The Future in the Past

Trying to imagine the shape of the book business 25 years from now is both challenging and dangerous—challenging because I am by nature a Luddite and claim no particular future vision and dangerous because many unforeseen technologies will no doubt spring up between now and then that could radically affect it. For example, in the early 1980s, the superstore was more likely to be an independent than a chain, the Internet was a gleam in the eye of only the most advanced futurist and Jeff Bezos wouldn’t have his moment of epiphany that became Amazon.com for more than a decade.

Much attention in the last few years has been focused on the form that future books will take, one assumption being that coming generations of readers, brought up with technology, will increasingly opt for electronic alternatives over paper between covers. Indeed, the latest round of electronic reading devices is coming close to simulating the reading experience (including the sound of a page turning). Of course, dozens of books can be carried in the small machine, and certain books are naturals in an electronic format. And yet, few objects in history (the wheel, the pen and clothes come to mind) have retained essentially the same form and function over 1,000 years, as has the book, which, today, performs much as it did when Irish monks were copying manuscripts in monasteries at the first millennium. The book as we know it has flourished because it is a perfect technology: Self-contained, highly portable, easy to use, it also—via the turning of pages—connects readers in a tactile way to an author’s ideas, to a story s vitality. It’s also an antidote to mechanization. Recently, I asked the 20-something son of a friend if he liked eBooks; after spending all day at a machine, he said, the last thing he wanted was to read a book on screen. For those of us who adhere to the status quo, the millions of young people who have enjoyed Harry Potter in traditional form offer hope that a goodly percentage will find the experience irreplaceable. So I feel quite safe in predicting that the book a quarter-century hence, and well beyond that, will look as it does today.

Such clinging to the present aside, revolutions will take place in the distribution of books, and those could radically change the industry. With some 170,000 new titles published each year and millions of backlist titles available, the great challenge publishers and retailers face is having the right book in the right place when someone wants it. Amazon.com made huge numbers of titles available in 48 hours, but 25 years from now, that wait will have shrunk to nothing. Prototype machines now exist that can instantly print and bind books, and when their costs come down, they could turn any outlet into a bookstore and put any book—old or new—at one’s fingertips. Furthermore, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine this capability in the home.

However, as with many innovations, there would be trade-offs. Taken to an extreme, if all books were bought in this manner, then the way publishers conduct their business, the nature of bookselling and the interaction between customers and books would be materially changed. In such an environment, inventory and sales representatives could become essentially unnecessary. Bookstores might no longer be emporia for displays, and the reading public would lose the spontaneity that comes from prowling a bookstores aisles. Perhaps we’re moving in that direction anyway. Booksellers report their customers are responding more and more to what critics, experts, pundits and other influences tell them to buy. As a result, customers tend to come in for (or order online) one book at a time, and the fine art of browsing and the unexpected discovery that comes with it are increasingly rare.

And yet, a far-sighted bookseller I know has a different, quite sanguine vision for independent bookselling of the future. She observes two phenomena she feels are connected: Local economies are gaining momentum, as is the interest of localities in maintaining them in the face of mass-merchandising; and environmental consciousness is, at long last, growing apace, well beyond long-committed minorities. Sustainability is becoming a watchword at local as well as national and global levels, evidenced by the rapid growth in sales of environment-sustainability books. Because of these trends, this bookseller posits a potentially bright future for independent bookstores, part of a renaissance of local, independent, non-homogenized (read: non-chain, non-Internet) stores of all kinds. Such bookstores would, of course, need to take full advantage of technology to be as immediately responsive to customers’ needs as any alternative—and, here, the point-of-sale machines mentioned above would level the playing field with the chains and Internet outlets, pulling back to local stores the business lost to Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com. Interest in sustainability would help, as well: Buying a book locally is much more environmentally friendly than having it shipped cross-country. At the same time, independent store owners would rely on their expertise and knowledge of books and customers to offer the service that no other “big” store with such a machine would have, a service increasingly appreciated by local communities. Bolstering the claim that small, local stores are surviving, a friend of mine who owns a small toy company says he has some 1,800 small, independent accounts all over the country and doesn’t need to do business with the big-box stores, whose terms and conditions are onerous.

All of this could be whistling in the wind: The next generation of book buyers may prove to love electronic readers, making pages between covers largely obsolete, and mass-merchants may continue to dominate retailing. But it’s just as reasonable to believe that technology could lead us back to the past—and that possibility is music to a Luddite’s ears.

About the Author

George Gibson

George Gibson is the publisher of Walker & Company, a division of Bloomsbury USA. His authors include Dava Sobel, Mark Kurlansky, David Bodanis, Ross King, Diana Preston, and Andro Linklater. In prior years, starting from the beginning, he worked at Little, Brown; David R.

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