Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Theory of Book Survival

Russ Roberts believes the days of the physical book are numbered.
So while there are some advantages to physical books, I’m predicting that the advantages of digital books will crush them. And it won’t take long...There will be one exception. The Jews. We will still publish prayer books and Bibles and Talmuds for use on the Sabbath when the iPad and the Kindle take a rest. But for the most part, I think that’s going to be it.
No doubt investing big in a physical book market is a fool's errand. But I don't think new physical books will become extinct. In fact, I think the disadvantages of such books will be the key to their (muted) survival.

Books as yard signs. Because books have that hefty annoying mass, they can be displayed in a home. I once heard that most people who buy books written by popular public figures don't actually read them, or read very little of them. They mostly have them to display in their bookcases. "Look what team I'm on," they scream. Displaying your copy of a hip new author plays a similar role.

Books as uncomfortable shoes. We wear uncomfortable clothes when we're trying to be serious because genuinely serious people are more willing to tolerate such discomfort. Similarly, "true readers" will read the book in the physical form because it's a pain to do. Only people who want to be part of that "serious readers" club will tolerate a physical book. Oh they'll fool themselves that the minor differences between the physical and the digital matter, e.g. the smell of the book, but it will really be about signalling.

Books as candles. While I think most of the "smell of the book" stuff is nonsense, it's true that people like nostalgia and novelty. Yeah, I think candle light's romantic but I might think that because I grew up with electricity. Old stuff always seems exotic and cool.

GRANTED, there's lots of old media where new stuff doesn't exist. Vinyl records. VHS. Cassette tapes. But such things weren't around very long. They didn't have the opportunity to entrench themselves as a nostalgic enough to warrant making new ones and they make even poorer signalling. But physical books have been around for a while and when you add in print on demand services, I think we'll be seeing new physical books around for a long time.

Bookstores, however, are a different story.

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