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Open Question: When Will Digital Books Overtake Print Books?

We often discuss publishing’s digital transition as though it’s manifest destiny, but rarely do we see firm forecasts as to when (or if) this transition will occur.

Mike Shatzkin touched on this topic during a recent discussion on the Read 20 list:

We are going to have a bifurcated market for a while. The heavy users of 2.0 tools, including social networks, will tend to skew to “younger” and “techier.” They will both go for the modern products and be marketed to by the modern means. The legacy market, of people reading plain old books in paper and then the same plain old books on Kindles and other screens, will remain where the money is for published content for some years, certainly at least one decade, to come. (Posted here with Mike’s permission)

I’m interested in hearing what TOC readers think of the following:

  1. Do you believe digital books will supplant printed books?
  2. If no, why? If yes, when will it happen?

Please share your answers and thoughts in the comments area.

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Comments: 8

  1. It has already completely happened in academic publishing, very few active researchers actually read the paper journals anymore. There are several PDF management tools eg Papers http://mekentosj.com/papers/

    In reference based content I think this will happend within the next 3-5 years, certainly for technical materials (eg javascript) reference books this is already happening. CF: the inclusion of books with the Panic Software editor Coda, the books could be stronger though, http://www.panic.com/coda/

    The hobbies / DIY market might follow, some of this content will be printed for use away from the reader, but the ability to aggregate and search collections will be the driver here I think

    It will be slower for the more computer focused tutorial type materials, as people want to have something to follow along and often don’t have two screens eg the Head First books, or Visual Quick Start books and many other types..

    Fiction will be much slower. An open PDF based Kindle-a-like would work for me I think. It would need to be prettier, non-reflective screens are important too.

    Weight and storage are two things I see as pressures on this market. I have many “alpha-geek” friends who are reading paperbacks and disposing of them to have less stuff in their apartments. Traveling with a dozen books to look at as opposed to a single paper back is a tempting idea. Packaging e-books as the way to do holiday reading might take some fiction as e-books to the mass market.

    Examining sales of the Guardian.co.uk e-paper would be interesting to look at in terms of market adoption (eg: http://tinyurl.com/57nhu6 and http://tinyurl.com/dv5rf)

    I feel that much printed material is actually disposable, even books, so there is an environmental argument for e-books too, one that seems softly spoken at the minute. Many books are bought and read once, then they become something which needs bookcases for storage. In many cases these books are seldom re-read.

    Paper will persist where it adds value, eg illustrated materials, childrens’ books, photography, special editions, some tutorial type books, but paper is getting more expensive. See: http://tinyurl.com/5qcuon

    So not everything will migrate to an e-book format, but much of it will move. Fiction is the hard one to figure out, on Dr Who recently they had an Agatha Christie paperback from the year 5,000,000 (http://tinyurl.com/6n34g4), I’m not sure if this timeframe is one to be making guesses about, but certainly in 10-15 years I think there will still be a healthy market for paperback fiction.

    There are many markets in which fiction will persist, the beach holiday, the long trip etc. I think though that the 5+ book buyer will move over to some sort of digital reader probably led by purchase of reference materials. The airport book buyer will remain on paper, as the investment is too great for a dedicated e-book reader.

  2. Andrew Savikas

    Not in a blanket “print is dead” way. It depends heavily on the topic area, and on the quality of the alternatives. Much of it is about what “job” the printed content does, and whether something digital can do the job better. Think about stock prices. When it wasn’t possible for everyone to have a ticker in their home or office, printing daily stock tables made a lot of sense — it was the best way to do the “job” of communicating stock prices. Today there’s no reason on earth for a newspaper to print stock tables — the Web is far superior at performing that same “job” of communicating stock prices.

    We feel the same effect acutely at O’Reilly with many of our core reference titles and topics. It’s just much easier and faster to type a function name or error message into google than to try and navigate a 600-page book. While our books were long the best at that ready reference “job”, again the Web is just better.

    As for alternatives, to date there hasn’t been a really compelling alternative to many books. Yes, the Kindle makes it easier to travel with a bunch of books, and offers some nice features like search and crude annotation, but we still interact with digital books in isolation — each reading the equivalent of our own copy, rather than richly (and automatically) participating in a shared experience.

    For example, digital address books have been around for a very long time, and are useful tools; but something like Facebook or LinkedIn demonstrates how powerful that same content can be when it’s truly digital (and web aware). I think we’re still a bit stuck in a “horseless carriage” mentality when it comes to books, and it will take a few more years — at least — to overcome that.

    Printed books will never go away — if anything, they will increase in value, as “jobs” that were previously done by mediocre books are instead done with superior digital alternatives.

  3. I don’t think digital will take over print for a long time. People seem to love the feel of books too much. I used to feel the same way until I started reading ebooks regularly (and never looked back).

    Until we have hardware that works like the interactive book in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age,” we’ll probably have this divide for a while.

  4. My background is in journalism, so I always default to the lessons I’ve learned from that industry’s digital switch.

    Only recently — within the last year or two — have I seen sincere discussions about “Web first, print second.” A few progressive newspapers and magazines are already gravitating toward this mindset, but it will take another three years for the rest of the journalism industry to catch up.

