[A2k] Clive Thompson on the Future of Printed Books

Manon Ress manon.ress at keionline.org
Mon Dec 12 15:56:48 PST 2011

Clive Thompson on the Future of Printed Books
November 29, 2011  |
Wired December 2011


Will the ebook kill off the print book?”

Every time I hear that question, I think about the “paperless office.”
Back in the ’80s, the rise of word processors and e-mail convinced a
lot of people that paper would vanish. Why print anything when you
could simply squirt documents around electronically?

We all know how that turned out. Paper use exploded; indeed, firms
that adopted e-mail used 40 percent more paper. That’s because even in
a world of screens, paper offers unique ways to organize and share
your thoughts, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper noted in The Myth
of the Paperless Office. There’s also this technology truism to
consider: When you make something easier to do, people do more of it.
Now that every office worker has access to a computer and a printer,
every office worker can design and distribute elaborate multicolor
birthday flyers and spiral-bound presentations.

“Print-on-demand” publishing is about to do the same thing to books.
It’ll keep them alive—by allowing them to be much weirder.

Print-on-demand devices, like the Espresso Book Machine, do just what
their name implies: You feed them a digital file and in minutes you
have a good-looking paperback with a color cover. (Print-on-demand
companies like Lulu or Blurb even produce hardcover and photo books.)

In a precise parallel to the office-printing boom, print-on-demand is
creating an odd new phenomenon that Blurb founder Eileen Gittens calls
social publishing. Photo-and-storybook records of camping trips or
corporate retreats are created as mementos for participants. There are
technical manuals devoted to superniche software. And there are oceans
of memoirs and poetry books, often printed in runs of one.

Print-on-demand books can also become plastic—altered on the fly to
suit each reader. For his self-published motivational book, Bobby
Bakshi, a former Microsoft employee who now does corporate consulting,
writes a different intro for each client. Over at the University of
Alberta, the bookstore hosted a talk by former Canadian prime minister
Kim Campbell. Her book was out of print, so the store used its
Espresso machine to run off fresh copies—with a new cover and two new
chapters that Campbell wrote for the event.”We can take almost any
whimsy and turn it into a book,” says Vladimir Verano, who runs the
Espresso machine at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington.

Whimsy, sure, but it’s also becoming an enormous market with an
intergalactically long tail. Consider: In traditional print
publishing, the number of new titles increased by 5 percent from 2009
to 2010, rising to 316,000. In contrast, print-on-demand and
self-publishing boomed by 169 percent—hitting a stunning 2.8 million
unique titles.

Granted, few of those titles have been printed more than a handful of
times; print-on-demand is still a small fraction of total book
production. But the trend is obvious. Mass publishers doing “big”
books will continue to shift to the Kindle and its peers, while
smaller outlets will use print-on-demand for formats that privilege
physicality, like mementos, visually lush books, and custom-designed,
limited-edition copies of novels. This trend will accelerate in 15 or
20 years, when, as some observers predict, your average home printer
will be able to spit out paperbacks. “I see this fundamentally as a
tabletop medium. It’s the photocopier of the future,” says Rick
Anderson, a librarian who runs an Espresso machine at the University
of Utah.

Will this be good for readers? Yes and no. As with blogs, most DIY
books will be dreadful and treasured only by their authors. But the
ecosystem encourages new voices doing things we can’t predict, which
is generally good.

So don’t worry about the fate of print books. Heck, you’ll be neck
deep in them—when The Myth of the Paperless Book finally goes on sale.

Email clive at clivethompson.net.

Manon Anne Ress
Knowledge Ecology International
1621 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 500
Washington, DC 20009 USA
manon.ress at keionline.org

More information about the A2k mailing list