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The 3-Format Future of Books

Antique books on a shelfIn the not-so-distant future, say 10 years from now, books will be sold in three main formats: e-books, cheap print-on-demand paper books, and specialty hard cover collector editions.

1) E-Books
Digital readers are becoming cheaper every day. The Kobo is priced affordably at $149 and the magic sub-$100 price point is coming very soon. At the same time, digital readers are also getting better: better screens, better graphics, color eInk options, wireless and Bluetooth capabilities, and more memory for more books. Although the iPad may not crush the Kindle, it introduces a different kind of experience complete with audio, video, and virtually anything else you want to add. The environmental/green angle of digital books is also a great selling point. Kobo (formerly Shortcovers) was created in 2008 for a digital book market that was expected to account for 5-10% of all book sales within five years. Now the estimate is as high as 95% in 10 years. Add it up and digital is the future of books.

2) Print-On-Demand Books
Some people will still want their “beach-proof” copy of a book or something they can mark up in the margins. Technology like the Espresso Book Machine has made it cheap and easy to print single copies of a book, available in minutes from your local bookstore (yes, they will still exist), Costco, or even the public library. The difference is that these books will be produced digitally, then output to a paper format for a small group of buyers. They still make vinyl records after all, so we won’t be done with paper for a long time.

3) Specialty Hard Cover Collector Editions
Back in the old days of publishing, there were two types of books published: inexpensive paperbacks meant for mass consumption, and leather-bound hard cover books that only institutions or the wealthy could afford. The latter were as much to be collected and displayed as to be read. Well, what goes around, comes around. J.K. Rowling may have single-handedly created the rebirth of the collector concept when she packaged Tales of Beedle the Bard for Christmas 2007, complete with jewel-encrusted cover and handwritten manuscript.

Collector books will have full-colour interiors, embossed covers, and other features that will make them feel like pre-Gutenberg illuminated manuscripts. They will be gifts for people who have everything or decor for people who want to be seen as having everything. They will not be meant for reading, just visual enjoyment. Remember the special edition of The DaVinci Code with all the beautiful pictures? Like that, only more so. Prices will be upwards of $75.

So where will you be in the transition? Leading the wave with your e-reader device or lugging around printed books? As I always tell my 85-year-old mother-in-law, how do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it? Just like cell phones 15 years ago (who needs one of those?!?), e-readers are here to stay.

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17 Responses to “The 3-Format Future of Books”

  1. Dave Says:

    Are you considering audiobooks to be a part of the e-publishing category?

  2. Adam Maxwell Says:

    In the not so distant future… the only thing I disagree with is that I don’t think it will take ten years!

    In fact within the next few weeks, I’ll be putting out a novella as an ebook, audiobook and P.O.D.

    Will be saving the hardcover edition for when I can afford the jewels for encrusting purposes :)

  3. Ross Slater Says:

    Dave, thanks for your comment. Audiobooks seem to fall into their own category. They are technically digital in their distribution, but fall outside the form of the written word. In addition to the change from audiotape to CD and now to MP3 for packaging, the quality has changed. It use to be very expensive to create audio (about $1,000 per hour when I did a lot of them back in the mid-90s). Now it is much cheaper and can often be DIY. As long as an author has a good speaking voice (not always that common), this is another channel that doesn’t need big publishers to organize and distribute their content.

  4. Ross Slater Says:

    Hey Adam, I agree with you about the timeline for the changes in the industry, but I was hedging my bets. And p-books will remain around for a long time in second-hand sales (just purchased a few for vacation reading last week). I look forward to seeing your “pimped up” hard cover in the future. Thanks.

  5. sean Says:

    Sorry to whine as the article indicated but I will miss print books. There is a romance of reading a great novel in that format that can’t be duplicated by a microchip. I also understand the march of technology, I love my Ipod for music. Books however don’t really need any improvement technologically.Music and films have benefited from tweaks in picture quality and sound quality. A bad book won’t be made better by a Kindle!In a green sense the best option would be to use recycled paper. Electronic devices wear out and eventually will go to a landfill. Plastic is a petroleum based product. The batteries used to charge an Ipad or Vook device are filled with poisonous chemicals. When books die they biodegrade, when lithium batteries die if not disposed of properly enter the ecosystem. A solution that might go against the first amendment might be to produce fewer books. Everyone wants to produce the next Twilight now. Do we really need to have every book produced every year? In the end people will still read but I worry how. The article said that secondhand books will be around for years. That’s true. I would estimate if books are taken care of we might see that trade continue for hundreds of years. In the end we already have the perfect device for displaying information right on our shelves. I for one will cherish them always.

