Hard copy books: Exit stage left

hard copy booksImagine it’s 30 years from now.

A mother is with her son in the Apple-Holographic-Museum-Of-Almost-Everything-That-Did-Exist-One-Time-Or-Another. The bratty little tyke is walking round a display, scratching his pimply head.

“What is it Ma?”

“Says here, it’s a book, son.”

“What’s a book, Ma?”

“Well, people used to read them, like turn the pages and stuff.”

“Turn pages?”

“With their fingers.”

And then they fall about laughing a bit like the Smash aliens (remember them?) until they go onto the next exhibit which is an exercise bike and a stuffed penguin. Whether you like it or not, this is the final resting place of the book.

I hear you scream. Yes, I do. From the confines of my ivory tower, I hear and feel your pain.

So, all you hard copy book lovers, here’s the kick in the teeth and the proof. Bookshops are ALREADY beginning to disappear and soon they will be no more. It’s true. The time is fast approaching when you will be unable to visit your favourite bookshop and browse for hours on end before leaving with your precious copy of the latest Bill Patterson.

Their time has come and we should wave bookshops goodbye with a tear in our eyes and try to retain some of our dignity.

So where does that leave books themselves? I don’t mean books in that sense, I mean the physical entity with its pretty cover and nicely printed pages? You know, those things that fill your BOOKcase. The hardcopy.

Well, they’re going too.

The rise of the electronic book

I know some of you are scoffing already. You, the ones who sit in front of the fire with your trusty copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes you. Don’t scoff. Think on this future possibility:

  • Bookshops have gone. Nowhere left to spend your rainy lunchtimes
  • Places like Amazon are the only place you can browse for and buy books and you have to do it online
  • It costs money to store and send these weighty tomes
  • Amazon and other companies think it would be pretty neat if we could have the book at home already (eg, Kindle, iPad) and then they could just send the damn thing over to you for half the cost via the digital superhighway

They are going to decide that we no longer need physical books. And publishers will see the outlay to produce real books as an unnecessary expense. Don’t believe me? Think people will be resistant to electronic books?

Don’t be too sure.

Think of all the trees you could save.

There are a couple of things that will finally signal the death knell of the physical book and that is the price of readers coming down and the agreement of a set format (ah, bring back the days of BETAMAX). Both of these things will, eventually, come to pass.

Once these issues are behind us, the hardcopy book will be at the point of no return. Unless the digital world crashes and, you have to admit, that’s as likely as a worldwide banking crisis, the end is, most definitely, nigh.

But don’t mourn the demise of the real book. It opens up a strange new world for us authors, and while it will take a little getting used to, will provide us with brand new opportunities to have our voices heard.

We just won’t be sitting at a book signing in Waterstone’s.

And in 30 years time we may be sat toothlessly grinning at our grandchildren and boring them about how we used to carry around big wads of paper with stories on them.

And what’s inside is going to change too

The rule is that if a thing is around long enough, sooner or later it’s going to become extinct. And this, my friends, is the case for the content of the book too. It’s about to be hammered into extinction and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Your screams grow louder…Nooooooo!!!

But Apple are already talking about embedding extras in electronic novels – you know the kind of thing, videos, voice-overs…I kid you not. The novel format will change and that’s pretty scary. Because once you start messing with the old formula, sooner or later you’re going to end up with something totally different.

A novel that suddenly breaks into song? Writing that links to additional background information about the characters? Interactive forums that decide the outcome of the book? Advertising embedded in the text?

Just as we are all beginning to believe that we have a chance – that the high ground has been wrestled away from the demagogic publishers and agents – the rules are about to change.

You will need a brave heart.

Change is happening quickly. There is another seismic shift on the way. You can resist for a while, but there’s nothing you can really do to stop it. You will need to be adaptable. You will need to keep your eyes on things.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll come out the other side and blink at this brave new world and come to believe that it is good.

So what’s your take on the creative revolution? Is it going to change anything? Does it scare you? Excite you? Let the world know in the usual way. Go to town on the comments section below.