    As for book publishing:

    * I believe a digital switch *will* eventually happen. Baseline digital delivery will be the default mechanism, but print will survive/thrive as a special form (collectibles, souvenirs, gifts, analog archives, etc.).

    * As others have noted, the idea that print will be completely replaced just doesn’t make sense. Disruptive technologies force previous methods into adaptation, and I think the same will happen with print — it’ll persist, but it’s utility will change. (Incidentally, I’m one of those people who enjoys the material aspect of books, and I certainly hope I can enjoy the same experience for many decades to come).)

    * It took 10 years for the first newspapers and magazines to look at digital as a primary delivery mechanism. I imagine it will take a similar, but shorter, amount of time for book publishing to do the same thing. Two or three years will be shaved off because the digital trail has already been blazed by the music and media industries.

    Since we’re maybe three or four years into a serious digital discussion on the book side (that might be optimistic), it will be at least another three years before a handful of envelop-pushing publishers look at digital as their primary delivery mechanism. So, all told, I’m guessing we’re at year three within a seven or eight-year transition.

    And now, the caveats …

    Caveat 1: If book publishing ignores the lessons learned from other industries, the digital transition could stretch out much longer. Hopefully that doesn’t happen.

    Caveat 2: Alternately, the timeline could be shortened by a disruptive technology or device that offers a distinct digital-book benefit to consumers (a la the iPod).

  5. let me know when you
    publish this question
    in a paper-book…


  6. By replacing block printing, Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 1400s and the world was a better place. Nothing would ever prevent people from reading newspapers. Literacy rose. 400 years later radio was invented and ultimately people thought the newspaper business was dead. What happened? Newspaper consumption increased. Then came TV 30 years later and people thought Radio was dead. 20 years after TV we have the Internet and people think television is dead. In reality, newspapers, radio and television all have their place and all adapt to a changing society. Newspapers and radio online ad sales are higher then ever. Will print books die? Like radio and newspapers, probably not. People love the feel of the paper and the smell of the ink. Will publishing adapt? It has to. In fact it already has. With Google’s invention of the Kindle for adult readers and Still Motion Media’s invention of Mobistories for children, the time it takes for the new medium to outpace the prior medium seems to be shortening with each new invention. I predict within five years digital book sales will outpace print book sales.

  7. Define digital… Those of us who saw Manolis Kelaidis at the first TOC probably had their definition of digital massaged somewhat I would guess.

    For me the print/digital changeover comes down to various aspects to do with the access device and the user experience. For digital to go mainstream, it has to meet certain basic requirements:

    1) Gotta work for the masses – CD worked for the masses – so did DVD. Why – the advantages were self evident to the great majority of people – Good quality information and very robust compared to their predecessors – easier to use/store basically.

    For me the device HAS to stand up to the tender ministrations of my 18 month old son – if he can throw a kindle at the wall (repeatedly) and I can still read my content afterwards then I’m interested. Likewise will the device stand being sat on or chewed by the dog. If you drop it in the bath, can you dry it out and still read it?

    2) The experience (see point one). For those of us who read (books), what are the essential experiences that digital has to replicate? I suggest the following:

    No manual for use – ever – No tips pages on the interweb no nothing. You don’t need a manual for a book. End. Of. Story.

    Turning the page – there’s a reason that some books are called ‘page turners’. The British Library has some great technology that replicates the experience of turning the pages of some of their digitally scanned illustrated manuscripts – there’s something about this that is important I feel. Have there been any eye tracking studies done on various categories of books/magazines?

    Bookmarks and page corners – You are going to read for 5mins before turning out the light and going to sleep – you pick up your book – you flick straight to the bookmark or the folded page corner and start reading. You don’t think about this. You don’t access a list of bookmarks or previously saved locations – there’s something about the act that for me at least triggers the recall that tells where the story had got to and leads me in to the next few pages…

    On/Off – you don’t turn a book on. The device has to be really smart about this. Also charging the device up – the device will spend much quality time on the bedside table doing nothing… gotta use that time to charge it without fumbling around for power outlets and whatnot.

    3) Navigating your book collection (see points 1 and 2)
    My bedside table currently has a wobbling pile of books on it. Most have bookmarks in them. I pick one I want to read. I read it. I don’t think about it. I don’t navigate by category or author or anything like that. The device has to crack this matter as well. Perhaps the device tells you at an easy glance that you are reading book X whilst also indicating that you currently have N books in your pile that you can also easily read with those bookmarks all ready to go. Then there’s the navigation of your complete book collection. I have a fair few books – I can eyeball them on the shelves and pick one I want to read pretty quickly – the experience is really enjoyable. Got to replicate that.

    So crack that lot (for non-propellerheads) and the age of the mass digital book will be here. I see all sorts of bits of the above requirements already in existence so whilst it’s a challenging matter, I don’t think it is insurmountable at all. Give it 10 years then.

    But books are long form content… And we are increasingly in a short form world are we not? Is there something else about digital that can alter that apparent trend?

    And perhaps the Manolis Press will transform the printed book into something even more wondrous than it currently is.

  8. I really, really hope that printed books will not go completely obsolete in the next century. Although many people are seeing the advantages of technological and digital advancements, I still cannot see books in print being only a thing of the past. I can’t even imagine reading my favorite novels via my cellphone and get numb thumb from scrolling down. The printing industry must thrive. We need to bring in more need for printing services