by Marcus Sakey
When I do speaking events, a lot of times someone asks a question which, though politely phrased, adds up to, "But aren't books going away some time soon?"
It's a fair question. The publishing system is archaic as hell, built on an expectation of waste. Without getting into the gritty details, bookstores essentially buy everything on consignment; if it doesn't sell, they can return it. Because books take up a lot of space, that means that most of the unsold copies end up pulped. And since selling 50% of the printed copies is considered a moderate success, and print runs are frequently in the hundreds of thousands, we're talking about enormous inefficiency.
The question, though, is how to do better?
One answer is the digital reader, a gizmo that can store a library of books and yet fit in your bag. A couple versions of these exist, but for my money, they are a long, long way from being a solution. Even putting aside the tactile joy of books, a digital reader needs to contend with some serious design challenges: it must be rugged enough to survive the beach, easy on the eyes and yet bright enough to read in broad daylight, with batteries that don't quit--imagine your reader dying in the last ten pages of a thriller--plus being small and light and flexible enough to just tuck in your bag, and, oh yeah, it has to do all that at a really low cost.
Suffice it to say we ain't there yet.
More realistic, I think, might be an integration of print-on-demand technology with physical bookstores. Instead of storing and shipping thousands and thousands of books, publishers could send digital files to bookstores across the globe. These stores could either exist online, or else be more like storefronts, with catalogs, samples, and staff to guide you. You pick what you want, it gets printed on the spot, you're on your way. Obviously, this model is also pretty far off, but it's consistent with what other industries are doing: movies are increasing distributed digitally, and need I say more than iTunes?
It's hard to say what will come next. However, one thing that is often forgotten is that books are just a medium. It's not really books that I love--it's story. It's experiencing someone else's world-view, being scared or cheered or filled with joy, having a moment of grace or a laugh that makes me snort my coffee. And while books are my preferred medium, they aren't the only one.
Plus, new ones are on the way. Take YouTube, which, while still specializing in fart-lighting videos, is also a forum for tremendous satire, as well as fascinating experiments in narrative structure.
Or consider video games; long an arena where the story concerns rarely went further than "those are the bad guys, go shoot them," game designers are beginning to aspire to something higher. If you want an example of what I mean, look no further than BioShock, a morality tale set amidst a crumbling dystopic extension of Ayn Rand's ideas that still allows for the highly enjoyable kicking of great quantities of ass. (For more info on BioShock and its impact, check out my brother Matt's review of it here--even if you don't game, Matt's article is worth reading.)
What do you think? Would you read a book on a digital reader? If not, what would need to change so you would? Or does it not matter, since story will always find a way?
What do you think Book 2.0 will look like?