Blogging with Formaldehyde

This blog entry is in response to Eric’s recent report on book marketing as he guest-blogged for Nathan Bransford. I highly recommend checking it out Eric’s entry here, it’s an incredible and in-depth look at a dying process. If only someone had been around to perform a study of dinosaur behavior just prior to the Yucatan impactor! That also would have been a timely preservation of something doomed to extinction.

I’ll be very surprised if publishers are buying back books twenty years from now the same way they’ve been doing it for decades. The system is too wasteful and not adaptable enough to cater to the fickle demands of the consumer. Does that sound like a hasty prognosis? It’s only taken twenty years for the Internet to put every newspaper in America on life-support. Napster and MP3s changed the recording industry in half that time. I think it’s a conservative guess, to be frank.

All but a few magazines are doomed. The next generation will demand today’s news, not last month’s. Baby boomers will die out (sorry mom, dad!) and take with them the demand for the slow and inflexible. The next generation of amped-up American ferrets will likely be even more impatient than today’s Ritalin-nourished tots. Delivery will be over cell-phones and small laptops. Even the clunky, immovable desktop is destined to become a cubicle-only fixture. A computer you can’t sit in front of the TV with? Preposterous!

Don’t think e-readers will catch on? That’s what they said about incandescent light and the buggy. True, e-readers won’t catch on with the generation that grew up with books, but they will with the people comfortable with computers. Once the price of a simple reader hits $100, most avid readers will purchase one. The stodgy few will bemoan the trend, much as audiophiles cling to vinyl records today, but we’ll learn to make fun of them right back, and there’ll be more of us!

I’ll never forget the first day I worked periodicals at Barnes and Noble. They took me to the receiving dock and showed me piles of magazines. “Rip the covers off of these,” they said.

You want me to do what?!

“Oh,” they added. “You can take a few of them home with you if you want, they just get recycled once we ship them back to the publisher.”

“How many years worth of magazines is this?” I asked.

“Years? Son, that’s from this month!

I was a magazine junkie at the time; you may as well have taken a PETA nut and put them to work in a slaughterhouse. I wept as I shredded the forlorn monthlies. (I stopped and laughed a little when I got to a MAD Magazine and saw some of those funny little pictures in the margins, but then I wept again as I tore in to the home furnishing pile.)

In Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing, David Morrell described an even more horrific scene for book junkies. A warehouse where unsold, unwanted, uncared-for books go to meet their horrible fate. Beyond stacks and stacks of bought-back books that survived the embarrassing discounting process, he was led to a furnace. Where books were being tossed in. Some of them from unopened boxes, their covers intact.

Folks, this ain’t the way it’s gonna work in the future. Printing no longer need be done with massive metal plates that are melted down after a run. Digital printing technology is making things more flexible, and the book industry is gradually changing. Small printers now produce tomes identical in quality, even hardbacks with nice dust jackets. The Espresso printing machine is the size of an appliance and will print, bind and trim a book while you wait!

It won’t be long before fuel costs make the shipping of books unsustainable. Especially when we’re shipping them to and fro to people who don’t even want them, then shipping them back to a furnace. Allow me to describe the bookstore of the future, circa 2030:

You walk in through the large glass facade that streams light across a chatty, happy gaggle of contented readers. They’re sitting around in small groups of fashionable, plush chairs. Most of them are on laptops, using the free wi-fi. Many are giggling or gasping at the tale spanning their e-readers. Some are sampling the bestsellers which line a few racks and were formed into happy towers on the center table. The smell of rich coffee wafts through the room, trailing back to the wide counter that runs the width of the building.

There aren’t racks of books here. It looks more like an auto-parts store, but without the grease. Lining the counter are computer screens with comfy stools pulled up to each. Eager readers flip through the touchscreens, looking at book covers, reading blurbs and reviews, sampling chapters. A young girl, hair dyed black, finds a vampire novel with a wicked crimson font, dripping blood. She taps “Order Physical” and slides off the stool, her chains jangling, and skips over to grab a coffee.

Behind the wall of the shallow storefront we find a veritable Kinko’s of loud, warm, humming machines. College students busy around them, feeding paper, releasing jams, changing ink, and grabbing warm books to fit them in their jackets. Each one is hand-delivered, the readers showing off the physical thing to their friends, who agree that the font is wicked. “Didja get the ebook, too?” one of them asks. “Nah, it was two bucks more. Got a coffee instead.”

Twenty years, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a conservative guess.

7 responses to “Blogging with Formaldehyde”

  1. What will Eric’s job look like in this future? He might not have one. Legions of readers will use thousands of websites to write reviews and trade recommendations. Special websites will create meta-reviews, the way Rotten Tomatoes does for movies, and some sites do for videogames. Marketing will consist of getting as many books as possible to these reviewers, and readers will learn to rate the reviewers, shunning those that do nothing but give the “okay” to everything they’re sent.

    The bestsellers on that table out front? Shock! Those will be the actual books that most readers are buying; they won’t reflect backroom deals and payoffs. It’ll be freedom and meritocracy for all!

  2. There already is a $100 ebook reader: the Palm Zire. The problem is it isn’t sexy like the Kindle or Sony, so it (and the rest of the Palm PDAs) gets ignored by the media slavering after Amazon. For that matter, the EB 1150, available via Fictionwise and others, is only about $109 for the base model.

    I’ve been reading ebooks on a handheld unit for most of the last decade, starting with the original Rocket reader.

    As for that wonderful bookstore, I sincerely hope it becomes a reality long before 2030–the environment can’t take much more of the horrendous waste that is the current publishing business model. None of us wants to see Amazon and B&N in control of bookselling, but small bookstores simply can’t compete with the kind of availability the online vendors offer under present circumstances.

  3. I hope it’s sooner as well, Elizabeth! I know the first Espresso machines are being installed as we speak. And electronic distribution, coupled with on-demand printing, will mean everyone has the same selection.

    Bookstores offer a rewarding social experience, which is why I hope this model catches on. Browsing Amazon in my underwear isn’t fun. For me OR for my wife, who has to see me like that.

  4. lol @ Lisa

    (as the college kids would say)

  5. Hi, Hugh. I’m a little late following your link here, from Nathan’s blog… but I enjoyed your humorous (if somewhat dismaying) post. I’m one of those readers who’s stuck between the old-fashioned and the new-fangled. I read some books on my Sony e-reader and some in paper form – just depends on my mood. So, I can appreciate your vision for the future – a bookstore that still accommodates both styles of reading, without the need for book-burning furnaces (can I just say “ugh?”). But I have to agree with malq – I think 2030 is too long to wait. For publishers, writers, and readers.

  6. I hope you’re right, Laura. I’d love to see these popping up in the next five years. I just hate being one of those science fiction dudes from the 50’s that wrote about flying cars in the 80’s… and then watched them develop the Pinto instead.

    The people burning the books aren’t making as much money as they could, but they are comfortable. Familiar. Like an abused spouse. They’ll struggle with the change and likely watch as someone else comes along and supplants them, rather than fostering the move and making higher profits.

    Good luck and good riddance, I say.

  7. […] or constructive criticism.  However, that’s not for me to decide alone.  As Hugh Howey predicted on his website in 2009, grassroots criticism (and intelligent and customizable review ranking systems) are our […]

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