On the decline of paper and the survival of print

As someone who started out with dreams of a career in book publishing, I’ve lately been watching the e-publishing phenomenon with interest.

One thing is clear: as much as I love printed books, they have become nostalgic souvenirs for many and irrelevant to most. I have a wall full of books in my home, everything from cookbooks to childhood favourites. Every once in a while, I cull the shelves, carting off bags of novels I’m not likely to read again and freebies I never got around to in the first place. The rest stay, for now, because they’re useful references or because they’re a favourite story or by a favourite author. Many books are attached to my memories – books I bought while in Japan, for example, or my teenage collection of Sweet Valley Highs.

The book industry obviously can’t survive by appealing to sentimentalists; neither can authors, editors and publishers hope that they’ll find today’s audience (on the Web) by going to yesterday’s market (the bookstore). It’s scary to contemplate, but the fact is that the book, as a lumpy object, is dead. The ideas that used to be  found in books may yet survive, just in a different form, or so says Sherman Young in his book called The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book, which is available in lumpy object form (!) via Amazon or can be previewed via the somewhat controversial Google Books.

Or to put it another way, as I heard Sean Cranbury say the other night at January’s edition of the Shebeen Club, the publishing industry needs to become less about creating an inventory and more about building platforms for ideas and stories and creating communities around them. And the authors will have to be that much more involved.

What’s a bit scary, and maybe this is a good thing, is all the new technology that “Publishing 3.0” entails learning. As a reader, I’m confounded by the different models of e-readers and file formats; as a writer and editor, I’m not sure what tools to use or about digital copyright or about how one makes money from digital content. I don’t think I’m alone here. But there will be no going back, and for many types of books, a little less paper will be a good thing.

For others, I hope that the digital revolution actually makes it more profitable to produce a beautiful book in physical form. For example, file sharing and print-on-demand could make a book available in the form each individual reader desires, whether hardcover, paperback, audio, iPhone or Kindle.

The future of publishing still has room for print. I won’t be taking an e-reader into the bathtub anytime soon. I won’t be splattering the screen with olive oil nor consulting it  from halfway across my kitchen. And I’d be right POed if a battery died right at the good part of a novel. But these are my personal preferences – everyone’s places and times for books are different. It’s time for publishers and authors to make ideas available where and how their audiences live.

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8 thoughts on “On the decline of paper and the survival of print

  1. raincoaster says:

    I still prefer printed books, but the rise of alternatives and the falling services offered by mainstream publishers mean that a revolution is coming. As I said in my interview for Books on the Radio, at this point the publisher has to convince the author that s/he is going to add enough value to be worth keeping 90% of the revenue of the book.

    When they can come up with a good, value-based argument for using their services, the security of the industry will be assured. “Well, you’ve got to do your own marketing, have your own community, and pay to get your book edited, but we’ll do all the phonecalls to the printers!” just isn’t good enough anymore.

  2. Rolando Helvie says:

    I am really taken by the mode that you write, and the subject is good. Umm… do you know how well does the Kindle PDF conversion handle PDFs with Math formulas? I read a lot of Math PDFs and I really hate reading on the computer and I think printing everything just to read it once is a waste of paper. So Ive been looking for some ebook reader that handles math PDFs well but unfortunately it seems like none of them do. Thanks and have a great day!

  3. Niklas says:

    Right away I am going away to do my breakfast, afterward having
    my breakfast coming again to read other news.

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