While I was at Norwescon, a major publisher in the business gave a dismal view of the future of the paperback book. Everyone there knew that Borders bookstores are in a death spiral, no matter what they say about keeping the remaining stores open. This publisher then went on to predict Barnes & Noble will follow suit in two to three years. He then put some figures on the low returns publishers could expect from printing up paperback books that would not have many bookstores to sell from.
All right, what about the online booksellers like Amazon? Here is where recent developments in e-publishing entered the discussion. E-book sales are rising, one reason being the lower price for many, but another is the instant gratification that a younger generation demands: They want to buy a book and have it instantly arrive in whatever device they’re using. Amazon and other online publishers will increasingly push the e-versions.
This publisher concluded that paperback books will disappear in five years.
I have much less experience in the business – after all, I haven’t published a novel yet. But permit me to disagree. Readers enjoy the experience of holding a book while reading it. Some people argue by analogy with what happened to the music business: No one was in love with those round disks that had the music imprinted on them. Listeners wanted the music itself, and the moment the round disks became superfluous, they abandoned them. And so, they argue, people will abandon those rectangular blocks with words printed on them. Readers want the information, not the rectangles. And yet, I disagree. Readers do enjoy holding a book while reading it, leafing back and forth to review, and seeing how much of the book is left. They even enjoy the heft of a book, to tell themselves they are doing light reading or heavy reading.
For those of you who watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you might remember the scene in which Giles said he didn’t like computers because they aren’t “smelly.” He explained that readers associate certain books with the smell, the feel of the book. Further, the retaining of information is difficult enough, we need to associate it with sensory experience. It seemed an odd argument at the time, but now I agree with it.
Do I deny that the closing of major chains will make it less convenient to shop for books? Of course not. But entrepreneurs will look at those empty stores and say, “I can make it work.” Do I deny that the e-book market will grow like crazy? Of course not. But readers will still want to hold a physical book. The market for books will go through some upheavals, and there may be moments when it looks like the paperback will go away, but I don’t think so.