Thoughts on the future of books (print and digital)

3 books in digital and print formatsA few weekends ago, I attended BookCampToronto to feed my growing interest in books and the future of the publishing industry. The very first session I attended that day was on publishing and money and some points from the discussion have really stuck with me since.

It’s not easy to get away from discussions today on the future of the industry. Every day I see another article on independent (or major, like Borders) book stores closing and how digital is the death of print. I also find myself listening to people debate print vs. digital with some people vowing that they will never go to the digital “dark side” and abandon the sensory experience they have with print, and others who embrace their eReaders and say they’ll never turn back.  But I also find many people, like myself, who just don’t want to choose sides.

Printed books will become like records

In the session, someone made the comment that they believe that the printed book will never actually die. Instead, it will become more of a collectors’ item, the way records have. And I can see that happening. People will always want to add a beautiful print book to their collection, especially if it comes with extra information or features such as maps and photos. I find that I’m doing this now already. I may read the digital version of a book or borrow a copy from the library, but if I love it, I’ll pick up the print version to add to my collection – especially if it’s a beautifully designed book.

As the discussion continued, someone asked how we can look to the music or film industry for inspiration. The film industry has seen a decline in ticket sales but people still go out to see movies in the cinema. And even more so, people are still buying DVDs and Blu-rays, even though they can buy digital editions through iTunes. Why? Because people like collecting movies, they like the extra features they can get like commentary and blooper reels, they love box sets and even more exciting are features like Easter eggs – anything that makes having that physical copy even more special.

Print and digital bundles

For me, the most interesting idea is of following the movie industry’s example and packaging a digital copy of a book with its print copy.  I have at least two movies on Blu-ray that came with a DVD and the digital version as well. Now, I haven’t used either of the other formats, but knowing I have that option is great! So if I’m about to go on a long trip, I can just load the movie onto my laptop and I’m good to go.

That’s how I feel books should be. Sometimes, I want to buy the print copy and I want to invest in that lovely large hardcover. But the thought of dragging that to and from work every day on the subway to read it? My shoulders just hurt at the thought.

At this point, I’m forced to choose one of the following options:

  • Buy the beautiful hardcover and lug it around (or only read it at home… but if you’re seriously into a story, that’s impossible), or
  • Compromise and buy the paperback. It’s smaller to carry around, but sometimes not as pretty. And well, it still adds weight to my full purse, or
  • Just buy (or borrow) the ebook and read it on my eReader. It’s a great option for  carrying around but if I love the book, I still feel like I want to buy the print copy to add to my collection because I enjoy print that much.

But in my ideal world, I wouldn’t have to choose. I could go out and buy that beautiful hardcover and for that price or just slightly higher, I’d get a digital copy bundled in. Then I can keep my hardcover at home and read on my eReader when I’m on the go. That would be the perfect compromise!

I’m not happy that I had to choose

My feelings on this just grew stronger two weeks ago when I finished A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I had purchased the $10 paperback and carried it around. But I’m on a mission to reduce the strain on my shoulders, so the thought of going through another four (eventually six!) books in the series like this wasn’t something I was looking forward to.  So after considering my options, I ended up buying the digital book set, with the plan to add the hardcover collection to my wishlist if I love the books that much.

It’s working so far, obviously, but I was disappointed that I had to choose.

Now, I don’t know the business and economic side of this and won’t claim to. But I imagine there are major changes that need to occur on the trade publishers’ side to make it even possible. I do have hope though, because educational publishers have been doing this for a while. I distinctly remember getting CD-ROMs and then DVDs in the back of my textbooks during high school and then university. They started with just additional content (like tests and videos) but now you can get digital copies too.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how the next few years go as the industry adjusts to these changes and tries to find that balance.

Update: A quick Google search showed me that some publishers are already considering multi-format bundles: Six e-book trends to watch in 2011 and Of Two Minds About Book Still not sure if it’s making business sense for the publishers yet, but it’s a start!

Photo credit: Penn Waggener

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