This blog entry is in response to Eric’s recent report on book marketing as he guest-blogged for Nathan Bransford. I highly recommend checking it out Eric’s entry here, it’s an incredible and in-depth look at a dying process. If only someone had been around to perform a study of dinosaur behavior just prior to the Yucatan impactor! That also would have been a timely preservation of something doomed to extinction.
I’ll be very surprised if publishers are buying back books twenty years from now the same way they’ve been doing it for decades. The system is too wasteful and not adaptable enough to cater to the fickle demands of the consumer. Does that sound like a hasty prognosis? It’s only taken twenty years for the Internet to put every newspaper in America on life-support. Napster and MP3s changed the recording industry in half that time. I think it’s a conservative guess, to be frank.
All but a few magazines are doomed. The next generation will demand today’s news, not last month’s. Baby boomers will die out (sorry mom, dad!) and take with them the demand for the slow and inflexible. The next generation of amped-up American ferrets will likely be even more impatient than today’s Ritalin-nourished tots. Delivery will be over cell-phones and small laptops. Even the clunky, immovable desktop is destined to become a cubicle-only fixture. A computer you can’t sit in front of the TV with? Preposterous!
Don’t think e-readers will catch on? That’s what they said about incandescent light and the buggy. True, e-readers won’t catch on with the generation that grew up with books, but they will with the people comfortable with computers. Once the price of a simple reader hits $100, most avid readers will purchase one. The stodgy few will bemoan the trend, much as audiophiles cling to vinyl records today, but we’ll learn to make fun of them right back, and there’ll be more of us!
I’ll never forget the first day I worked periodicals at Barnes and Noble. They took me to the receiving dock and showed me piles of magazines. “Rip the covers off of these,” they said.
You want me to do what?!
“Oh,” they added. “You can take a few of them home with you if you want, they just get recycled once we ship them back to the publisher.”
“How many years worth of magazines is this?” I asked.
“Years? Son, that’s from this month!”
I was a magazine junkie at the time; you may as well have taken a PETA nut and put them to work in a slaughterhouse. I wept as I shredded the forlorn monthlies. (I stopped and laughed a little when I got to a MAD Magazine and saw some of those funny little pictures in the margins, but then I wept again as I tore in to the home furnishing pile.)
In Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell described an even more horrific scene for book junkies. A warehouse where unsold, unwanted, uncared-for books go to meet their horrible fate. Beyond stacks and stacks of bought-back books that survived the embarrassing discounting process, he was led to a furnace. Where books were being tossed in. Some of them from unopened boxes, their covers intact.
Folks, this ain’t the way it’s gonna work in the future. Printing no longer need be done with massive metal plates that are melted down after a run. Digital printing technology is making things more flexible, and the book industry is gradually changing. Small printers now produce tomes identical in quality, even hardbacks with nice dust jackets. The Espresso printing machine is the size of an appliance and will print, bind and trim a book while you wait!
It won’t be long before fuel costs make the shipping of books unsustainable. Especially when we’re shipping them to and fro to people who don’t even want them, then shipping them back to a furnace. Allow me to describe the bookstore of the future, circa 2030:
You walk in through the large glass facade that streams light across a chatty, happy gaggle of contented readers. They’re sitting around in small groups of fashionable, plush chairs. Most of them are on laptops, using the free wi-fi. Many are giggling or gasping at the tale spanning their e-readers. Some are sampling the bestsellers which line a few racks and were formed into happy towers on the center table. The smell of rich coffee wafts through the room, trailing back to the wide counter that runs the width of the building.
There aren’t racks of books here. It looks more like an auto-parts store, but without the grease. Lining the counter are computer screens with comfy stools pulled up to each. Eager readers flip through the touchscreens, looking at book covers, reading blurbs and reviews, sampling chapters. A young girl, hair dyed black, finds a vampire novel with a wicked crimson font, dripping blood. She taps “Order Physical” and slides off the stool, her chains jangling, and skips over to grab a coffee.
Behind the wall of the shallow storefront we find a veritable Kinko’s of loud, warm, humming machines. College students busy around them, feeding paper, releasing jams, changing ink, and grabbing warm books to fit them in their jackets. Each one is hand-delivered, the readers showing off the physical thing to their friends, who agree that the font is wicked. “Didja get the ebook, too?” one of them asks. “Nah, it was two bucks more. Got a coffee instead.”
Twenty years, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a conservative guess.