The Death of Books

Long live books!

Scribd - the new Netflix of Books

As you may have heard, today Scribd announced an all-you-can-read eBook subscription plan. However, there are some notable limitations to this $8.99 per month program - thus far it only includes 1 of the 5 major US book publishers, only includes books published before July 2012 and while it supports most devices, it does not appear to support ‘basic’ Kindles and Nooks - i.e., those with an electronic ink, paper-like screen. Even with these limitations, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the start of a new way we consume books, much as Spotify changed music and Netflix changed video.

The Beginning of the End of Printed Book Publishing?

Could this be the end of the printed book and with it, printed book publishing? With schools providing tablets loaded with eBook versions of textbooks, Delta pilots replacing the 38 pounds of books and maps they carry on every flight with Microsoft Surface tablets and Marvel comics providing access to a vast majority of their 70+ years of comic books via an iPad app, many people are calling this the death of the traditional publishing business and printed book.

Personally, I think we have a long way to go before traditional books and publishers disappear, but we will see consolidations and shifts in the market as these new technologies and business models take hold in the publishing world. Take a look at the music industry - services like Spotify and iTunes make it easy for users to make their music collection purely digital but you still have enough demand for physical CD’s keeping them on the shelves at stores like Best Buy - but the market has shifted enough that the independent record store is, unfortunately, a thing of the past.

For another example, look at video - Netflix and other streaming and online video services have all but put an end to the Blockbuster video rental stores so many of us grew up with, but they haven’t put an end to all physical sales of movies - Blu-ray sales actually increased by 28% earlier this year.

With independent book stores closing at an alarming rate throughout the world and the bankruptcy and closure of Boders Books in 2011, it seems we’re already in the midst of a shakeup of the book retailing world, and you have to wonder if printed books will end up like CD’s and Bluray’s - something you no longer rent or buy at a dedicated store, but instead visit your local big box retailer or department store for.

The Role of Libraries

One thing that sets books apart from CD’s and Bluray’s, however, is that we have a public institution dedicated to preserving, sharing and promoting books - public libraries. However, with the massive loss of value on their property tax roles during the recent financial crisis, more and more cities are cutting their spending on libraries. A 2010 poll of mayors across the US indicated that nearly 40% of cities were planning on cutting back hours, staffing levels and other spending on their local libraries, if not shutting them down completely. Libraries are adapting by providing eBooks, Internet access and other amenities, but it remains to be seen what role the public library will play in the future of books and book publishing.

Where We’re Headed

I love eBooks - especially after moving several times in the span of just a few years, lugging a huge book collection with me each time, I have developed a strong appreciation for the fact that I can carry my entire library with me in the palm of my hand on my Kindle, and that I can immediately pick up where I left off in any book in my collection on any of my digital devices. I miss, however, the social aspects of the printed book. While Amazon and other device manufacturers and even libraries are striving to change this, lending an eBook is still a painful, cumbersome process. There’s a certain feel, a certain experience that only printed books provide - poetry readings, teachers reading to a class and other similar events just don’t feel the same when they’re done with an iPad or a Kindle. Finally, there’s also a scary ‘big brother’ aspect to eBooks - in what they say was a one-time mistake, in 2009 Amazon deleted all copies of George Orwell’s 1984 (a book, in part, about government censorship and control of thought). While eBooks and eReaders are convenient, they obviously are much easier to track, control, censor and monitor than a printed book could ever be.

So, while I don’t think most of us are mindful of it, we’re at a bit of a turning point for literature and the sharing of knowledge via the printed word - eBooks have quite a bit of potential, and as more and more projects like the One Laptop Per Child project provide technology to empoverished children, I think they could be key to raising the average level of education in the world. However, if we’re not careful, we’re going to lose a vitial institution that’s been an important part of human culture for over 3000 years - the library. And in our rush for the convenience of eBooks, we could find ourselves making it convenient for those who would like to make sure we’re only reading the “correct” books that express the “correct” viewpoint.

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Jamie Larson