Why Traditional Books Will Eventually Die

The book, as we know it today, will eventually die. It won’t happen all at once. And it won’t happen immediately. But, in my opinion, it is inevitable. Why? One word: efficiency.

a tombstone for books, rip

The essence of technology is that it makes things more and more efficient. It automates processes—or completely eliminates them. As it does so, it takes costs out of the system. Once it is unleashed, it generally can’t be stopped.To quote Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, “The book publishing industry is perhaps the last bastion of analog [non-digital] technology.” This is so because the book itself is such an amazing piece of portable technology. I won’t rehearse the value of this technology; it has been well-documented in other places.

Nevertheless, the book publishing process is begging to be improved. Consider the following inefficiencies that plague the system:

  1. The book manufacturing process is inefficient. As Newsweek noted in their article on the Amazon Kindle, “We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world.”

    How much longer will an increasingly environmentally-conscious public tolerate this kind of waste? There must be a better way.

  2. The book distribution process is inefficient. For starters, retail bookstores have limited shelf space. Almost 200,000 new books are published each year. This doesn’t include the millions that are already in print (what the publishing industry terms “backlist”). Publishers have to persuade booksellers to stock their books.

    Then, once the bookseller places his order, the publisher ships them to the store, where someone has to unpack them and put them on already over-crowded shelves. If the bookseller doesn’t sell the books, he ships them back to the publisher, where they are processed and placed back into inventory. Sometimes, they are even shipped back to the same account!

    If demand for the book disappears, the books are sold to “remainder” houses who often re-sell them to the same bookstores for pennies on the dollar. (Sometimes, I think that the only ones making money in the publishing business are the trucking companies.)

  3. The book buying experience is inefficient. If I want a book today, I have to get in my car and drive to a local bookseller. The first challenge I have is to see if the store even stocks the book I want. If it’s a bestseller, I can usually find it at the first store. If not, I will more often than not waste a trip.

    Then, If I can find the book, I have to go through the checkout process. Sometimes this is not a big deal; other times, I have to wait in line for five to ten minutes. This doesn’t sound like much but it creates additional friction in the buying experience.

    While I’m reading the book, I have to transport it with me. On a recent trip, I took three books in addition to my laptop. When my kids go to school, they take an entire bag full of books. It’s a hassle.

    Then, when I finish the book, I have to store it. Don’t get me wrong, I love books—I love surrounding myself with books. (You should see my house.) But I, too, have limited shelf space. Currently, I have a separate storage facility housing books I don’t have room for in my home or office.

    Retrieving information is also a hassle. I have to remember where I stored the book and then I have to remember where in the book I actually read it. This process can take any where from a few minutes to hours.

So, again, traditional books won’t disappear overnight, but the drive for more efficiency will radically alter the industry over the next few years. A device like the Amazon Kindle solves most of these problems. It makes the manufacturing, distribution, and buying experience much more efficient. While this may not be the exact device that creates the tipping point, I think it does move us significantly in that direction. The digital path is more clearly marked than ever.

As a result, publishers, printers, and booksellers need to come up with a game plan for how they will respond. Most of us have a plan, but we need to move faster. I don’t think we have much time. The clock is ticking.

Update: Please read my response to some of the comments I have received in my new post entitled, Is It Really Books That We Love?

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  • http://electricspec.com/ betsy dornbusch

    As an editor with an ezine, I love what the digital age is doing to reading and writing. More people are “published” than ever before.

    I hope the “backpack” full of books will be the first to go! Already most adults do much of their learning and research online, and younger students are no exception. I, like most of my collegues, do much of my editing, writing, and research on-screen.

    But that’s all work.

    I think it will be a long time before pleasure-readers are reading on their computer screens, handhelds, Kindles, or even TV screens with any regularity. I think you raise some valid points, but this is all driven by the consumer, and by vast majority, the consumers I’ve heard from want their novels in traditional book form.

  • http://electricspec.com betsy dornbusch

    As an editor with an ezine, I love what the digital age is doing to reading and writing. More people are “published” than ever before.

