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More tech news: Will the book survive? Bookstores? People?

September 30, 2009
Is this your new bookstore?

Is this your new bookstore?

Digital books will outsell traditional books by 2018, according to The, thus ensuring a livelihood for multitudes of starving children at toxic landfills all over South Asia, reports Meanwhile, a Cambridge, Mass., bookstore debuted the first “library-quality” print-on-demand machine yesterday, says the Los Angeles Times. Who has a wooden shoe when you need one?

Ah, well, the wooden shoe gambit didn’t work for the Luddites, either. Book technology frog-marches us into a brave new future, ready or not.

As The Bookseller and Publishers Weekly report, a Frankfurt Book Fair poll of 840 publishers worldwide reveals that 50 percent believe they’ll be making more money selling digital books than printed books by the year 2018.

Digital books — read on computer screens, dedicated devices like the Amazon Kindle, or even cell phones — currently account for less than 10 percent of publishers’ revenue.

Publishers are struggling to develop business models and pricing structures for this e-book revolution, PW says. But more than 80 precent welcome “the radical change,” according to the Bookseller.

“The one true business model is still a long way off and investments are also still being held in check,” said Juergen Boos, director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. “At the same time, however, the fear that content will only be distributed free of charge on the Web in the future seems to have been averted for the time being.”

Does that sound like whistling past the graveyard to you?

E-Reads, meanwhile, reports that with a wave of next-generation e-reading devices coming on the market as early as the end of this year, toxic e-waste dumps will be flooded with discarded Kindles and Sony Readers.

Our must-have reading devices of six months ago will end up in African and Asian landfills, where they will be scavenged for scrap by the desperately poor, many of them children. That’s what’s already happening to our discarded TVs, computers, cell phones and other “e-scrap.”

E-waste scavangers, says E-Read, “incur horrifying and often fatal skin, lung, intestinal and reproductive organ ailments.” As How Stuff explains, “A whole bouquet of heavy metals, semimetals and other chemical compounds lurk inside your seemingly innocent laptop or TV.”

A recent New York Times story reports e-trash from Europe — which is supposed to be recycled according to European standards –is instead shipped illegally to Africa and Asia, especially China. Does anyone think American e-trash has a different destination?

And isn’t dumping our poisonous junk on the helpless poor in faraway lands yet another form of imperialism? Just asking.

But maybe the problem of e-trash will be rendered moot, at least in terms of books, by the long-anticipated advent of print-on-demand publishing.

The Harvard Bookstore, an independent store in Cambridge, Mass., debuted the Espresso instant book machine yesterday in a ceremony featuring acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Made by a company called OnDemandBooks, the Espresso can download, print and spit out a “library-quality paperback book” in under four minutes. If the Espresso catches on, it could solve many problems for the publishing industry, including distribution. Books are now printed at central locations and trucked at great cost and trouble to bookstores.

But at $75,000 each, the Espresso may be too pricey for most embattled independent bookstores. Besides, it can be set up anywhere –a mall kiosk, the post office, Wal-Mart. As Vermont bookstore owner Lynne Reed told the Washington Post at BookExpo in June, bookstores are doomed.

“I think the publishing industry will have to change, but it’s still a viable industry,” she said. “Whereas bookselling — nah. In 20 years, there won’t be bookstores. Science fiction is coming true. You’ll go into a house and you won’t see any books.”

Makes me very grateful for all the books I’ve accumulated in half-a-lifetime of reading. You’ll pry my books from my cold, dead fingers! Hey, I just wrote a bumper sticker!

But let’s end on a slightly less suicidal note. Futurologist Mike Shatzkin told the Post that news of the printed book’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. Or at least, somewhat exaggerated. Or a little overstated.

“I mean, I don’t know how many billions of them we have on the planet; we’re not going to suddenly burn them all,” Shatzkin said to Post reporter Bob Thompson.

“As for manufacturing new ones, well, the traditional press run may be facing extinction, but with print-on-demand technology, Shatzkin said, ‘pretty much as long as anybody wants a book they’ll be able to have a book.'”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 30, 2009 12:56 pm

    I feel this will go the same way I think news papers are going. About 27 to 30% of news papers are read on line now. Most people want an actual paper still. The trouble is that the 27 to 30% read on line has cut the profit out of the printed papers. That percent was the net income part of the industry. This has caused a problem in the bottom line. They are trying to make up for it in advertising on line. I do not know where it will go. Books will probably do the same. I am not sure a regular publisher will be able to compete with a book on demand for to long once the percent drops again like the news paper. I still think the majority of readers wants a printed book. A printed book may be come a specialty item. More expensive but still available.

