Are Printed Books “Dead Meat”?

Denny Hatch just emailed me about a comment on the future of printed books that I left at his witty and insightful blog at

He mailed to me:

Thanx for writing.

I am not convinced that the printed book is dead meat. The paperback book is a marvel—light, portable, requires no batteries or plug-ins. When it arrives, you can open it and use it immediately. Beach sand won’t gum up the works, it can be read in full daylight, and it won’t electrocute you if it falls in the bathtub. Books create an aura of warmth on home shelves that impress friends and family. Never forget the words of Clarence Day (1874-1935):

“The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that he builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilizations grow old and die out; and, after an era of darkness, new races build others. But in the world of books are volumes that have seen this happen again and again, and yet live on, still young, still as fresh as the day they were written, still telling men’s hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead.”

Cheers, Denny Hatch

Here’s what I replied:

Hi Denny –

Thanks for your note. Yes, I agree that the printed book is not dead meat yet. Certainly the content of books (storytelling) will outlast the physical forms — whether that was written on a scroll, illuminated manuscript, block-printed and hand-bound volume, offset-printed hardcover with ribbons and gilded edges and marbled endpapers, pulp paperback, cell phone/tablet …

Today’s hardcovers are already an “endangered species” if we want to continue the “meat” analogy. Only a few months ago one of the UK’s largest publishers (its name escapes me) announced they will stop producing literary fiction in hardcover. They left the door open to a very limited run POD hardcover edition, numbered and signed by the author for collectors.

Over the next XXX years (insert a number, I chose ten arbitrarily), the “meat” of printed books — hardcover and paperback — will become less in demand, tapering off to become a specialty item. The majority of sales will migrate to other mechanisms: audio and eBook are the logical formats.

Consumers are wed to the experience of reading. They are less attached to the “smell of ink” (only a printer or publisher could imagine that) and the tactile sensation of holding a book and turning pages. If electronic tablets/phones offer ANY advantages, consumers will be hard-pressed to hold on to increasingly expensive printed books as a format. Price for the content will be one huge enticement — expect to buy a new book in digital download form for a few dollars rather than $20 or $30. With the tapering off of overall demand for printed books, the viability of local bookstores will collapse (perhaps coffeetable books will live on in gift stores). I hope some bookshops can diversify and hang on as cherished community resources — possibly by merging with libraries?

Look at what happened to movies. Sure everyone loved being with a crowd and eating popcorn in front of a massive cinema screen — with great sound. But over time we’ve seen a drop in theatre attendance and a switch to renting videos (replaced by DVDs, soon Blu-ray), and the start of the move to renting through downloads. The consumers still love “movies” — but it is the content they crave, not the container.

I know it is VERY upsetting for people in the book industry to face an unknown future. But there is no value in denying that change will happen. Better if clever people (like you) work on ways to make the transition easier and the next phase better for authors, publishers, retailers and readers. And let’s all commit firmly to making the next phase(s) kinder for our environment.


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