14 thoughts on “Hard copy books: Exit stage left

  1. Ziggy, a brave and accurate post. I’ve been pilloried for saying much the same thing, but the economic, environmental and convenience advantages of the “e-Book” will get to a tipping point more quickly than people imagine. And yes, I’m excited and nostalgic at the same time. 500 years isn’t a bad run, it’s long enough to have gotten partway into our DNA, so much so that we even call the assemblages of text, video, audio, hyperlinks and the kitchen sink “books.” Thanks for writing.

  2. You know, they said when the movie rental places, Netflix and HBO came around, that movies were endangered. But they are still there. And even with high def TV’s and huge home theatres, movies are still there. I think there will always be people like me who like to turn pages. I would like to have a Kindle though, for on planes. I do think that newspapers are on the decline. I am a blogger, and a few years ago would have been trying to get a syndicated newspaper column, and blogging has gotten me an audience that I never would have gotten. I call myself a writer, and I am rambling…

  3. I think you’re in the ballpark with your assumptions but I don’t believe the book, in hardcopy is dead. People said the same thing about cd’s when digital music was introduced, it’s a competing format offering the same content. Vinyl is making a massive comeback because people want to hold something and flip something open and touch it. People want an experience, if book sellers realize the game has changed, they too can adjust before it’s too late. I have faith.Cd’s still sell in record amounts, even though itunes makes everything easier and faster. Books will be the same thing, mom and pop stores will be left in the wake but the ones who pass through the graveyard will be the tastemaking spots people flock to, just like record shops. The big box giants like Borders and B & N aren’t going to die off anytime soon. This is new thing and people will get their fill and most likely apply both systems, like they do with music. For every person finger flipping on an ipad, there’s a hipster who swears anything digital is the devil. There will always be a demand for a simple dog earred copy of a book that rides in your bag or lives in your back pocket. The same people who own an ipod, are the same kinds of people who pay money for a high quality product they’ve used all of their. Books are eternal.

  4. I don’t see it happening. You’re talking about a very small segment of the world (relatively speaking). There are vast segments of the global population who want access to published material, but who can’t even find batteries for their digital reader, let alone the reader itself or access to these online marketers. And how long will a Kindle or iPad survive in a village school in the middle of the Mekong Delta, or the deserts of Western China (to take two examples of relatively developed nations)? It’s far too easy for Americans (especially, but Europeans are also guilty of this) to assume that their little corner of the planet represents “the world”.Are publishers going to let these millions go bookless (not to mention the educational market which often needs hard copy – you’re going to let 5-year-olds bash each other over the heads with their £100 ebook readers)? Not while the publishers see these markets as being there. It may well be that the majority of books become electronic, while there still remains a strong market for the physical to complement the virtual.We’re still eating meals, after all, cutting up vegetables and dead animals, long after the futurologists of the 20s and 30s (and later!) predicted that we would be living on three nutrition tablets per day.I do agree that a common standard of format and reader is needed (as I’ve written on my own blog several times) but that’s not the magic spell that’s going to make all sliced dead trees suddenly disappear. If I believed that, I wouldn’t have spent so much time and effort producing paper copies of my book – I’d have let it remain only as patterns in silicon to be reconfigured to meet the current standard.

  5. I have no idea what will happen in and to the industry, but I would be very sad if I could no longer buy a book. And, as a writer, if I had to consider anything other than the written word while plotting, outlining and writing a novel, well, shoot me now.

  6. scary, exciting, horrific, wonderful. yup – all that crap. but there’s a part of me, a little spark in my soul, that grows a little dimmer at the thought of there one day being no stories told from one person to another, using the human voice format alone. everything else is, in the end, just convenience and window-dressing…SqueakyX

  7. I absolutely adore ebooks, but at the same time I don’t think paper ones will ever go away. People will want a hard copy of their favorites. The selection of paperbacks will be smaller and more select, but they will still exist. I read most of my books in electronic format on my phone, but when my phone goes on the fritz I can always turn to my paperbacks. I prefer the ease and convenience of the ebooks though.