    I hope the “backpack” full of books will be the first to go! Already most adults do much of their learning and research online, and younger students are no exception. I, like most of my collegues, do much of my editing, writing, and research on-screen.

    But that’s all work.

    I think it will be a long time before pleasure-readers are reading on their computer screens, handhelds, Kindles, or even TV screens with any regularity. I think you raise some valid points, but this is all driven by the consumer, and by vast majority, the consumers I’ve heard from want their novels in traditional book form.

  • http://www.teawithtiffany.blogspot.com Tea With Tiffany

    This is one of my worst fears. The death of books. I can’t imagine not having something to hold on to like feels and smells like a book. I don’t like this at all.

    I prefer a book, a blanket over my feet, and a coffee or tea.

  • http://www.teawithtiffany.blogspot.com/ Tea With Tiffany

    This is one of my worst fears. The death of books. I can't imagine not having something to hold on to like feels and smells like a book. I don't like this at all.

    I prefer a book, a blanket over my feet, and a coffee or tea.

  • http://www.readingsteps.com Jerome Smith

    Like Mike mentions, I too have a house full of books. I even had a new book room built in our now expanded unattached garage.

    There is a super-short short story by Isaac Asimov, “The Fun They Had,” which in science fiction depicts an age where some children discover a real book. There is another short story by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, “The Portable Phonograph,” which depicts a lonely scene after the final War where a remote survivor, a professor, has managed to salvage and preserve just a few things to remember past civilization by. These are both worth reading.

    But in the “here and now,” I’m thankful Nelson Publishers are still producing fine books. Mine just came off the press (in China, at that!), Nelson’s Cross Reference Guide to the Bible. If you don’t have it, see it under “reference” on Nelson’s main page, and get one.

    Every Christian who loves the Bible, and reads it, needs the Cross Reference Guide to the Bible.

    We use it in my family many evenings in the week. We sit down, choose a verse in the Bible to study, and read each cross reference in turn. Then, perhaps on another evening, we go back to the verse we studied and follow up the cross references marked with a “+” and turn to those passages in the Cross Reference Guide and read each verse given there in turn. This is one most inspiring and instructive way to get into the Bible, the Word of God.

    As for electronic Bibles and books taking over the market, I hardly think this will ever be. Constantly charging and replacing batteries is a nuisance, and should all our technology vanish, the book is still viable, electricity or not!

    Their one advantage for me is they save shelf space!

    For people who actually read, there is no substitute for a physical book. It is impossible to scroll through a book electronically with the same effect that it is possible to consult the pages of a physical book.

    I have many books in electronic form, but I always prefer using the real books on paper.

    It saves on our electric usage, too!

    What publishers need to do is make better uses of the resources they have access to now but fail to use properly–their published authors.

    At present, in my case at least, the author is left totally in the dark about what is happening.

    I just did a search for where Nelson’s Cross Reference Guide to the Bible may be purchased locally. The only “in stock” link I found was to the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Port Huron near where I live. That store has it because I went to the store, showed the book to the manager, and suggested she might like to carry an important Bible reference book by a local author, for I had already informed people that they could get it there.

    At this moment, Barnes and Noble is the only website which has a comment from a reader about the Cross Reference Guide. The reader was very pleased with the book.

  • http://www.readingsteps.com/ Jerome Smith

    Like Mike mentions, I too have a house full of books. I even had a new book room built in our now expanded unattached garage.

    There is a super-short short story by Isaac Asimov, "The Fun They Had," which in science fiction depicts an age where some children discover a real book. There is another short story by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, "The Portable Phonograph," which depicts a lonely scene after the final War where a remote survivor, a professor, has managed to salvage and preserve just a few things to remember past civilization by. These are both worth reading.

    But in the "here and now," I'm thankful Nelson Publishers are still producing fine books. Mine just came off the press (in China, at that!), Nelson's Cross Reference Guide to the Bible. If you don't have it, see it under "reference" on Nelson's main page, and get one.

    Every Christian who loves the Bible, and reads it, needs the Cross Reference Guide to the Bible.

