One size fits . . . some
What confuses me is that putatively smart people are making such simplistic prognostications and arguments. End of the book as we know it indeed! Please. I don’t think so.
The rhetorical problem, it seems to me, is that we have a word, book, that represents not one category but many categories of objects, both concrete and abstract, both physical and virtual. Most people who work with books of one sort see their grove of trees as the whole forest. This is an easy trap to fall into: if you spend your life in the world of genre fiction, then books means genre fiction. If you spend your life in research libraries studying the history of fruit fly research, then books means obscure, long-forgotten monographs in danger of being deaccessioned and lost to history.
So here is an incomplete list of kinds of books and what the current swirl of debates might say about them.
This is the category that is most in flux and where the current debates are actually meaningful. The mass market paperback sold in grocery stores, discount stores, and airport newsstands is vulnerable. If enough consumers are eventually attracted to an e-reader (one that is better designed, more readable, and less expensive than the generation now on the market), a lot of trees will be saved. For the most part, these books are not designed, in the sense of there being a book designer making decisions about individual books. They are text poured into an innocuous template and printed very very cheaply. The only design money involved goes into often lurid covers, and there will continue to be covers designed, for online marketing purposes, even if these books go all-e.
Technically, there is no reason serious fiction can’t go the same way genre fiction does. However, there continues to be a social meme that associates reading literature with sophistication and status. People like to have the physical books—well-designed, well-manufactured hardcovers—on display in their homes to impress their friends. I suppose this meme could become extinct in another few decades, and in any case we’re talking about a small portion of the reading public. But for as long as it’s around, there will be printed books in the category. Many will prefer to read these as e-books, of course.
Biography, autobiography, memoir, history, government, politics
This is a mixed bag, but all of these categories share with fiction that they are predominantly straight text. Oh, there might be a few photographs here and there, but even today’s generation of e-readers can handle this sort of material well enough.
There are books in these categories that are the result of decades of research and are meant to stand the test of time. There are others that are more ephemeral, dealing, say, with the current or just-ended political season. The latter will migrate quickly to mostly-e. The former will parallel the fate of literary fiction, with at least some copies printed for the foreseeable future.
Many of vanity press books in this group (memoir, for the most part) will, as people come to understand what a bad idea vanity publishing is, start to be produced as e-books from the get-go—or as blogs, which is what most of them should be now.
Self-help, travel, gardening, cooking, health
Books with charts, graphs, color photos, diagrams, and other graphical information that doesn’t work well with the current e-readers will undoubtedly be accommodated by future devices. Why wouldn’t you rather carry a bunch of travel guides in one lightweight device than lug around a stack of books? For now, though, the devices are either not up to the job or are too expensive for most people or both. So we’re going to be seeing these books printed for the most part for a while yet.
The self-published books in these categories, particularly those sold at the back of the room, may continue to be printed. What is it that you would hand someone in exchange for their twenty bucks at a show booth or a card table if not for the physical book—a gift card? A password? I suppose someone will solve the technical challenge, but from a sales psychology standpoint, I think people will still feel they want a physical object to carry home, for a good while, at least.
Coffee table books, gift books, journals
The same drive for technological innovation that is leading to the virtualization of some kinds of books is also dramatically reducing the costs associated with luxury printing and binding. The book as an art object to savor in one’s lap is going to be with us a long time, I think. At the same time, a lot of the creative energy that goes into these books is beginning to flow toward multimedia extravaganzas that are as likely to be delivered online as through printed, bound books. So the coffee table category may shrink. Gift books will stick around, as will blank journals. There will always be romantics.
Speaking of multimedia extravaganzas, from Beatrix Potter to Pat the Bunny to pop-up books to talking books to interactive books on the iPod Touch, parents have been happy to give kids the latest, busiest books to try to hold their attention. Grandparents will continue to buy printed books, but I suspect they’ll be read less and less by the youngest readers.
For older children, e-books will capture a lot of the market, particularly in school.
A huge amount of inertia—from teachers’ unions, from school administrators, from elected school boards, from schools of education, from state politicians—has kept the process of educating our children mired in nineteenth-century technology despite all the well-meaning efforts to modernize it. Yes, some textbook publishers are embracing e-books as a way to lower costs for schools. But until the whole concept of a standard textbook is seen as hopelessly obsolete, we’ll continue to have printed textbooks, both in K-12 and in college. There will be erosion (e-rosion?), but the hundred-dollar chemistry text will be with us for a while.
A lot of scholarly work has already moved online. The information gets out there faster and cheaper, and scholarly publishing has never been about profiting from sales.
As I said, this is a partial list. What does it mean overall? Just that you have to look at each category by itself and judge what it means in terms of the businesses of printing, distributing, and selling printed books. Publishing will be with us forever: a publisher is in the business of disseminating information for profit, regardless of the medium. The physical book may become less prominent over time, but it’s not going to disappear soon.