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The End of the Book?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The book business will go through a transformation in the next decade or so more profound than any it has seen since Johannes Gutenberg introduced printing from moveable type in the 1450s.

Amazon, by far the largest bookseller in the country, reported on May 19 that it is now selling more books in its electronic Kindle format than in the old paper-and-ink format. That is remarkable, considering that the Kindle has only been around for four years. E-books now account for 14 percent of all book sales in this country and are increasing far faster than overall book sales. E-book sales are up 146 percent over last year, while hardback sales increased 6 percent and paperbacks decreased 8 percent.

Does this spell the doom of the physical book? Certainly not immediately, and perhaps not at all. What it does mean is that the book business will go through a transformation in the next decade or so more profound than any it has seen since Gutenberg introduced printing from moveable type in the 1450s.

E-book sales are up 146 percent over last year, while hardback sales increased six percent and paperbacks decreased eight percent.

Physical books will surely become much rarer in the marketplace. Mass market paperbacks, which have been declining for years anyway, will probably disappear, as will hardbacks for mysteries, thrillers, "romance fiction," etc. Such books, which only rarely end up in permanent collections either private or public, will probably only be available as e-books within a few years. Hardback and trade paperbacks for "serious" nonfiction and fiction will surely last longer. Perhaps it will become the mark of an author to reckon with that he or she is still published in hard copy.

As for children's books, who knows? Children's books are like dog food in that the purchasers are not the consumers, so the market (and the marketing) is inherently strange.

For clues to the book’s future, let’s look at some examples of technological change and see what happened to the old technology.

One technology replaces another only because the new technology is better, cheaper, or both. The greater the differential, the sooner and more thoroughly the new technology replaces the old. Printing with moveable type on paper reduced the cost of producing a book by orders of magnitude compared with the old-fashioned ones handwritten on vellum, which comes from sheepskin. A Bible—to be sure, a long book—required vellum made from 300 sheepskins and untold man-hours of scribe labor. Before printing arrived, a Bible cost more than a middle-class house. There were perhaps 50,000 books in all of Europe in 1450. By 1500 there were 10 million.

Physical books will have a longer existence as a commercial product than some currently predict.

But while printing quickly caused the handwritten book to go extinct, handwriting lingered on well into the 16th century in the practice of "rubricating" books, or hand drawing elaborate initial letters (often in red ink, hence the term). Very special books are still occasionally produced on vellum, but they are one-of-a-kind show pieces.

Sometimes a new technology doesn't drive the old one extinct, but only parts of it while forcing the rest to evolve. The movies were widely predicted to drive live theater out of the marketplace, but they didn't, because theater turned out to have qualities movies could not reproduce. Equally, TV was supposed to drive movies extinct but, again, did not.

Movies did, however, fatally impact some parts of live theater, such as vaudeville. (Ironically, TV gave vaudeville a brief revival in the 1950s in such shows as “The Ed Sullivan Show” and brought many of the old vaudeville stars—Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Ben Blue—out of retirement.) And while TV didn't kill movies, it did kill B pictures, shorts, and, alas, cartoons.

Sometimes a new technology doesn't drive the old one entirely extinct, but only parts of it while forcing the rest to evolve.

Nor did TV kill radio. Comedy and drama shows (“Jack Benny,” “Amos and Andy,” “The Shadow”) all migrated to television. But because you can’t drive a car and watch television at the same time, radio prime time became rush hour, while music, talk, and news radio greatly enlarged their audiences. Radio is today a very different business than in the late 1940s and a much larger one.

Sometimes old technology lingers for centuries because of its symbolic power. Mounted cavalry replaced the chariot on the battlefield around 1000 BC. But chariots maintained their place in parades and triumphs right up until the end of the Roman Empire 1,500 years later. The sword hasn't had a military function for a hundred years, but is still part of an officer's full-dress uniform, precisely because a sword always symbolized "an officer and a gentleman."

Sometimes new technology is a little cranky at first. Television repairman was a common occupation in the 1950s, for instance. And so the old technology remains as a back up. Steam captured the North Atlantic passenger business from sail in the 1840s because of its much greater speed. But steamships didn't lose their rigging and sails until the 1880s, because early marine engines had a nasty habit of breaking down. Until ships became large enough (and engines small enough) to mount two engines side by side, they needed to keep sails. (The high cost of steam and the lesser need for speed kept the majority of the world’s ocean freight moving by sail until the early years of the 20th century.)

One technology replaces another only because the new technology is better, cheaper, or both. The greater the differential, the sooner and more thoroughly the new technology replaces the old.

Then there is the fireplace. Central heating was ubiquitous in upper- and middle-class homes by the second half of the 19th century. But functioning fireplaces remain to this day a powerful selling point in a house or apartment. I suspect the reason is a deeply ingrained, atavistic love of fire. Fire was one of the earliest major technological advances for humankind, providing heat, protection, and cooked food (which is much easier to eat and digest). Human control of fire goes back far enough (over a million years) that evolution could have produced a genetic predisposition towards fire as a central aspect of a human habitation (just consider the phrase "hearth and home").

Books—especially books the average person could afford—haven’t been around long enough to produce evolutionary change in humans. But they have a powerful hold on many people nonetheless, a hold extending far beyond their literary content. At their best, they are works of art and there is a tactile pleasure in books necessarily lost in e-book versions. The ability to quickly flip through pages is also lost. And a room with books in it induces, at least in some, a feeling not dissimilar to that of a fire in the fireplace on a cold winter’s night.

For these reasons I think physical books will have a longer existence as a commercial product than some currently predict. Like swords, books have symbolic power. Like fireplaces, they induce a sense of comfort and warmth. And, perhaps, similar to sails, they make a useful backup for when the lights go out.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also wrote “An Immodest Proposal Regarding the Estate Tax,” “Debt Be Not Proud: The Sorry Tale of America’s Out-of-control Spending,” and “The Other Half of Standard Oil.” Paul Rubin discusses "Ten Fallacies about Web Privacy," Jonah Goldberg critiques "The New Journalism," and Roger Scruton says "TV Will Never Poison My Children's Minds."

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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