    We use it in my family many evenings in the week. We sit down, choose a verse in the Bible to study, and read each cross reference in turn. Then, perhaps on another evening, we go back to the verse we studied and follow up the cross references marked with a "+" and turn to those passages in the Cross Reference Guide and read each verse given there in turn. This is one most inspiring and instructive way to get into the Bible, the Word of God.

    As for electronic Bibles and books taking over the market, I hardly think this will ever be. Constantly charging and replacing batteries is a nuisance, and should all our technology vanish, the book is still viable, electricity or not!

    Their one advantage for me is they save shelf space!

    For people who actually read, there is no substitute for a physical book. It is impossible to scroll through a book electronically with the same effect that it is possible to consult the pages of a physical book.

    I have many books in electronic form, but I always prefer using the real books on paper.

    It saves on our electric usage, too!

    What publishers need to do is make better uses of the resources they have access to now but fail to use properly–their published authors.

    At present, in my case at least, the author is left totally in the dark about what is happening.

    I just did a search for where Nelson's Cross Reference Guide to the Bible may be purchased locally. The only "in stock" link I found was to the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in Port Huron near where I live. That store has it because I went to the store, showed the book to the manager, and suggested she might like to carry an important Bible reference book by a local author, for I had already informed people that they could get it there.

    At this moment, Barnes and Noble is the only website which has a comment from a reader about the Cross Reference Guide. The reader was very pleased with the book.

  • david lynn reedy

    i mentioned to a friend of mine over four years ago that probpaly in our life time we would seen the end of printed books because affordable acess on the internet and software dealing withm ost anything to anyone liking. i have seen but was unable to afford at the time a great cd-rom catolaue set up of great commentaries, versions reputable bible translations the genea, the king james rsv nasb, goodspeed, moffat, beck and the catholic pirest knox, exegetical works of the great theologins,augustine,wycliff, luther, calvin, zwingli, wesley, hus. unfortanely prostestans has too long ingorned and snubbed great catho.lic theologins, francis, julian of norwhich, catherine of siena, the beguines, ignastius of loyola, aquinas, eckhart and many others. however the cd did a good comparison of spurious attempts at ungoldy convolutions of theolog ies and translations by the likes such as darby, scofield and drake. i think some such as Kenneth Scott Latourette or schaff are great.

    would an intergrated, interrelatioanl, ecumenical oriented book work if written? i would love to resreach and write such a book. i work on two volumes of the completed biblical library printed by the publishing arm of the assemblies god denomation called the gosple publishing house with a company called world library press. love to discuss this in detail with you, sir.

    thanks micheal for sharing your time and place in space so now the ‘space time continuim has a little box! how infinately, eternal is that, not!

  • david lynn reedy

    i mentioned to a friend of mine over four years ago that probpaly in our life time we would seen the end of printed books because affordable acess on the internet and software dealing withm ost anything to anyone liking. i have seen but was unable to afford at the time a great cd-rom catolaue set up of great commentaries, versions reputable bible translations the genea, the king james rsv nasb, goodspeed, moffat, beck and the catholic pirest knox, exegetical works of the great theologins,augustine,wycliff, luther, calvin, zwingli, wesley, hus. unfortanely prostestans has too long ingorned and snubbed great catho.lic theologins, francis, julian of norwhich, catherine of siena, the beguines, ignastius of loyola, aquinas, eckhart and many others. however the cd did a good comparison of spurious attempts at ungoldy convolutions of theolog ies and translations by the likes such as darby, scofield and drake. i think some such as Kenneth Scott Latourette or schaff are great.

    would an intergrated, interrelatioanl, ecumenical oriented book work if written? i would love to resreach and write such a book. i work on two volumes of the completed biblical library printed by the publishing arm of the assemblies god denomation called the gosple publishing house with a company called world library press. love to discuss this in detail with you, sir.

    thanks micheal for sharing your time and place in space so now the ‘space time continuim has a little box! how infinately, eternal is that, not!