  6. Ross Slater Says:

    Sean – totally empathize with your feelings of nostalgia for books. Currently, I’m reading a p-book and do love the turn of a page. Although I’ve always been a much better book “buyer” than “reader”, so I’ve accumulated a collection of “going to read next books” – about 350 or so (my hidden shame). So I will be reading p-books for a long time to come. Mainly when I know that I’ll only be reading one at a time and that I won’t run out of reading while I’m out somewhere.

    However, for all my new books, I’ll be purchasing them as e-books. The format is easier more flexible for storage (no bookshelves needed), transportation (I took 12 e-books on a 2-week vacation and didn’t go over my miniscule luggage allowance), and even production (e-books don’t destroy forests, generate carbon in transportation, and don’t end up in landfill – although as you said, the devices do).

    There is a great rant in Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged” about “limiting book production” that outlines the negative consequences of even attempting such a plan. And humans really want to express their creativity with content generation. That genie is out of the bottle. At least with e-books, the physical strain on our environment is limited to electronic devices. Let’s push for better recycling programs for the electronic toys we have and we’ll all be better off with more niche content and the benefits of the transition to the electronic world.

    Thanks for writing!

  7. sean Says:

    I understand your worry about censorship. I certainly believe everyone has a voice that should be heard completely and freely. My angle was more from the idea of self censorship not of political freedoms but useless fiction. Do we need another book about cute teenage vampires? My view is no. Bram Stoker did it best. Still you are right, authors should at least have the chance to voice the thoughts that drive them. My problem with free speech has always been(and I still believe people have an inalienable right to express it)that they sometimes parrot what they hear or just spew personal hatreds that don’t move our world to a better place. I guess my desire is that we all have the foresight to think about what a gift we have before we misuse it. I’ll hold on to my paper books though and you of course have the right not to. I imagine we both whether it be electron or ink will still be enraptured and mystified by those wonderful things called books!

  8. Ross Slater Says:

    Sean – thanks for the engaging conversation on the future of book formats. Likely we’ll both have what we want in format choice as the Book Espresso Machine and the like will provide p-books. Plus I expect to be able to purchase really wonderful books that get made into hard cover. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation predicted that printed books would be around many centuries into the future – mainly for the discerning few like Jean-Luc Picard.

    As for self-censorship, if people actually thought before they spoke or wrote, a great hush would fall over the earth – LOL!

    Thanks again.

  9. First Issue Blog » Blog Archive » New Evidence for the Future of the Printed Book Says:

    [...] Sometimes being a sci-fi geek has its benefits. It’s often said that not everything written about in science fiction exists, but everything that’s discovered in science existed first in science fiction. Now, sci-fi is leading the revolution in book packaging that we discussed in a previous blog post. [...]

  10. Stan Hansmann Says:

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  11. Ross Slater Says:

    Stan – thank you for your comment. Really glad that you’re finding value here. Let us know if there is anything that you’d like to discuss and we’ll write posts on it (if we can ).

  12. Lennie Inglese Says:

    I love twilight! I might sit and watch all day long if I did not have school..or life to stay me from doing it! lol Wonderful Simply Superb!

  13. Brendon Lenoch Says:

    saw this page bookmarked and I truly liked what I read. will certainly bookmark it as well and read your other posts when I get home.

  14. Ross Slater Says:

    Brendon – glad you like this article. Do the predictions seem right to you?

  15. First Issue Blog » Blog Archive » When the Upward Spiral Turns Down Says:

    [...] to fewer copies sold, and so on. The downward spiral of p-book publishing will accelerate. And the 3-format book future will come about – [...]

  16. First Issue Blog » Blog Archive » Seth Godin & The Future of Books Says:

    [...] may recognize this 3-format model as one I blogged about last June. Seth’s new project only confirms the future that I see for the publishing [...]

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