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"Future of paper and printed media in an online world"

Many have predicted the death of books in a digital age, but the fact is that more book titles are published today than ever, with increasing numbers sold online. (Article by Dr Patrick Dixon, Director Global Change Ltd in 1998 - ARCHIVE for interest.  20 years on, books are still being sold widely, as predicted here.  Indeed sales of children's books rose 17% in the UK in 2016)

I have recently opened an online book shop of my own, offering instant book sales. I am selling 1.5 million other titles, taking instant electronic orders from all over the world on credit card for a commission of 8%. It took me 30 minutes to create it, design the entrance and get ready for customers. It costs nothing to set up and run or maintain - the robots do it all. I never see online book sales, or invoices. In a virtual world all I see is a check each month. Life's too short to get bogged down in mail order when a virtual company will do it all for you.

High street bookshops are still usually cheaper than the net because online discounts are less than postage. Expect that to change as volumes increase. However "real" bookshops will still have an edge when customers want to browse, hold, feel, smell, turn the pages. But for many people who have made a decision to buy, the convenience of online ordering is more important than price.

wpe2.jpg (3107 bytes)So here is a paradox: a virtual world trading in physical books. What about virtual books? Will paper books still find a market? The longer term answer is "yes" for fiction but "no" for much of the rest. It's already happening. Books are compact, easy to read, convenient to store, and pleasurable to hold. They cannot be beaten when it comes to fiction which requires a start-to-finnish, comfortable read. But book publishing is heading for a major crisis when it comes to non-fiction, especially for textbooks and reference works.

Twenty years ago my wife and I spent £1,500 in real terms on Encyclopaedia Britannica "for the children". Today the volumes are almost unused, despite four children at home doing school projects.. We could have bought a CD-ROM replacement of course for a mere £150 but why bother when better is available for free?

The cost of all information is falling rapidly to zero, with a small premium for up-to-the-minute quality comment on instant-access news. No encyclopaedia can possibly compete with what I already have on my PC for nothing. Encyclopaedias are simply too small.

Take my nine-year-old son: after a recent cub camp weekend he returned with an assignment to write a one-page "newspaper" account. Within eight minutes of logging online he had located lots of vital information about the organization - and even found an aerial colour photo of the campsite. In seconds text and pictures were cut and pasted into his project. The result was semi-professional, attractive, informative - and up to date. No conventional publication could have delivered this.

wpe2.jpg (3107 bytes)All non-fiction books are competing with a free online resource which is growing every day by more than 800 million floppy disks. In one week alone this year, one group of companies in the US added 43 million entire documents. Of course, the saying is "rubbish in, rubbish out" and there's a lot of rubbish on the net. But search guides are becoming very easy to use and powerful, and some trim out almost all the rubbish. Any regular user has his or her own favorite starting places, which may be lists of vital sites collated by someone else with very similar interests.

The most useful electronic "books" are not more than a few pages in length and would be worth paying for - but are given away for nothing. They consist of lists of reviewed links with star ratings for content. Lists will never make money:

bullet The culture is that information is free, including information about where to find other information.
bullet Distribution costs are effectively zero.
bullet Lists are impossible to protect by copyright, and can be sent to tens of thousands of people in seconds at no cost.
bullet Enthusiastic amateur information detectives easily cover by direct sponsorship of advertising or by the gift of time the nominal cost of developing such publications.

The Internet wins hands-down when it comes to data. In contrast to the linear fiction read, people searching for facts want instant random access to constantly updated sources. For a while CD-ROMs such as Encarta (lower cost than Britannica) will fill a market gap for those who don't have access on-line or are unfamiliar with the net. It is still true that there are thousands of useful articles on CD-ROMs that have no equivalent on the net but that will not be the case tomorrow.

wpe2.jpg (3107 bytes)But what about fiction? Will electronic novels ever be as easy to read and handle as a paperback? Possibly yes. The two limits on long digital reads are lack of resolution on screens and lack of contrast. The blacks are not black enough and the whites are dull or glaring. Expect this to change by 2010 with the first true digital books. Most people will only own two or three at most. Each will have several hundred blank pages, bound in a conventional cover. These books will be loaded with the text of any work you want to read, and will be as easy to read as traditional books today. They will be able to carry many volumes, selected instantly from memory. Prototype ultra-thin high-resolution flexible sheets are already in development.

So then, paper books will continue for many years to come, with competition from digital publications in non-fiction. All book retailing will be influenced in future by the electronic mail order business and price will be a critical factor. Tomorrow's most powerful book clubs will be net-based.

Another important issue is falling print costs - despite what publishers will tell you about labour and paper and ink. The fact is that I have recently printed 10,000 paperback books with a glossy full colour cover for just 33 American cents each - in India. And a book twice the size would not have been much more. That included all typeset, design, cover origination and warehousing.

Finally, the nature of book writing itself will change profoundly, as it did with the advent of the word processor. My grandfather edited Chambers Encyclopaedia with ink and pencil, through no more than three or four drafts. Today's works can go through thousands of layers of revision in the same time. Tomorrow's first drafts will be created with speech recognition. I can already dictate up to 100 words a minute of continuous speech into my computer, which is the equivalent of 6,000, words an hour or a complete paperback in less than twenty hours.

wpe2.jpg (3107 bytes)Electronic books allow hyperlinking - instant jumps from one idea to another in another part of the book or in another work. This is the essence of true research: digging deeper in unique ways through layers of knowledge to create a new understanding. But it also allows hyper-story creation, where the reader shapes the outcome of a novel by making hundreds of choices along the way. In a visual TV-dominated age, expect many of these kind of "books" to become interactive soap operas or feature films with minimal text backed by fully animated cartoons or video sequences.

So then, if you are a bookseller, sit tight; carry on selling as you are today. Your greatest threat is not the web or CD-ROMs but the massive realignment of the retail trade with the ending of the net book agreement and aggressive bargain selling by large chains.

If you are a publisher, reckon that the capital invested in a reference book will need to be written off even faster than before and that cyberspace will become the natural graveyard for most non-fiction books once their initial selling spurt is over. Remainder the physical stock and give the text away on the net. Your competitors will do so, and authors with any sense will insist on it. There is nothing more depressing for a writer than a much-cherished work going out of print.

And finally, if you are an entrepreneur and want to make history, get into multimedia web publishing as fast as you can, but make sure your backers are in for the long haul. Push the medium to the limits, invest in first class information sources, give it all away for free, generate heavy traffic and sell advertising space.

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