The Future of Print Books

putting it in context

Vinyl.

I have very fond memories of sifting through my parent’s record collection as a boy, and my dad teaching me how to handle the large black discs “only touching the sides” – as if my finger tips had the ability to annihilate the music forever if I slipped and touched the center. Zeppelin. The Who. Peter, Paul & Mary. The Yard Birds. Earth, Wind & Fire. Peter Frampton. Cream. All subject to me touching only the sides.

But vinyl was on its way out (with the strange 8-track obsession quickly averted) and cassettes were in. Of course seeing tape made more sense to me as that’s all I saw in the studio. I watched my dad splice thousands of feet of tape for an album, all whizzing by at 30ips (inches per second). So shrinking a 2″ tape down into a hand-held version was nothing short of miraculous.

Then CDs came along, and the digital age was born. Even though I knew that I was trading true sine-waves for digital bits, there was something sexy about them. That, and I never had to use a pencil to wind the music back in. Sure, there was the whole scratch issue, but that would be solved in the next iteration.

Digital music files.

No tape to unravel, no plastic to scratch, and most of all, instant access and ultimate portability.

Perhaps you’re asking what this has to do with books? But you’re an intelligent audience: you’ve obviously gathered that the example of ingenuity, invention, and marketability played out in the music industry is exactly where the publishing industry is headed. And you’re right. In fact, most of my generation was willing to accept the digital transformation of books long before publishing companies did (and have yet to).

So is that as far as the comparison of music and books goes?

here today, gone tomorrow (or just later today)

If you’re even remotely interested in the book-world, you know publishing companies are scratching and clawing to make up for lost time (which most will never get back), and are being crushed beneath the weight of high overhead as they’ve failed to account for the consumer’s low tolerance of high price points and the author’s ability to take control of their own work – conception to delivery.

Amazon reported that Kindle sales exceeded hard cover sales last July, and just surpassed paperback sales in January. Likewise, digital ebook sales are exploding, with year-to-date percentages moving into the hundreds, and dollars amounts into the tens and hundreds of millions. Trends are changing so fast, numbers are being reported on a weekly basis.

And while traditional publishers are busy trying to push $15.99+ digital book price points to meet the needs of their bloated budgets due to an outdated means of mass production, new entrepreneurs are dropping prices to $1.99 – with others, like authors JA Konrath and Cory Doctorow, giving away certain titles in order to win readers who will be more likely buy the next book.

And it’s working.

Not only are the most affluent, highest spending demographic of consumers excited to ditch the cumbersome tomes in exchange for the sleek e-reading status symbol of their preference, but authors are making more money than they ever dreamed. By themselves. And they deserve it. [I'll do a raw numbers break-out of my own accounting in a tell-all forthcoming post].

With what once was the trademark term of an author that didn’t have the goods to land a real deal, suddenly “self-publishing” is becoming the method of choice for the new era of writers.

from common to collectible

So print is on its way out and digital is well on its way in. But the question everyone wants to know is, what’s going to happen to books?

Most analysts I’m following say that by the time ebooks reach 25% of the market share (a figure that – according to current trends – will be reached in the third quarter of 2012), the traditional publishing industry will collapse. So does that mean the physical books all readers have a secret (or often times public romance) with will vanish?

My answer: no.

But their function will change. In essence, their purpose.

What was once a means of communicating written content will now become a collectible. And the music industry prophesies this perfectly.

In 2007 and 2008 Jon Foreman released 4 EPs (Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer). As I’m a huge Switchfoot fan, and love anything Jon does,  I wanted them right away. So I bought the downloadable digital version of each release as soon as it was available. 3 minutes later I had my iPhone plugged into my car stereo and was jamming to “Equally Skilled.” I actually did end up buying the physical CD version of Fall, but realized it wasn’t that unique in packaging, and I never played it once.

Then the vinyl collectors edition came out.

Signed. Numbered. Limited. Rare. And full of never-before-seen photos that Jon took himself.

And I had to have it. I easily parted with the extra money for it.

Now it’s interesting to note that I haven’t actually played the records. Nor do I necessarily plan to (though I’m not opposed to it). I listen to the music regularly on my iPhone or Mac Book Pro because it’s convenient. But I savor the art on the vinyl collectors set that proudly rests in my bedroom.

And this is the point.

Self-published authors (and publishers that manage to survive; that’s another post) will produce ebooks as the new means of media distribution. It is inevitable. But traditional print books will serve a purpose: the collectible. And with the most recent advents in POD (print on demand) services, running small numbers of a high quality product has never been easier and more accessible. In fact, I dare say printed books will become more sought after, but never more prolific.

The signed, numbered, dated, leather-bound, silver-plated, hand-embossed, wax-sealed, parchment-printed, collectors set, the tangible version of the book that changed your life that you simply cannot live without, that book will always live on. Even as sacrilegious as it may sound, I haven’t touched my favorite physical Bible in over a year, though it sits proudly on the bookshelf beside my bed, signed and dated by my father Peter. Instead, my iPhone and Mac Book Pro have become my sole source of daily Bible reading.

And now I feel vindicated for starting off with a music comparison: books and vinyl really do belong in the same post after all. ch:

Insiders Newsletter

Sign up to become an insider today and get a digital copy of my "Handbook to Self-Publishing" sent to you for free!

  • http://Millerbrotherbooks.com Christopher Miller

    Nice article. The distance between the content creator and the reader is diminishing. The challenge will be finding content you can trust. Before, there has always been the “publishing label” that offered a certain amount of credibility that content had been well edited, fits a certain category (faith based, sci-fi, etc.) and was good enough quality to print. With those standards up for grabs I perceive a need for like-minded content creators to gather together under a new label…Something consumers can grow to trust.

    Loved your post and can’t wait to see what the future holds for all of us.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      You’ve hit it right on the head. In fact, that was to be my next post. While it very much seems like entities like Amazon are here to stay with them cutting out the middle man in both sales (no more brick and mortar store) and in POD for authors, there will be a need like never before to help consumers sift through the explosion of good, bad, and ugly, hopefully to find the fantastic. I would very much like to be ahead of the curve. Perhaps authors will find companionship and their joint reputations or allegiances will serve as guideposts.

  • http://robert.epictales.org Robert Treskillard

    Great post, Chris. We’re certainly seeing a revolution in publishing. For the publishers to collapse, the authors themselves will have to abandon the publishers. That comes down to an economic issue … how much bigger of a cut will the publishers be willing to give to avoid that collapse? And how many authors are willing to do it all themselves?

    Interesting times, that’s for sure!

    -Robert

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Boy, you cut right to the chase; and I can tell you right away that since I did lion’s share of marketing (and I’m being kind) of all my books, I’d much rather keep the extra percentage for my babies’ mouths.

  • http://www.reimerconsulting.com Nathan R.

    Great post.

    I just saw this quote on twitter.

    “In the Internet era, if people on the other side of the planet aren’t loving what you do, you’re doing something wrong.”

    I think this adds credibility to the notion that accessibility and portability will dictate the future of media (or anything consumable). Imagine 15-20 years ago, seems like the dark ages of media. Now imagine 15-20 years from now.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Man, what a GREAT quote! Thanks for sharing, Nathan!

  • http://www.crmooney.com mooney

    ebooks = awesome, though i have yet to buy a reader, I can see it fast approaching. It’s easier for me to take a chance on a new author at $3-$10 than it is at $12-$22. Also, there is nothing like a referral. If I love your work, and you have a list of authors you have enjoyed, I’m very likely to pick up one of those titles. I’ve been in sales, and there’s nothing like a warm referral.

    On that note, when can I download “Athera’s Dawn” at Amazon? lol

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Very, very soon, my friend. It’s my next project. :)

    • reenie

      LIke like like !!!!!

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Right back at’chu lady!

    • http://teenagewritingrocks.blogspot.com/ Jake

      *gasp*

  • Sarah

    Our family now buys 95% of our books through the ebook format. We do so mainly for space reasons. We love to read and bookshelves are expensive ;-)

    There is something about involving multiple sense in reading a paperback that I will definitely miss. I was reluctant to have my kids miss out of that by reading mostly from their Kindles. Alas, technology is changing the world though and so it is important for them to change the way they learn.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Ha, yes! Bookshelves are expensive indeed! I think picking the “right books” to keep around is the new way of thinking; everything else can go digital. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • http://www.rencen.wordpress.com Christian Fahey

    Digital books will rule the day but print books, though waning in popularity, will never quite go the way of vinyl. Digital books depend upon deliverable power, which unfortunately is a far more brittle commodity than we’d care to admit. Plus some of us like having print in our hands in a more sensual way–the feel, the smell of new or old books, etc. Having said that–and I don’t have a Kindle…yet–the most valuable things I read are of older vintage, usually in public domain, so it saves space on my shelves and the search capabilities rock (pdf and html). As long as people are reading and thinking–which is harder than one might suppose–digibooks are a great development for our times. A far more nightmarish future is one in which books are irrelevant (“Brave New World”) or a threat (“Farenheit 451″). Good post as usual dude.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Thanks Christian! Man, just you bringing up BNW and 451 give me a shudder! Gosh, how I love those manuscripts!

    • reenie

      LOVE LOVE LOVE !!! Thanks Christian !!!!!

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      He’s too brilliant! It should be illegal. :)

  • http://www.enterthedoorwithin.blogspot.com wayne thomas batson

    You’ve made me thoughtful. I’m thinking of following your post with one of my own. Thanks, CH!

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Awesome! Post the link!

  • http://hiddendoorways.blogspot.com/ Squeaks

    Excellent post! I am personally quite baffled at this whole print-to-digital change that’s overtaking society. I do understand how people see digital material as being more accessible and efficient than printed material, but there is just something so special in an actual hard-copy of a book that I’ll never want to part with. I’ve considered getting a Kindle (or any other form of e-reader), especially since the prices on some of my favourite books and want-to-reads are so low, but that seductive pull of the printed page always turns my head and I end up shelling out more money to have that copy in my hands.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Agreed, but as I’m getting older, I realize how much “stuff” I have and I honestly only want the very “best” of my favorites taking up physical space; the rest I can have digitally. So that’s why there’s room for both. But mass-market is gone, collectible is on. Thanks for chiming in, Squeaks!

    • http://teenagewritingrocks.blogspot.com/ Jake

      Exactly! The best of the books are bought physically. I do that. For the record, I own Venom and Song in hardback. ;)

  • http://www.enterthedoorwithin.blogspot.com wayne thomas batson

    Just finished my follow up. Will eBooks spell the end of traditional print publishing? Find out: http://is.gd/1jtprq

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Thanks so much, Wayne!

  • http://www.hillaryhopper.com Hillary

    Great article Bubba. It’s crazy because I was just thinking about this, this week. Seeing borders closing everywhere in San Francisco, it’s been making me wonder where all the print books are going.

    What would you say about Children’s books? Do Eva and Louie still read from books in the house, or do you feel they are gravitating more towards the computer and the iPhone? It probably has more to do with parenting. But as I have been illustrating for my book, I am wondering if a Childrens eBook would be the smarter way to go, or just do both.

  • http://dreamingprincess.wordpress.com Beth

    Great Post. I have been contemplating getting a Kindle account and possible buying a Kindle in the future. Though I have a love for books, I figure it is they way the industry seems to be going.
    I have always dreamed of having a library and for that reason, I will still purchase books. There is something special about curling up and reading a good book. Plus, gotta have a place to put those collectors books.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Oh you’ll get your library (essentially with all the old books there are, which I collect!), you just won’t have to be inundated with the garbage books in print.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      PS – Just added some 100+ year old books to my office collection today!

    • http://dreamingprincess.wordpress.com Beth

      Old books are my favorite. I don’t have many as of right now, but I am hoping to collect a lot of old classics by the time I build my library.

    • http://teenagewritingrocks.blogspot.com/ Jake

      Old books are AWESOME. I have a pre-20th century Bible from Liberia, black leather. :) I just like looking at it. It’s a piece of history in itself…

  • http://millerbrotherbooks.com Christopher Miller

    Save this post, Christopher, so we can one day post a plaque and say: On this blog on March 11, 2011 something BIG happened. :-)

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      As it has been said, so it shall be done!

  • Billy Jepma

    Welcome back Christopher! Missed reading your posts. Great post. I for one, love physical books, but have fully embraced digital music. I like the hard copies, but they take up room and I only ever use them in my Dad’s truck. But I can more easily burn the album to a disc. Easier, and cheaper. When the sad day comes that physical books diminish, I will fork over the cash for an ebook. Because I cannot live without books. :)

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Thanks for the welcome back!

      One of the things that helped push me over the edge is this: I value the story more than I value the book. Therefore, especially because I travel so much, I have to pursue one of two trains of thought: either a) I take one book with me in my carry on or when I travel (or 2 if they’re small enough), or b) I bring as many ebooks as I want. The choice for me at least is very clear.

      Love you bro!

    • Billy Jepma

      Now THAT makes perfect sense. I personally don’t face that kind of worry. But one day, in a year or more, I’ll probably invest in a Kindle. Seems to be the best out there. And I can read books I never have because of lack of shelf space. A true fact I never thought of until you brought it up. :) Thanks for the great post. Much love!

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      My pleasure. Love you, too!

  • Whitney

    We buy most of our books as ebooks now for many of the reasons listed in the comments. However, there are a few types of books I hope never go out of print. Children’s books and texts books. I find I really need a physical text book to read, flip through, and highlight if needed, electronic versions just don’t cut it.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Great points, Whitney. I think being able to hold children’s books in-hand with kids is pretty essential. Though I’ve read and seen a few things on developments in children’s ebooks, and the incorporation of audio and video. Over stimulation?

  • reenie

    “Oh how I love thee let me count the ways……” I love love love physical books, I have yet to get a Kindall and am hoping I never have to….. A physical book is an expierence not to be cheapened by the digital age. To hold it…smell it ….open it close it ahhhh I love it !!! I have a hard time thinking about reading a digital book – my eyes for one – are not to be entirely taken over by computer digital screens- There must be MORE to this than just reading words. I just see many optomitrist getting rich due to our eyes failing over the “new” products that we just can’t live without – I don’t know why but I just have a distate in my mouth for e-books , Kindals and the like. I love BNW and F 451 – the printed version – lol I just see kids now days not even using a real dictionary because the computer is so much easier…. let’s not get me started with books on CD- although I do use them when on vacation I just can’t handle them anywhere but in the car- I want to do the reading if at all possible – and that I am sure is another post lol ;) love to you Christopher and I will be “reading” you in all the OLD familiar places…….(physical books are still my book of choice) ;O

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      I hear your heart. And I know it’s shared by many.

      On the scientific note, my conversations with optometrists, they note to decay or residual defects to tablet viewing (Kindle, iPad, etc) though one could certainly argue they haven’t been around long enough to see adverse effects. Computer screens with slow refresh rates have indeed been an issue, but those refresh rates combined with mandatory viewing breaks (which I need to take more of) have combated a lot of the previous issues.

      All that to say, I totally hear you on holding “the real deal,” which is why “my favs” will always be physical (and my reasoning for why there will always be physical somewhere). But ebooks for me have become so convenient because I value the story more than the book.

      With their [ebook] proliferation, however, comes an interesting side effect: old books becoming more valuable. That’s why I collect them. Pre-1900′s are my favorite.

  • http://www.reimerconsulting.com Nathan R.

    I agree with the sensual attraction of books and for that reason alone I believe they won’t die off like audio tape has.

    Regarding a library full of books, I reminded of my dad’s impressive library. He’s a pastor and a missionary and literally has floor to ceiling bookshelves filled with books. While it’s impressive, it seems to me as inaccessible; bordering on unusable. What’s the point having a book if you can’t even get to it, can’t remember what you have, and can’t search through it? Digital media gives you all of that information at your fingertips and with a smart phone gives it to you anywhere (if you have Verizon, j/k).

    Maybe in the end it will depend on the type of information and how we want to consume it instead of the simplistic argument of digital versus print.

  • jen

    I feel so sad at the thought of printed books being replaced by ‘ebooks’….I’m like Reenie…I LOVE to hold a book, flip the pages, smell it, and put that little gem on the bookshelf….
    And ironically I had lunch with a friend today who has written a book and has decided to ‘self publish’ due mainly to all the crazy stuff she’s learned about the publishing industry over the last two years. I had never really given much thought to how long it takes and how little the author actually makes out of the deal. I guess like most things you have to hit bottom before things will change, so I am hopeful that maybe the publishers will get a clue and start making it better for the authors…I sure don’t want to read all my books on an electronic device!
    On that note, I’m not gonna lie – I LOOOOVE my iPod! That instant gratification I can accept! ;)

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Jen, nothing can replace physical books. True. But you’re also correct in presuming that authors make WAY more money doing things themselves. And so for that reason publishers may never bounce back simply because they can’t compete with what an author can do themselves. If they’re going to attempt to, they’ll need to drastically lower their overhead and make their marketing/distribution cut a fraction of it’s current size, citing the exact way in which an author benefits from going through them (right now, nil). For instance, I can create and sell my own music today for far more than a record company could do for me, AND retain 100% creative control. Thanks for your comments.

  • http://teenagewritingrocks.blogspot.com/ Jake

    “…the tangible version of the book that changed your life that you simply cannot live without, that book will always live on.” That’s the essence of my position on the matter. :) I own a Kindle, but I have over a hundred physical books. I love them, if only to look at them and remember the tales within those covers.

  • Erica

    I had to read Farenheit 451 in high school English. Btw, I hope physical books don’t go away.

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      Erica: I don’t think they’ll ever “go away,” but get used to new releases being all digital, and if there is a physical version be prepared to pay for it.

  • Pingback: Christopher Hopper » The Future of Book Publishing

  • http://masterviewstudio.com daddyh

    Memories,such sweet memories…and so much work,but a labor of love tho’;Great article,CK! Thank you. daddy

    • http://www.christopherhopper.com Christopher Hopper

      That’s for giving me such an awesome childhood! LOVE YOU DADDY!

  • Pingback: Are print books the vinyl records of the publishing industry? « E-books, eh?

  • Pingback: christopher hopper » Spearhead Books

  • Pingback: Why I think Books Will Survive - Carly Writes - Writers in the Real World