The "Book as a Luxury Item" is not the Future of Publishing
Do you recall how David Streitfield, Mike Shatzkin, and others have been writing about the general market failure of anything but the more basic ebooks? Some are misinterpreting that as a sign that paper books should pursue a new path.
There’s a new article on Salon.com which argues that with ebooks being reduced to nothing more than text files, the future of paper books is fancy illustrated volumes for collectors:
This month, The New York Times reported that the features unique to e-books had largely fallen away. A format that had originally promised all manner of functionalities was now fairly restrained, similar to an actual book — goodbye, public comments on books, multimedia elements and hyperlinks! Hello, potential embedded author autographs, just like the signed first edition on your shelf.
As e-books are stripping down to the bare-bones of what is actually book-like, physical books are growing more sumptuous and fetishistic. Though anecdotally, book covers seem to be steadily improving in aesthetic quality, not every major release, certainly, is as astoundingly detailed as J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s “S.,” a book full of inserted cards bringing one an immersive multimedia experience, or Chris Ware’s “Building Stories,” a box containing 14 discrete volumes that can be read in any order.
Here’s an example, this time from The Globe and Mail:
You’re probably going to read a lot of articles like this in the coming year, but I would not pay it any attention. It’s bunk.
Sure, fancy paper books are going to get a lot of attention, but their importance will be overestimated by people who don’t really understand why people buy books. Take the Salon.com article, for example:
But those examples from the last two years indicate a way forward for the printed book — as a luxury object. Because the margins (financial margins, that is) for e-books are so much wider than for printed books — they are far, far cheaper to produce than physical books and summarily cost less — there’s no compelling reason for anyone with an iDevice or e-reader to spend more money for a paper copy of a book other than aesthetic pleasure.
Just to summarize, this article claims in one paragraph that no one is buying ebooks that are more complicated than text files. In the next paragraph the author insists that no one will buy paper books for any practical reason – just for their aesthetic value.
Doesn’t that make you wonder where this author thinks people will buy the more complex content like textbooks, cookbooks, and reference titles? I mean, if no one is buying them as ebooks and no one is buying them in paper then obviously the books won’t be printed.
But never mind the logical error; articles like this miss an important point on production costs and retail price.
What this writer missed is that the fancy paper books which he is calling the future of publishing are hampered by high production costs.
Like enhanced or rich format ebooks, a highly illustrated paper book costs more to make than your average novel, textbook, or any other type of book. That higher cost translates to a higher retail price, which will turn away readers who will instead by the books they bought last year. Also, due to the extra skull sweat required to produce a fancy paper book, they are boutique product and not something that can be produced at any scale.
While the books in question are fascinating on a technical level the actual market impact will be nil. This is no more the future of publishing than iPad apps were the future of media. That’s my prediction, and you can quote me on it.