Skip to main content

The "Book as a Luxury Item" is not the Future of Publishing

Do you recall abrams_s[1]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 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 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.

Similar Articles


Jon Jermey December 31, 2013 um 3:38 pm

Ten years ago pundits were making similar claims about LP’s on vinyl. Look, more space for cover art! Look, pretty photos! And the collective public response was 'Meh'.

Corporal Lint December 31, 2013 um 11:14 pm

In fairness to the pundits, vinyl LP sales have been going up 15%-20% a year for the past several years, while CD sales have been dropping by 10%-15% a year. More importantly, LP sales seem to skew young, suggesting that this is a long-term trend — the CD-only cohort is slowly aging out of the prime music-consuming market. So these pundits may have been right, they were just way off on the time frame. If we accept the analogy, the book-as-fetish-object prediction might come at least partially true, but only when everyone currently over 24 (or some other youngish age — you pick) ages out of the prime book-buying market.

(Of course by the time this happens in 2044 or whenever we will have all of our books streamed directly into our neural shunts, and those plain text files will seem like fancy objects. Your local bearded hipster will happily wax obscure about UTF-8 vs Unicode.)

Nate Hoffelder January 1, 2014 um 7:38 am

I had forgotten about the return of LPs, but now that I think about it LPs and CDs have a relationship more like that of trade and mass market paperback than that of paper books and fancy paper books.

Aside from the case design, LPs have a standardized design – they all use the same disk material produced on the same production line. That makes them more of a massmarket product than the fancy illustrated books mentioned in the post above. Who know, they might grow to represent a luxury product like first edition hardbacks.

Bernard Speight December 31, 2013 um 7:43 pm

Let me start by saying, I am not talking about specialist or niche market publications, but the vast bulk of books which, in their tens of thousands, consist of nothing but text, with perhaps a cover, designed to catch the potential reader’s eye.

I think the future will see publishers issuing ebooks first, because they are relatively cheaper to produce, and so represent a smaller loss if not well received. Having tested the waters with the ebook, the publisher can then more confidently outlay the expenditure involved in producing a paperback.

Finally, if the demand is sufficient, a hardcover volume will grace the bookshop shelves.

I have no idea how long this will take to happen, but I am fairly confident it will.

fjtorres January 1, 2014 um 10:59 am

Don’t need to go much to the future: the baseline contracts being offered to newcomers by the BPHs no longer guarantee print editions.

texas January 1, 2014 um 3:39 pm

Publishers are already experimenting with ebook first. And yes, if they do work well, some make it into print. But these are in niche categories like romance. No major publisher is going to put a full marketing/Pr effort into an ebook only.

fjtorres January 1, 2014 um 4:08 pm

The majors don’t put any PR into any book that doesn’t come from King or Patterson.
And ebook-only isn’t just for romance any more…

Mackay Bell January 1, 2014 um 4:36 pm

The mistake people make is assuming that whenever some new media technology becomes available, artists should throw out three thousand years of narrative story telling techniques and invent something radically different from what has been proven to be enjoyable.

Storytelling works because it leads the audience along a journey with clear steps, guideposts, variety and a satisfying conclusion. Great writers have developed techniques and ticks and forms to refine the process. When new technology becomes available writers take these established techniques and enhance them with the new tools. There is no reason to abandon methods that worked.

The biggest advantage of ebooks is that authors can self-publish, which has resulted in an explosion of new content. Content that is breaking a lot of genres and inventing new ones. Many writers also provide links so readers can keep in contact with them. That’s pretty huge. And they obviously take advantage of the ability to change font size, skip through chapters, and other enhancements from the written page.

But why would anyone assume that this should lead to non-narative or multiple narrative storytelling? It’s never been much more than a curiosity in the past. People tried it with films, with slide shows, with tell your own story books, records, Laserdisks, CD-ROM’s etc. It just doesn’t work as well as telling a straight narrative story.

Of course, there are plenty of educational and non-fiction books that do have a ton of links and pictures and gizmos. Educational books have had lots of pictures for hundreds of years also. So nothing too new here. If you’re interested in ebooks with lots of graphics, look to the education market.

And, of course, there are forms of entertainment that are non-narative. They’re called "games." They started with playing pieces and paper and evolved into video games. Those seem to have been enhanced a lot with digital technology.

But in terms of fiction, thousands of years ago, people figured out that telling a single story on a single scroll of paper was a pretty cool thing. Tossing a pile of scrolls at someone and asking them to figure out their own story, wasn’t so appealing to a broad audience. That hasn’t changed.

So now that ebooks have arrived, why shouldn’t readers continue to prefer text that flows in a single narrative? Of course, it’s still possible that in a decade or so, emoji will replace words, and pages will reform into new stories whenever you shake your iPad. Until then, people like stories that have a beginning, middle and end. If the writer has the time and inclination to throw in a bunch of pictures, fine, but that’s not why people read.

J. J. Abrams has the clout and resources to engage in an expensive experiment like "S." With clever marketing (like planted articles in Salon) it might turn out to be a profitable artifact. But even if you gave them away for free, fewer people would read them than a Harry Potter novel.

Nate Hoffelder January 1, 2014 um 7:20 pm

Yep. I made a similar (but much shorter) argument a few days ago to a pundit who thought publishers should obsess about mobile content consumption over everything else:

Mackay Bell January 2, 2014 um 8:24 am

Exactly. It’s not enough that you can walk around with the Great Gatsby on your cell phone and buy a copy of the latest best selling thriller while you’re in a taxi? And that any writer can, on their own, sell their book worldwide without a major publisher? In the meantime, it’s looking like there is now a profitable way to support traditional short stories (Amazon Singles, etc.), which is huge for writers.

Give us a hundred years of that, and then maybe writers can get around to inventing some new art form to delight bored tech pundits.

Write a Comment