 30-plus million iPods later, iPods are everywhere.

Apple owns 84% of the legal download market. They have sold more than 600 million songs to-date. In fact, with over 10 million customers, Apple’s iTunes music store now sells more music than Tower Records or Borders. Who could have envisioned this five years ago?

Yes, I know that digital downloads represent less than 5% of all all music purchases. But “the genie is out of the bottle.” Subscription-based music services like Rhapsody, satellite radio, ring tunes, and other mobile technologies have continued to erode the market share of the traditional record industry giants. The fact is, they didn’t see it coming, and they hung onto their “old media” business model for too long. As a result, they have continued to see their revenues—and stock prices—decline each of the last four years.

I don’t want this to happen to the book publishing industry. However, in my opinion, it is inevitable if we don’t try to peer into the future and speculate on what may be coming. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Unfortunately, the alternative is to assume that nothing will change and books as we know them will be around forever. In my opinion, this is a very risky assumption.

So if, as I stated earlier, we are only one device away from a digital revolution in book publishing, what might such a device might look like? Here’s what I envision:

  • It looks similar to a tablet PC slate. No keyboard, no monitor, and it folds in half.
  • It is the same size and thickness as a hardcover book, say 6″ by 9″ by 1/2″. Unfolded, it is 12″ x 9″ by 1/4″. It feels great in your lap. It can even be bent slightly like a book, so you can curl up on the sofa and read away.
  • It uses a tablet PC interface with a built-in stylus that feels like a high-end pen. You can use it to make menu selections, enter text (via handwriting recognition), or highlight passages in books.
  • It weighs less than a 256-page hardcover book (about one pound). It therefore dramatically changes the shape and heft of your computer bag.
  • It has a battery life of 12–18 hours.
  • It completely replaces your computer and runs all your favorite applications.
  • It has 256 gigabytes of flash drive storage. It has room for tens of thousands of songs, photos, movies—and books. Because it has no moving parts (unlike a hard drive), it is faster and more reliable.
  • It is wi-fi enabled (of course).
  • It includes a software application similar to iTunes for the purchase and download of books. Heck, maybe it’s just a modification of iTunes.
  • It has a simple, elegant book reading application, similar to Microsoft’s Reader.
  • It has a docking station that allows you to use a keyboard, mouse, external monitor, etc.
  • It runs an Apple operating system. (Okay, I couldn’t resist.)

Think this is impossible? Consider the fact that NEC just announced a paper-thin, foldable battery that can be recharged in 30 seconds. Earlier this year, Phillips demonstrated a paper-thin display that can be rolled, folded, and squeezed into a pocket. Apple put sixteen 2-gigabyte flash memory chips in each iPod Nano—its latest iPod offering. However, Samsung, the producer of these chips, has now introduced a flash memory chip that holds 16 gigabytes. Stack sixteen of these units together and you have a whopping 256 gigabytes of storage.

But don’t get hung up on the particulars. I’m not a hardware engineer, and I’m sure the details could be picked apart. I’m simply trying to provide a vision for what could happen. The point I’m trying to make is that some type of device is coming. It may be five years away or it could be next year. For all I know, it is in development now. Regardless, when it arrives, the publishing world as you and I know it will change dramatically.

Maybe it won’t be the death of traditional book publishing, but it will mean a significant shift, perhaps a seismic shift. If we as book publishers are going to stay in the game and avoid the fate of the music industry, we are going to have to embrace the future now and start preparing for it.

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  • http://www.ThomasNelson.com Brian Mitchell

    Mike, these are some questions lurking in the back of our minds as book marketers. On a number of occasions this “what if” scenario has been posed by our own employees. My natural tendency has been to resist and dismiss it as many years off, but those of us from music industry backgrounds should know all too well that the train is coming. What’s exciting to me is that we are already shifting many marketing initiatives to embrace new media. With our new approaches as Podcasting, blog marketing and search word ads to mention a few, book content downloads are a natural extension to these efforts. There’s much to gain. As in music, the additional exposure of on-line activity has arguably provided more product awareness and increased sales through all distribution methods on a same artist comparison. With less to risk in production costs, the new age of publishing could provide better opportunities for emerging authors.