  2. rachel permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:21 pm


    Okay. Why do people assume that they are going to be so environmentally friendly by going digital when in reality, as you pointed out, it will be just a different kind of waste – more harmful and polluting. And while I’m sure books get dumped in the trash all the time, books can also withstand a great deal and get passed along from one hand to another, for free, or for a fee. Some of my most prized possessions are my books with the oldest dates on the inside page. Where as electronic devices break all the time (in fact I read an article that proposed that they are designed to die) not to mention that most people just get new ones as the new models come out. Helpful I think not.

    Next: if bookstores aren’t going to be around anymore then what, I ask, is the point of living? I mean, no wandering around books and books with a warm cup of joe looking at all the pretty pretty books? What about libraries? What about used bookstores? Surely we will still have a need for those? Book stores aren’t just bookstores they are institutions, places for public gatherings and readings. Ugh, and if books are unavailable to buy and the only ones you can get require that you read them like Jean-Luc Picard then I refuse and I will just read and reread the books I have accumulated thus far.

  3. Bonnie DiPacio permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:21 pm

    There is nothing that could ever replace the joy of reading an actual book. Sitting back in a big, comfortable chair, turning the pages. Keeping those favorites on the bookshelves to savor and share for years to come.
    A digital book to me would be like all those zillions of digital photos that are “out of sight, out of mind” swirling around on my computer, or on some disc “somewhere.”

  4. nan permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:29 pm

    I suppose we could start a debate over the deforestation/pesticides/toxic chemicals used in the production of paper and books vs. the computer hardware issues you describe … but let’s not. I worry about the future of physical books, too, and adore my way-too-large collection of them but try to take comfort in the knowledge that the future just about never turns out like futuristic prognosticators predict. Otherwise we’d be commuting in personal helicopters and robots would clean our houses, right? There was an interesting piece in the Atlantic or maybe the New Yorker a few years ago describing paper flow in offices. Turns out we do our work on paper, then use computers for longterm storage — which is just the opposite of how most people predicted it would work. Maybe books will turn out similarly — you’ll use the physical object for actual work — or reading — while the digital version ensures longtime survival and accessibility — as scary as the Google book settlement is in many ways, isn’t it also kind of cool that the holdings of the great libraries will be available via internet connections, thus opening up access to whole realms of people who would never be able to make it to the physical library?

  5. Lizz permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:39 pm

    A point I had not thought of, which is an important one, is the idea that making books available online is not more environmentally friendly than in their paper form. Rather than focus on a quicker, more “efficient” version of getting books, we should focus on recycling and re”hand”ling books.

    Independent bookstores are an endangered species and I am certain that if the instant printing machines come about, they will certainly become extinct.

    Bookstores are like museums and should be treated not just as a place to buy books but for both their cultural and entertainment values.

  6. Oline permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:46 pm

    I would use a kindle or an ebook if I could take a whole bunch of advanced readers copies on vacation with me. As it is now, I tend to take 10 books on a trip and that weighs down the suitcase. But that is all I would use it for. There is nothing like a real book and the joy of reading. Holding a book gives you an odd connection with an author that the ebook never would

  7. Oline permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:46 pm

    By the way, Chauncey, great post

  8. Candice permalink
    September 30, 2009 8:43 pm

    Quick, Montag, let’s start memorizing books, verbatim, now.


  9. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    October 1, 2009 12:09 am

    I’m not so sure digital technology will prove a useful form of long-term storage, for books or anything else. Remember those floppy disks we all worked with in the 1990s? Computers today can’t read them, so I hope you didn’t leave your great American novel on one. New digital technology seems to obliterate rather than merely replace what it supercedes. Perhaps the geniuses at Google will figure away around that –isn’t the company motto “do no harm” or some such? — but I wouldn’t bet my cultural heritage on it. And if bookstores disappear, the loss to culture and human interaction will be incalculable. Really, as Rachel says, will life be worth living?

  10. October 1, 2009 10:07 am

    I know as long as I live I will read books. I will try and tell children to read books. The fact is, the industry is profit driven. I would like to see a couple of foundations that are non profit set up to publish books. It is that important to our society. May be a couple of non profit independent book stores. (100).(two at least in each state).
    They all have to have a reading room with a fire place. If all of you owned a small publishing company, what direction would you go in?

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