  • http://www.saintxris.org chris

    I disagree. There are thousands of different kinds of books, and digital technology has absences that analog possesses. Human beings do not live simply for “efficiency”, we live for beauty and warmth as well. The touch of paper, the tactile warmth of pages and pictures, the smell and depth of the printed page will always possess a quality that digital does not have. Slickness gets tiring, and that is what digital offers. But the wabi-sabi of a well designed book mirrors our humanity in a way that a screen never can.

    Ask musicians: analog equipment still has a warmth that no digital piece can match. The great guitarists of our day still use tubed amps. That is just one example.

    I’ll always buy books. You can have your digitized perfection.

    Merry Christmas,
    Chris Zodrow

  • http://www.saintxris.org/ chris

    I disagree. There are thousands of different kinds of books, and digital technology has absences that analog possesses. Human beings do not live simply for "efficiency", we live for beauty and warmth as well. The touch of paper, the tactile warmth of pages and pictures, the smell and depth of the printed page will always possess a quality that digital does not have. Slickness gets tiring, and that is what digital offers. But the wabi-sabi of a well designed book mirrors our humanity in a way that a screen never can.

    Ask musicians: analog equipment still has a warmth that no digital piece can match. The great guitarists of our day still use tubed amps. That is just one example.

    I'll always buy books. You can have your digitized perfection.

    Merry Christmas,
    Chris Zodrow

  • michael jacobs

    Sorry, I don't have a kindle. I may get one, but I don't think I'll be bringing it to the beach anytime soon. As for my i-phone, maybe the American consumer will follow the japanese trend of translating novels to texting language. I doubt it. It's very difficult to read.

  • michael jacobs

    Sorry, I don't have a kindle. I may get one, but I don't think I'll be bringing it to the beach anytime soon. As for my i-phone, maybe the American consumer will follow the japanese trend of translating novels to texting language. I doubt it. It's very difficult to read.

  • Jess MacCallum

    OK, so here's a late (read "current") post: The e-book will take the same amount of time to transcend the printed book as the telephone did the telegraph… about a century. Remember how the government had to give away MILLIONS to buy converter boxes for TVs that weren't digital? Can you believe there were so many left? Books have a far more deeply held affection than old TVs. They are ubiquitous and warm. The e-book will do well for medical references, journals, references books, etc. But the book is more than the media as has been suggested. Of course content is king, but people are not so digital as everyone assumes (hence the TV converters). Even my kids, Gen-Y, love Barnes & Noble for the experience and the BOOKS! BTW, lastly the "tree killing" argument is no more valid than banning Corn Flakes with an environmental movement. It's a CROP people! Georgia Pacific isn't attacking virgin forest like some kind of industrial behemoth. They plant and the harvest. Why would the imagined affection for trees trump the real affection for books?

  • Jess MacCallum

    OK, so here's a late (read "current") post: The e-book will take the same amount of time to transcend the printed book as the telephone did the telegraph… about a century. Remember how the government had to give away MILLIONS to buy converter boxes for TVs that weren't digital? Can you believe there were so many left? Books have a far more deeply held affection than old TVs. They are ubiquitous and warm. The e-book will do well for medical references, journals, references books, etc. But the book is more than the media as has been suggested. Of course content is king, but people are not so digital as everyone assumes (hence the TV converters). Even my kids, Gen-Y, love Barnes & Noble for the experience and the BOOKS! BTW, lastly the "tree killing" argument is no more valid than banning Corn Flakes with an environmental movement. It's a CROP people! Georgia Pacific isn't attacking virgin forest like some kind of industrial behemoth. They plant and the harvest. Why would the imagined affection for trees trump the real affection for books?

  • bob

    Book paper comes from trees grown as a crop. The electronic alternative contains glass, plastics, chemicals and varied metals.
    Today we make more paper out of old books. Q: What can be make today from old e book readers? A: A mess.

    It will take some slight of hand and big money to make paper books an environmental evil worse than electronic waste of the present alternatives.

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  • spaderose

    I get ur logic but I find it impractical, electronic devices cause problems books dont and sometimes when you buy a book you can get a special something with it at the bookstore. We have machines to make orange juice but it doesnt me we stop sqeezing them to make orange juice

  • Sumner

    Information stored on paper is a waste in all areas