Book futures

A couple of interesting posts have appeared regarding the future of the printed word. First up, Monkey Bites reports on the new AJAX-powered readers that allow you to read scans of excerpted book chapters on Amazon. Real scanned pages, on your computer screen. No need to go to the bookshop for a flick-through any longer.

Secondly, BoingBoing points us towards an article by print-on-demand publisher Lulu.com, which discusses the results of their research into the publishing industry. Their data shows that modern bestsellers stay in the best seller lists for a shorter time, and it takes less sales to get them there, compared to the boom of the paperback market back in the 60s – hell, even the 90s.

What this means is that success isn’t what it used to be. The lifespan of a bestseller is 1/7th what it was 40 years ago.

This isn’t necessarily bad news – at least for writers. There are new economic models being feted about, most notably the ‘long tail‘ model, which essentially states that it is better to sell to a small niche market than go chasing after the ubiquitous uber-product or ‘killer app’. But the publishers won’t be so happy, as it disrupts their nice cozy business model. They can’t do such big print runs anymore, which means their profits fall.

There is much discussion regarding the current state of copyright law, which means that books that are not viable business propositions after a few years cannot be disseminated into the public domain because they are still technically the property of the copyright holder. There may well be people who’d want a copy, but not enough to justify a normal publisher-size print run. So the titles languish; the copies in libraries die, get stolen or lost, and no-one can get at them any more.

This is where these two stories connect. The times are changing, thanks to services like Amazon and print-on-demand publishing, and Google’s digitisation efforts. It will soon be viable to print single copies of a book on demand – no need for big long print runs and money losses. The information, the content, will all be out there for people to get hold of should they want it. But only once it’s all been digitised first.

This is going to be a hell of a few years for the books industry. I’m looking forward to a wild ride, and some major fireworks from the people who are set to lose their profit margins to the new business models. And as a library worker, it’s going to be ‘all change’ in my neck of the woods too. And if there’s one place where new ideas can be slow to take root, it’s in the management structures of libraries. I’ll keep you posted, shall I? 😉