The Future of Printed Books

Will the ebook kill off the print book?"

Every time I hear that question, I think about the "paperless office." Back in the '80s, the rise of word processors and e-mail convinced a lot of people that paper would vanish. Why print anything when you could simply squirt documents around electronically?

We all know how that turned out. Paper use exploded; indeed, firms that adopted e-mail used 40 percent more paper. That's because even in a world of screens, paper offers unique ways to organize and share your thoughts, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper noted inThe Myth of the Paperless Office. There's also this technology truism to consider: When you make something easier to do, people do more of it. Now that every office worker has access to a computer and a printer, every office worker can design and distribute elaborate multicolor birthday flyers and spiral-bound presentations.

"Print-on-demand" publishing is about to do the same thing to books. It'll keep them alive-by allowing them to be much weirder.

Print-on-demand devices, like the Espresso Book Machine, do just what their name implies: You feed them a digital file and in minutes you have a good-looking paperback with a color cover. (Print-on-demand companies like Lulu or Blurb even produce hardcover and photo books.)

In a precise parallel to the office-printing boom, print-on-demand is creating an odd new phenomenon that Blurb founder Eileen Gittens calls social publishing. Photo-and-storybook records of camping trips or corporate retreats are created as mementos for participants. There are technical manuals devoted to superniche software. And there are oceans of memoirs and poetry books, often printed in runs of one.

Print-on-demand books can also become plastic-altered on the fly to suit each reader. For his self-published motivational book, Bobby Bakshi, a former Microsoft employee who now does corporate consulting, writes a different intro for each client. Over at the University of Alberta, the bookstore hosted a talk by former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell. Her book was out of print, so the store used its Espresso machine to run off fresh copies-with a new cover and two new chapters that Campbell wrote for the event."We can take almost any whimsy and turn it into a book," says Vladimir Verano, who runs the Espresso machine at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park, Washington.

Whimsy, sure, but it's also becoming an enormous market with an intergalactically long tail. Consider: In traditional print publishing, the number of new titles increased by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, rising to 316,000. In contrast, print-on-demand and self-publishing boomed by 169 percent-hitting a stunning 2.8 million unique titles.

Granted, few of those titles have been printed more than a handful of times; print-on-demand is still a small fraction of total book production. But the trend is obvious. Mass publishers doing "big" books will continue to shift to the Kindle and its peers, while smaller outlets will use print-on-demand for formats that privilege physicality, like mementos, visually lush books, and custom-designed, limited-edition copies of novels. This trend will accelerate in 15 or 20 years, when, as some observers predict, your average home printer will be able to spit out paperbacks. "I see this fundamentally as a tabletop medium. It's the photocopier of the future," says Rick Anderson, a librarian who runs an Espresso machine at the University of Utah.

Will this be good for readers? Yes and no. As with blogs, most DIY books will be dreadful and treasured only by their authors. But the ecosystem encourages new voices doing things we can't predict, which is generally good.

So don't worry about the fate of print books. Heck, you'll be neck deep in them-whenThe Myth of the Paperless Bookfinally goes on sale.

Email clive@clivethompson.net.

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