Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
June 6th, 2007

A Book Convention – Part Three: In the Year 2025

What is the future of the book and the book publishing industry?  That was the question that was in my mind while attending the Book Expo America convention this past week end.  In a business that is mature, flat to down in unit sales, and seems to dearly hold on to past business practices, what might be the road map for success over the next twenty years? 

First, let’s take a look at other content businesses, what has happened to them in this digital age, and what that might indicate for the book business.

Music is relevant in that the music business was disintermediated by the Internet.  It is not relevant in that the listener still uses speakers, earphones and ear plugs and, except for convenience and portability doesn’t really care whether the music comes from vinyl, tape, CD or audio file [except of course for dedicated audiophiles]. The physical listening experience is the same. Reading a book is a physical experience that would be fundamentally changed by moving to a screen.

Television/video has also been changed by the Internet.  Viewing is now on a variety of screens, and is essentially becoming on demand.  Even though the variety of screens has increased, viewing is still on a screen, as it has always been.  Where video can give a glimpse into the future of books is that, at least on the Internet, the power of gatekeepers has lessened.  “Viewer generated content” might be analogous to self publishing via the on demand technology.

Newspapers are suffering declines in readership and revenue due to the Internet.  The Internet can serve up timely news and is a much more efficient media for classified ads.  Dedicated newspaper readers enjoy the physical action of reading a newspaper, yet often accept reading the newspaper on-line when more convenient or are in a place where the physical newspaper cannot be obtained.  This may be an indication of what will happen to the reading of books.

The heyday of magazines seems to have passed in terms of growth curves and cultural influence.  Most have moved on-line and their readership comes from both the physical and on-line realms.  Blogs and their immediacy have affected editorial direction of magazines. 

All these media are different and distinct yet they have all been reorganized by the Internet.  Music and video have also been profoundly affected by innovations in digital technology.  One of the results is that music industry has seen a steep decline in the sale of physical product as it has moved on-line. That development has profoundly affected the retail aspect of the business.

So, what will the future of the book publishing business look like in the next few years and in 2025? 

-on-line sales will continue to increase in percentage of over all sales and will represent most of the growth in the business for the next five years

-the next sales growth spurt will occur when on-line retailers and then publishers will sell digital downloads 

-the book business will continue to be a prime example of the long tail and will aid the growth of on-line retailers 

-the long tail structure of the market will lead to niches that are organized around communities and subject categories.  If one is interested in a subject, there will be specific publishers that will have developed cache in a specific category.  Publishers will become more vertical and less horizontal 

-this long tail aspect will ultimately drive retailers to install on site on demand technology, providing expanded choice and speed of sale for the customer

-the sad down trend of small independent book stores closing might be reversed due to this on site on demand technology.  This won’t happen until the cost comes down and the physical size shrinks.  This has happened in every other physical technology: copiers, computers, calculators, printers.  One of the reasons that people shopped at independent book stores is the personal service and relationship with the book seller.  With less physical inventory available-one of the reasons these books stores have been closing- the ‘recommending relationship’ increases in value.  On demand technology will allow retailers to sell at volume levels much greater than physical inventory [book stores could become small, comfortable and intimate again; have a cup of coffee while we print your book]. Customers might again rely on the book seller for guidance. This will be a unique combination of high touch and high tech.

-there will be explosive growth of author direct to consumer books, fueled by print on demand and on-line retailing.  Publishers will only change their business practices when ‘name’ authors participate in this trend.

-e-books will ultimately gain significant market share.  This will occur when there is an ‘iPod moment’; when a device comes out that is low priced, wonderful to use and perceived to be cool or hip[Steve Jobs, are you listening?].  Once this occurs there will be a rapid increase in the percentage of books sold digitally, probably leveling off around 40 — 50%% by 2025. Impulsive buys, such as at airport book stores will become “purchase, plug-in and download’. While those of us who have grown up with the wonderful tactile experience of ‘curling up with a good book’ may intuitively resist e-books, the younger generations who have been in front of computer screens since early childhood will intuitively embrace e-books.  “What’s on your e-reader?” will replace “What’s on your iPod?”  Already, college students are embracing on-line text books.  Look to the youth for direction.

-storage technology is predicted to continue to shrink in size and lower in cost so much, that by 2025 all the new titles published in a year, in fact the great majority of all books ever published can be contained on a pocket sized electronic device.  Talk about publishers selling with volume discounts directly to the consumer!

-projecting the ‘green’ consciousness going forward, the book publishing industry will have to move to digital publishing.  Consumers who still buy physical books will become more selective.  When the environmental forces focus on the publishing industry, digital publishing and distribution and e-books will be the ‘correct’ position.

-all of this emphasis on digital will mean that physical books will be greater in  value and less disposable. People will read most books in digital form but will allow themselves to have say, the complete works of Hemingway in physical form.

So, in conclusion, the book publishing business is about to undergo a transformation that is historically unique.  For the first time in history the physicality of the book as a mass market product will end for a large percentage of the market.  Retailing will change dramatically.  Publishers will become more category specific.  Publishers, and certainly authors could sell direct to consumer once the digital book takes off. 

Fortunately, regardless of what form and how and from whom the book is purchased, there will always be the experience of the ‘good read’, which is the experiential product of the book publishing industry.



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