“Most people don't realize how important librarians are. I ran across a book recently which suggested that the peace and prosperity of a culture was solely related to how many librarians it contained. Possibly a slight overstatement. But a culture that doesn't value its librarians doesn't value ideas and without ideas, well, where are we?”
Neil Gaiman

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Future of Books: All-Digital or Not?

The debate goes on:  will the future of books be an all-digital future or will we still have a place for the printed page?  There is a growing population that sees an end of libraries and bookstores and a future of all digital content.  As an information specialist, I see a different world, and I see a gradual approach toward it with some definite pluses for some applications.  I don’t, however, see the dear old book completely going away.  I see a new world that expands literacy in different directions and asks authors and artists to try new directions.

First of all, I believe that libraries and bookstores are actually critical to the growing future of books but that the current model will just adjust to meet the needs of the information format that is being distributed.  We are already seeing this adjustment in ebook lending and sales.  Cloud computing* is enabling libraries to open up huge digital lending libraries quickly and efficiently. 
(See 3M Cloud Library

About 33% of readers read both digital and print right now.  About 26% of readers are thinking about reading digital books.  eBooks currently make up about 13% of publisher’s revenue.1  Forecaster’s predict 2 that the percentage will continue to rise so that in 2015 the market is 40%, 
2020 the market is 60%, and by 2025 the market is 75%.  I recently attended a virtual conference on eBooks sponsored by Library Journal with a keynote address by award-winning author MT Anderson.  MT made many excellent points during his address, among them the shift in payment authors are beginning to receive as a result of the digital revolution.  Keeping in mind the traditional pricing format of $25 (adult)/$16 (juv) for hardcover books and $12 (adult)/$6 (juv) for paperback, digital significantly reduces income for authors as it is released simultaneously with hardbacks therefore reducing hardback purchases and in a sense starting to eliminate the paperback purchases.  This point does have me somewhat concerned as to whether or not authors who really put in thorough research and write for a living will be able to earn enough to survive under the new conditions put upon the market.  I suppose only time will tell.

On the other hand, digital is opening up all sorts of new publishing opportunities.  Authors wanting to break into the field have all sorts of ways to try their hand at writing even if traditional publishing isn’t working for them.  Blogging is probably the best way to start out.  In addition, multitudes of self publishing, editorial, and independent marketing companies are cropping up within the industry for aspiring authors.  Some of the better known companies include Xlibris, iUniverse, AuthorHouse, Dog Ear Publishing, and WordClay.  A good friend of mine, Gennie Tolliver, recently published a beautiful book via Xlibris and has been quite successful.  Her book is called Petra and tells the story of a beautiful family of dark complected fairies.  My family doctor, Lucy Hornstein, also self published several books before being discovered by her current publisher, Kaplan, and publishing Declarations of a Dinosaur: 10 Laws I've Learned as a Family Doctor.

As a certified teacher librarian, I see significant changes coming to the school library with the digital age.  The reality is that it makes economic sense for a portion of our books to go digital.  Some books simply require constant updating.  Reference is a perfect example.  Encyclopedia material is constantly updating and difficult to keep up with.  It takes up an enormous amount of space in a library.  Likewise there are dictionaries, foreign language reference books, history, science… For many of these books digital makes infinite sense.   However, digital isn’t the same as a really fine art book.  Digital cannot replicate the beauty of some of the printed plates.  In addition, It is often easier for art students to sit with a book in the library than to sit next to a computer monitor.  The process of replicating a drawing is different than learning Spanish. Additionally, the price for lendable ebooks is still outrageous compared with paper copies.

Integration of curriculum with resources is already a skill that school librarians hold and as the future moves toward digitizing curriculum, I see librarians gaining more curriculum skills and curriculum itself moving under the realm of the library.  It is the most cost effective solution for the future of curriculum.  In the corporate world, librarians are often called knowledge managers.  I like this title because it implies a centralized, collaborative person who helps get the right information moving to the right people.  That’s exactly what librarians do.  As things move into a more technical direction, schools need to rethink having separate technology departments, separate curriculum departments, and separate libraries.  Instead they should look to combine them and build strong collaborative problem-solving staffs that can work within the schools to really provide the best information needs for schools at the best possible cost.  

So.  Will books go away?  I don’t think so.  Not for a long time anyway.  I think we will have a blend of paper and digital resources for some time to come.  Collectors will still want their hardbound copies signed by authors.  You just can’t sign an ebook and place it proudly on your bookshelf. It also isn’t the same walking into a library or bookstore if you can’t pick up a copy of a book and flip through it to give it a “test drive.”  You need a certain number of shelf copies.  Cover art is becoming increasingly important in this world of book marketing where books really ARE judged by their covers. Browsing is significantly easier with physical books on well-arranged shelves - my kindle has more than 1000 titles and it is getting out of hand. Finally, what about the bookstores?  Amazon seems to be doing a booming business and Barnes and Noble seems to be keeping pace -- although I am concerned about Amazon controlling the publishing world and ultimately limiting what is published. Niche sellers like Powell’s and Abe’s have found their own markets.  Independents like the famous Strand in NYC and The Tattered Cover in Denver also seem to be holding up based on their rich histories.  I see a definite future for independent and online resale shops as patrons search for favorite books and special editions.  

And hopefully we’ll all live happily ever after.

*What is Cloud Computing?

1) Publisher’s Weekly, May 2nd 2011

2) Forecast for e-books as a percentage of total books sold (source: David Houle) http://www.mediabizbloggers.com/evolution-shift/100027269.html

3) Ebooks or Printed Books: Which Are Better for You? October 20, 2011 by Veena Bissram   http://mashable.com/2011/10/20/reading-ebook-versus-print/

No comments: