The book business is a very thin slice of the entertainment pie graph, but it is still big business. Moreover, it is a business steeped in tradition and antiquated business practices. There is a chance that the recent upheavals “just happened” because of the economy, the high price of hardback books, the younger generation (and even older ones) not as interested in reading. It could also be due to more people buying used books or patronizing libraries.
But I don’t believe it.
I tend to see purpose behind seemingly unpurposeful events. I don’t necessarily think that those at the top of the publishing food chain created this so-called crisis, but I do think they are taking advantage of it; they would be foolish not to.
Innovative technologies, such as the much-maligned print-on-demand (POD) publishing, put the big guys at a disadvantage. True, for now, POD-produced books are more expensive than those printed by major publishers, but that is because the machines are new, very expensive, and in the hands of only a few.
What will happen when these machines become cheap enough that every bookstore owner can buy one? A customer will be able to walk into a bookstore, browse through a catalog or display copies of books, make their choice, and in fifteen minutes the bookseller will hand them their purchase, hot off the press.
For the bookseller, this will mean a cleaner, more profitable shop. As it stands now, 85% of books in a typical bookstore sell less than two copies. It also means less time packing up books for return, less inventory costs, and the ability to offer an unlimited selection.
For the big publishers, it will mean no more costly print runs, no more warehousing overstock, no more returned books, no more shipping costs, no more having to destroy 25% of their product as they now do.
It’s entirely possible that as the technology becomes even more advanced, there will be book vending machines — customers make their choice, the machine prints and binds your books, and there it is. Who knows, there could even come a day when you order a cheeseburger, fries, and shake for lunch, and at the same drive-up window, order a book by Pat Bertram to read while you are eating.
Many people see print books as obsolete, taken over by e-publishing, and that is definitely a possibility, but I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Many readers like the feel and smell of books; other readers, especially older ones or those with failing eyesight, need the print format.
What I do know is that heads of major corporations are not stupid. Why would they put up with the ridiculous expenses of traditional publishing ways if they don’t have to? And with new technologies (some of which, I’m sure, we have yet to hear about) they won’t have to.
The end of the book business? No.
The end of the book business as we know it? Without a doubt.