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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