  8. OH, that depressed me to no end. Somebody asked me recently if I thought I’d get a kindle and I said, “no I couldn’t afford it.” She asked me if I had the money would I get the kindle, I said “No. Because it wouldn’t smell like a book.”There’s nothing more wonderful than the tactile, sensory experience of buying, opening and reading a book, especially a long-anticipated book (HP anyone?). It gives me a physical high, and even if the markets try to submarine it, I’m going to hold on.I’m currently one of (probably) 200 people who still has a working VHS player. This week I got a total of 4 movies for a whopping $2 at a thrift shop. Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores are still doing gangbusters in the USA so it might live longer here, but I can hope in my heart of hearts that the printed word will outlive me. Plus I’m only out $7 if I accidently drop a BOOK in the toilet. *sigh*

  9. OOh! one retraction.I DO heartily endorse e-TEXTbooks. I suffered actual spinal damage from the amount of texts I had to lug around from middle-school upward. E-book monopoly=badNo kids with sciatica=good.

  10. I guess in the future, socialists will be burning computers with ebooks on them instead of actual books. Good post.

  11. Here’s what I think as a student of 2D Animation. We faced a similar crisis when 3D started becoming big. Everyone was worried that no one would want 2D anymore – then Disney reopened its doors and we got The Princess and The Frog! In that respect I agree with Robert. There will always be a demand for printed work – it will be respected as a high art form – the same way that calligraphy, 2D animation, and traditional painting are seen as art-forms. Books will become priceless treasures.However, that still leaves the 3D, Digital Painting and E-Books. No one can deny they aren’t going to happen, because they are happening and what we are seeing is the birth of a new industry. The people who get in on the bottom floor are going to be sky-rocketing up as the years move on. As someone who appreciates Art in all forms: acting, singing, dancing, graphic art, animation, etc. ad infinitum, this is an exciting time to hear about mixed media like the projects described above.This revolution isn’t something that is going to happen immediately, as everyone’s said, there are still Blockbusters and Hollywood Videos even though Netflix is exploding on the market scene. For another thing, poorer countries that can’t afford the luxuries of electricity and computers that we can will rely on the printed book. It’s a stepping stone towards techonologies. Perhaps all of ours can go towards them? You don’t learn to type before you learn how to write. At least for now…Embrace the future, but don’t forget the past. We’d be fools to neglect either. :)This is a great conversation!

  12. Plus ebook lovers are still going to want a hard copy (paper copy) of their favorite books. They aren’t going away. More selective printings maybe, but there will always be hard copies of books.Another aspect is that you can’t really kill ebooks. Someone else will always have a copy on their harddrive, Kindle, phone, or whatever. I don’t really understand what the outrage and despair is over this anyway. The book is the TEXT and maybe illustrations of the story (or nonfiction, whatever), not the medium its propagated by. Alice in Wonderland is still the same book whether its on paper, in ebook format, or handwritten on papyrus. Honestly, isn’t that what counts?

  13. I rather enjoyed Monica Marier’s comment about the ‘smell’ of a book. I am starting to realize the more writers I speak with and get to know that I’m not really that weird in my ways of doing things or seeing things. Granted you’re rarely going to find me without a laptop or my trusted blackberry because I love the age of technology, but that isn’t to say that I will go for the whole e-book craze either. Yes I love Kindle, think they are amazing, would love to have an iPad as well. I love technology and even work in the technology field, but as Monica commented on, there are still plenty of us that are of an old-school mindset and will not give up easily on the idea of having the hardcopy of a book in our hands. I have a bookshelf filled with my favorites, almost all have seen better days and several of my all time favorites have duplicates that are in pristine condition just in case I would happen to lose the original copies I have. Yes, I am a bit neurotic that way. But Ziggy, I do believe you have touched on an issue that we could be facing, however, as you stated in the opener, look 30 years in the future. That is still a decent way off. I do not believe our die-hard book readers will want to give up the comfort of actually having the hardcopy. I am not going to be one of those that is paranoid over it, worried if it will affect sales of an upcoming release or not. Truth be told I don’t feel anyone should be upset or concerned about it aside from not having a hardcopy in hand because let’s face it, if someone wants something bad enough, they will find a way to get it. As a writer, if I’m published, whether it’s a hardcopy or an e-book, I really don’t care as long as someone is reading it. Great post as usual! 

  14. I agree in many aspects, but to note…So long as Apple, Amazon, Google, or whoever is able to track your purchases (especially with Amazon’s ability to retract your purchases or the happy Apple censors), there will be a place for the hard copy in this world. Even if only as a tool for controversial messages.

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