Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In the Year 2029

Full disclosure, mes amis: this post on THE FUTURE OF PUBLISHING (patent pending) is pure speculation on my part. Informed speculation, to be sure, but speculation nonetheless. So, now that you've taken your mandatory grains of salt, come with me on a journey to...


In the year 2029, the power of wireless Internet, Amazon, and Google (among newer and even more fantastic companies and services) will have taken connectivity to a new level. We could have search engines in our contact lenses, people! True, video or Matrix-style virtual reality may have largely replaced today's text-based Internet by then, but I'm betting there will still be text involved, and therefore (drumroll, please): reading!

Google's and Amazon's Sith-level grips on electronic books may well still be holding (fun activity: which is the master and which is the apprentice?), meaning that between them, a huge and continuously growing volume of e-books will be available on-line. Mix that with paper-thin, flexible, full-color e-readers (or those mega sweet contact lenses I just mentioned) and you've got almost any book you could ever hope to read wirelessly available almost instantly.

Will piracy be a problem? Absolutely—in twenty years, I expect the publishing industry to be suffering the same issues as the music industry in terms of illegal downloads and pirated materials. Ninja DRM and lawsuits from publishers/copyright holders/author estates will hopefully be enough to deter some pirates, but certainly not all.

Now, as we have seen, there are always going to be early adopters, late adopters, and non-adopters of new technologies, meaning that there will probably still be folks reading paper books in the far-flung year of 2029. I'm pretty sure that's going to be those of us who are college-age or older now, since we have a significant attachment to print books. But those three-year-olds you see running around now? They'll be fresh college graduates with almost no knowledge of The World Before E-Books. They saw us using e-readers when they were tots and thought they were cool. They probably got their own e-readers in middle school. Heck, they might not have ever even touched a physical book in all four years of college. Sure, a few young fogeys might think "p-books" are cool and retro or whatever, but most will view them as archaic and hard to use. (There's no search function on a paperback.)

I think hardcover books will swiftly become novelties, so only a few very small publishers will continue to produce them. For those of us who actually want to read physical books, POD will likely have become the norm, since dwindling demand will long since have forced houses and booksellers to abandon the current mega-print-run-and-returns model. If you want a physical book, you order it, it gets printed just for you, and that's that.

The good news for publishers and agents: I still think we'll need you in the astoundingly distant year of 2029! Roles will have changed drastically, though. Agents will be needed to negotiate royalties & contracts, filter out the detritus, and scout out the self-published stuff that's actually good; publishers will be needed to provide editing, marketing, and publicity services (viral media blitzes and e-co-op, if you will). The industry will be generally more compact, but will still exist and, hopefully, be thriving.

Oh, and I almost forgot the best part: in 2029, all you author folk will be making six-figure advances! Hooray for inflation!


  1. Everyone seems to be time travelling at the moment.

    I don't know why readers worry about the future of books so much. As long as we keep demanding good quality content (and keep paying for it) I'm sure we'll all be fine.

  2. Okay, so e-books will be more important in the future, we've heard this from dozens of people, we've got it.

    What's concerning to me is what effect this change will have. Right now one can walk into the homeless shelter down the street and take a used paperback off the free rack. Will reading in the future be limited to borrowed time on library computers, at least for those without the means to supply their own reading tools?

    Similarly, 300 bucks buys a nice start on a teacher's classroom library, 50-100 books that all the students can pass around and read. It buys one e-book reader.

    So the e-book revolution is coming. Fine, whatever. What I want to know is: what should (can?) the publishing industry, authors and book retailers do to shape this change and insure that it's one that improves the society we share?

  3. I almost forgot the best part: in 2029, all you author folk will be making six-figure advances!

    And everyone in the publishing industry will be paid enough to exist above the poverty line! (That would be great, wouldn't it?)

  4. Hi Mike,

    The cost of the technology is on its way down (think back to how much DVD players cost when they came out and what they cost now).

    As for improving society... that's a bit beyond the scope of this blog (and far beyond the scope of a single comment), but it's an interesting question that I think I'm going to visit in a future post. Thanks!

  5. Today I'm going to check out my local indie bookstore's new in-house POD machine! I'll be blogging about it tomorrow, so you can all see THE WORLD OF TOMORROW -- TODAY!

    Well, the world of "tomorrow" (figuratively speaking) -- tomorrow (literally speaking). Drat. Maybe I shouldn't be a writer after all...

  6. I mostly agree with your forecast. But I also hope the elimination of the "mega-print-run-and-returns model" means lower costs will lead to lower prices for eBooks and POD books (once the technology gets standardized and competitive.)

    IMO, part of what's killing the industry is $28 sticker shock. If POD books were $15 and eBooks $6, sales volume might start rising again.

  7. No PAT THE BUNNY in 2029? And somehow I can't envision reading a child GOODNIGHT MOON in a paper-thin flexible ereader version.

  8. It'll be interesting to see how this all shakes out. I'd like to see (assuming we can keep cost containment at an appropriate level per Mike's feedback) this be the way things go in the future, but I wonder if it'll actually happen. I think that about 20 years ago people probably thought that by the year 2029, we'd all be reading books online--because that was the "Next. Big. Thing."--but (because the publishing industry is slow to change) we've been slower to change than one might have imagined.

  9. In the year 2525, if man is still alive and woman can still survive...

  10. Yuck! Without the pleasure of the written page between the reader's two hands, the intimacy of a creative phrase will be lost, the joy of putting a book in one's purse or briefcase to read when dining alone or sitting under a tree in a park or those precious moments found on a beach. We are rushing to insanity in the name of "technology". For what?
    Glenna Fairbanks

  11. Let's get serious for a moment - we all know the world is going to end on December 21st 2012, so why even worry, right? ;-)

  12. I think there will still be books in wider use; probably picture books and stuff for kids (don't want them chewing the edges of a new Kindle).

    A search function on all books? Heck yes! That would have made writing a stupid paper on The Fountainhead when I was in 12th grade SO much easier.

  13. Anna Claire, I was thinking the same thing. Little kids with jelly hands. Cardboard for them.

    Good post, though. Looking into the future can be fun, especially since 1984 seems to be here. I'd rather like to get beyond it.

  14. Oops, should have put quotes around 1984, you know, the novel, Orwell.

  15. Like Matilda and Anna Claire said, I just don't see this happening for the picture book and board book market. Illustrations tell at least half the story in those genres, and probably the most significant of all is the act of sitting in the lap of an adult and waiting to turn the page. (okay, a child could wait to toggle to the next page, but it's not the same.) We give kids a lot of things that are "outdated" in terms of technology--jack-in-the-boxes, finger puppets, pull toys, wooden blocks. Parenthood (and grandparenthood) bring out the nostalgia in people. I think adults will continue to but paper and cardboard picture books for the children in their lives.

  16. Oh, the last person beat me to it. The touching of picture books, and cloth and texture books, and board books, and pop-up and under-the-flap books, will still be really important for young children's development.

    It's the grown-up books that will be affected more by the new technology.

    Until they start making kiddie e-books which can change their surfaces into different textures.

    Now that will be cool.

  17. As promised, videos of a POD machine in action at my local indie bookstore are now available on my blog. Enjoy!

  18. Yeah, yeah - progress, technology, yada yada. What I really want to know is - will we all be wearing those metallic one-piece jumpsuits?