    Brian Mitchell
    VP, Marketing

  • http://www.ThomasNelson.com/ Brian Mitchell

    Mike, these are some questions lurking in the back of our minds as book marketers. On a number of occasions this "what if" scenario has been posed by our own employees. My natural tendency has been to resist and dismiss it as many years off, but those of us from music industry backgrounds should know all too well that the train is coming. What's exciting to me is that we are already shifting many marketing initiatives to embrace new media. With our new approaches as Podcasting, blog marketing and search word ads to mention a few, book content downloads are a natural extension to these efforts. There's much to gain. As in music, the additional exposure of on-line activity has arguably provided more product awareness and increased sales through all distribution methods on a same artist comparison. With less to risk in production costs, the new age of publishing could provide better opportunities for emerging authors.

    Brian Mitchell
    VP, Marketing

  • Dennis Coleman

    Mr. Hyatt, as I read your description of this possible device, I thought of some of my son’s toys which incorporate of the items on your list. In fact, it almost sounds like a next generation Leap-Pad toy. This may well be the driving force behind the development of such a device: the familiarity of our youth with similar devices.

  • Dennis Coleman

    Mr. Hyatt, as I read your description of this possible device, I thought of some of my son’s toys which incorporate of the items on your list. In fact, it almost sounds like a next generation Leap-Pad toy. This may well be the driving force behind the development of such a device: the familiarity of our youth with similar devices.

  • http://bookblog.blogstream.com/v1/pid/25512.html Christian Books and Media

    The iPage (an ebook reader, only better)

    I have been dreaming about this since I was a kid and I have been researching the various technologies for years. And in the last year several pieces have come together. The last piece will not be available for about six months, but when it is, all med…

  • http://bookblog.blogstream.com/v1/pid/25512.html Christian Books and

    The iPage (an ebook reader, only better)

    I have been dreaming about this since I was a kid and I have been researching the various technologies for years. And in the last year several pieces have come together. The last piece will not be available for about six months, but when it is, all med…

  • Rodney Hatfield VP, Bible Marketing

    Mike,

    Great challenge and great thoughts on what the “possible” device could be. The only thing I would suggest be different is that there is no hard drive storage device – storage is all online where you pay a small yearly subscription to keep your books a click away. The only memory in the device is flash memory that can hold up to 100 books upon demand. The rest of your library is accesible with your wireless connection no matter wherever you go.

    I love to dream about the “what if”. You are correct we need to challenge our thinking and look to change our more commonly treaded paths.

    Thanks for the challenge – we’re dreaming along too!

    Rodney Hatfield
    VP, Marketing Bible/Reference

  • Rodney Hatfield VP,

    Mike,

    Great challenge and great thoughts on what the "possible" device could be. The only thing I would suggest be different is that there is no hard drive storage device – storage is all online where you pay a small yearly subscription to keep your books a click away. The only memory in the device is flash memory that can hold up to 100 books upon demand. The rest of your library is accesible with your wireless connection no matter wherever you go.

    I love to dream about the "what if". You are correct we need to challenge our thinking and look to change our more commonly treaded paths.

    Thanks for the challenge – we're dreaming along too!

    Rodney Hatfield
    VP, Marketing Bible/Reference

  • http://christianfiction.blogspot.com dee

    Your entry parallels with this month’s issue of Fast Company accept they’re talking about Hollywood and Video Media.

    Nice to read your mind exploration of a digital library device.

  • http://christianfiction.blogspot.com/ dee

    Your entry parallels with this month's issue of Fast Company accept they're talking about Hollywood and Video Media.

    Nice to read your mind exploration of a digital library device.

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/PRMama/58797/ PRMAMA: Marketing to Go!

    Corporate Blogging: Everybodys Doing It

    It�s All about Relationships

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/PRMama/58797/ PRMAMA: Marketing to

    Corporate Blogging: Everybodys Doing It

    It�s All about Relationships
    <P cla…

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/PRMama/58797/ PRMAMA: Marketing to Go!

    Corporate Blogging: Everybodys Doing It

    It�s…

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/PRMama/58797/ PRMAMA: Marketing to Go!

    Corporate Blogging: Everybodys Doing It

    It�s…

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/PRMama/58797/ PRMAMA: Marketing to Go!

    Corporate Blogging: Everybodys Doing It

    It�s…

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/PRMama/58797/ PRMAMA: Marketing to

    Corporate Blogging: Everybodys Doing It

    It�s…

  • http://press.teleinteractive.net/cynasuralog Joseph A. di Paolantonio

    I’ve been reading ebooks on my Palm for a few years now. I like to set the background to a deep blue, and the text to white. The text can be made any size or any font style. The battery life is more than adequate for a day’s worth of reading. I’ve never had to remove a book from my SD card for want of space – and it’s only 256MB. Of course, the PalmOS allows for thousands of applications. The eReader allows for highlighting, “dogear” bookmarking, notes, and even reference research or dictionary lookup.

    Books from eReader.com generally start out at less than $20 per book when the hardbound edition first comes out, and quickly goes down to about $5.

    Palm devices are much smaller and lighter than the device you describe. The Tungsten T|X and Lifedrive both have built-in WiFi and Bluetooth.

    I still buy hardbound books for my collection, but rarely need to crack them open or expose them to the visitudes of daily life.

    I don’t know why more folk don’t read this way. It is much more convenient and comfortable than traditional books, and far superior to reading on a laptop or desktop computer, or even a three pound tabletPC.

  • http://press.teleinteractive.net/cynasuralog Joseph A. di Paolant

    I've been reading ebooks on my Palm for a few years now. I like to set the background to a deep blue, and the text to white. The text can be made any size or any font style. The battery life is more than adequate for a day's worth of reading. I've never had to remove a book from my SD card for want of space – and it's only 256MB. Of course, the PalmOS allows for thousands of applications. The eReader allows for highlighting, "dogear" bookmarking, notes, and even reference research or dictionary lookup.

    Books from eReader.com generally start out at less than $20 per book when the hardbound edition first comes out, and quickly goes down to about $5.

    Palm devices are much smaller and lighter than the device you describe. The Tungsten T|X and Lifedrive both have built-in WiFi and Bluetooth.

    I still buy hardbound books for my collection, but rarely need to crack them open or expose them to the visitudes of daily life.

    I don't know why more folk don't read this way. It is much more convenient and comfortable than traditional books, and far superior to reading on a laptop or desktop computer, or even a three pound tabletPC.

  • Morten K. Holst

    I really believe in e-paper.

    Your head doesn't start hurting after 20+ pages because it's not an ordinary backlit screen but actual ink; one white 'blank' side and one black 'ink' side which then turns respectively to the page you're looking at. This also mean battery time is not in hours but page-turns. Oh, did I mention it bendable?

    Just imagine: anyone can publish anything.. books, papers.. all they need is a word-processor and internet connection.

    We'll see plenty e-paper devices in the following year, like the Cybook. Should be interesting.

  • Morten K. Holst

    I really believe in e-paper.

    Your head doesn’t start hurting after 20+ pages because it’s not an ordinary backlit screen but actual ink; one white ‘blank’ side and one black ‘ink’ side which then turns respectively to the page you’re looking at. This also mean battery time is not in hours but page-turns. Oh, did I mention it bendable?

    Just imagine: anyone can publish anything.. books, papers.. all they need is a word-processor and internet connection.

    We’ll see plenty e-paper devices in the following year, like the Cybook. Should be interesting.

  • http://blog.suretomeet.com Cliff Allen

    I realize this post is just over two years old — and the Amazon Kindle is on the market — but my Motion slate Tablet PC meets most of the specs you list for reading e-books. A Tablet PC won’t work for everybody, but it’s great for people who take notes in meetings — and it works very well as an e-book reader.

