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Will the e-book revolution have the same effect the paperback revolution did?

March 14, 2011

Tags: book publishing, e-books

I was fascinated by Mike Shatzkin's March 13 blog post on The Shatzkin Files, Ebooks are making me recall the history of mass-market publishing, a history of how the mass-market paperback revolution changed book publishing, comparing that huge shift (after World War II) to what ebooks are doing now. Do read that long post.

He speaks of the deeper implications of digital change in a talk for IFBOOKTHEN, also viewable online on YouTube (the introduction is in Italian but his talk is in English). There he speaks of the early history of pocket e-readers (which liberate you from the weight and bulk of reading material, making it more portable, so he was an early adapter). He sees sales through online channels growing, and sales elsewhere shrinking. Amazon grew to be the 800-pound gorilla because it got into online sales early, lowered prices, and made sales and service a priority. They also play hardball, so prices are shrinking.

"I expect to live beyond bookstores," says Shatzkin. There will be bookstores -- just not so many of them. The closing of each bookstore accelerates the move to online sales (and many of these are now coming through Apps, says Shatzkin, in the Q&A session). Within ten years you may have trouble finding bookstores outside of places like New York City. "There are people who have a fixation on paper," but "most of us" will find it impractical, too expensive, and not as pleasant an experience. Used books will be traded like antiques and print books can be created through print on demand.

And libraries? "My personal take is that the library as a repository of intellectual property -- the need for that is declining." Local availability--that is, a local building with a lot of stuff in it--will be less essential, and funding is going to be harder to get. He thinks libraries are on a similar path to bookstores -- the trajectory will be similar, if not identical. (How else are things changing? He tells of a small child looking around a television to find the mouse.)

In an earlier talk, Stay Ahead of the Shift (BEA 2009), Shatzkin predicted that we're heading into a world where reading from a book is going to be "retro" -- we're moving from the "content" business to the "context" business.
We're going to be in a period when more books will be created by readers than by publishers, he says (which will include the kinds of books and DVDs personal historians create for their clients -- whether memoirs or family histories). Publishers will have to put labor into creating a community through which to reach readers. You won't create value by creating or owning content and being able to put it on the shelf, says Shatzkin. You will own the attention or bandwidth of human beings. What makes this all so scary, he says, is that we don't know what our revenue model will be.

Shatzkin's analyses are fascinating and persuasive to me. Read his blog, The Shatzkin Files and see if you agree. Any comments?

For more on this topic:
E-Book Basics and Beyond
O'Reilly Tooks of Change for Publishing Conference
E-book rights, developments, conflicts, and struggles for market