Print books will never go away. Not completely. It isn’t just the nostalgia factor, either. Paper is cheap, and despite what shopping for replacement cartridges would suggest, ink isn’t expensive either. Modern print-on-demand (POD) books are practically indistinguishable from their large-batch brethren. A 300 page novel can be ordered from CreateSpace for less than $4, and that means it’s even cheaper to print (CreateSpace is making a profit at that price).
Print books are great for gifts, for tossing in a beach bag, for reading in the tub, and for piling up beside the bed. They are also wonderful impulse buys. And they cater to that urge for self-improvement, much like underused exercise equipment. Even if e-books move to 60% or 70% of trade fiction, that leaves a market for paperback novels. A trend that began years ago — the selling of novels in grocery stores, big-box discount stores, and airports — will continue. The problem with these outlets has always been shelf space and therefore selection. But imagine every book ever written being available right when you walk in the door at your local grocery store.
The video rental market has already moved there. Bookstores could as well. The Espresso Book Machine and its ilk already reside in some independent and university bookstores. We came very close to ordering one for our bookstore at ASU. These printers are compact, and they produce a trimmed and bound paperback in just a few minutes. Imagine walking in, wrestling those two stuck carts apart (sometimes you have to use a water hose), and then stopping at the RedBoox machine before you tackle your list.
There are two screens on either side of the machine. Someone is already browsing the cookbook selection on the other screen. You swipe your credit card, which logs you in and shows recommendations based on your prior purchases. You choose “Fiction Bestsellers,” and the screen shows you what’s selling the best nationally. You drill into the option to see what has sold the best in that particular store. A few local authors pop up. The usual names are there as well: Grisham, Collins, Patterson. You pick the book you want. The machine is already humming with existing orders. You sign the pay screen and go about your shopping.
On the way out, you stop by the machine and swipe the same credit card in the pick-up side of the printer. Some more robotic whirrings, and then the book you ordered slides down a chute. You pop it your purse (I’m using myself as an example here) and off you go.
Millions of books on-hand. No more guessing how many copies to print. No more wasteful returns system or environmentally damaging trucking of unread books several times across the country. No more printing overseas. Now, paper and ink come in the loading docks with the toilet paper and eggs. Books come out the other side. Want to own a RedBoox of your own? Good. We franchise. There’s some regular maintenance and the occasional breakdown. And since the system works by credit card, the funds go once a month to the copyright owners of the printed books, with the rest going to the owner of the RedBoox.
This won’t replace bookstores. The reason indie bookstores are experiencing growth the past few years is because they offer a unique discovery mechanism and a place for literary community. I think they will continue to thrive, at least for cities large enough to support them. There’s room for growth in the reading community, and print on demand offers the ability to put bookstores into very small footprints. If Amazon opens physical stores to showcase its electronics and Amazon Publishing titles, I could see them using those locations for same-day delivery and also print on demand titles.
There are all sorts of solutions to explore. Hey — how about a copy of the ebook sent to your device the moment you order that print title? If you get caught in a long line at the register, you can read the first chapter of the title you just ordered on your phone. Sign me up and take my money, please!