  • http://blog.suretomeet.com/ Cliff Allen

    I realize this post is just over two years old — and the Amazon Kindle is on the market — but my Motion slate Tablet PC meets most of the specs you list for reading e-books. A Tablet PC won't work for everybody, but it's great for people who take notes in meetings — and it works very well as an e-book reader.

  • jane

    I am unsure of what to say about this article. Mr. Hyatt you are right the publishing industry is probably about to go digital just like the music industry. But I would like to remind you that the artistry of music has not been the same since that has happened. Music is not like it used to be because artists are producing music just to make money. And the same will happen with publishing. There are enough people who think they can write that can't and this will only get worse with digital publishing. Just something to keep in mind

  • jane

    I am unsure of what to say about this article. Mr. Hyatt you are right the publishing industry is probably about to go digital just like the music industry. But I would like to remind you that the artistry of music has not been the same since that has happened. Music is not like it used to be because artists are producing music just to make money. And the same will happen with publishing. There are enough people who think they can write that can’t and this will only get worse with digital publishing. Just something to keep in mind

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  • chima o.

    Tradtional book publishing is not going away any time soon. Its proclaimed demise is both premature and overstated. Authors may have myriads of ways to get their works published, but of what good is a work that is not read? As of now, and in distant future, getting one's work to the book store is a surer way of getting noticed. And that is where tradtional publishers still hold the edge. If you want to be read or make somem dough, traditional publishing is the way to go. And that is the hard truth.

  • chima o.

    Tradtional book publishing is not going away any time soon. Its proclaimed demise is both premature and overstated. Authors may have myriads of ways to get their works published, but of what good is a work that is not read? As of now, and in distant future, getting one's work to the book store is a surer way of getting noticed. And that is where tradtional publishers still hold the edge. If you want to be read or make somem dough, traditional publishing is the way to go. And that is the hard truth.

  • Donald James Parker

    This demo was very impressive – but it deals with magazines. Books need to be read in page order – magazines allow flipping back and forth. Video also is relevant to a sporting event where in addition to the story about the game, real life footage can be shown. That is indeed a rich experience. However how would that work with a book? I don't see how you could integrate video, audio, and pictures seamlessly into a book reading experience.
    I actually pondered this functionality 10 years ago when I created a computer program to read books. Unfortunately I never aggressively pursued marketing this program when I was on the leading edge. I didn't see a way to make features like these work then. The only way I see them working now in a book is to present an option for the reader to interrupt their reading experience to watch a video or look at a picture. That might be great for children's books, which are often filled with illustrations aiding those with a short attention span to stay interested. When I read a novel, I don't want to stop the flow to look at a picture of something which might conflict with the picture I had in my head of a scene. Just having the technological wherewithal to do something doesn't necessarily make it useful to do it. This certainly could revolutionize the magazine industry in the near future, but I don't see books employing this technology on a wide scale basis.
    Donald James Parker
    Author of Homeless Like Me

  • Donald James Parker

    This demo was very impressive – but it deals with magazines. Books need to be read in page order – magazines allow flipping back and forth. Video also is relevant to a sporting event where in addition to the story about the game, real life footage can be shown. That is indeed a rich experience. However how would that work with a book? I don't see how you could integrate video, audio, and pictures seamlessly into a book reading experience.
    I actually pondered this functionality 10 years ago when I created a computer program to read books. Unfortunately I never aggressively pursued marketing this program when I was on the leading edge. I didn't see a way to make features like these work then. The only way I see them working now in a book is to present an option for the reader to interrupt their reading experience to watch a video or look at a picture. That might be great for children's books, which are often filled with illustrations aiding those with a short attention span to stay interested. When I read a novel, I don't want to stop the flow to look at a picture of something which might conflict with the picture I had in my head of a scene. Just having the technological wherewithal to do something doesn't necessarily make it useful to do it. This certainly could revolutionize the magazine industry in the near future, but I don't see books employing this technology on a wide scale basis.
    Donald James Parker
    Author of Homeless Like Me

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