What a unique thing a book is. Made from a tree, it has a hundred or more flexible pages that contain written text, enabling the book to contain a large sum of information in a very small volume. Before paper, clay tablets, sheepskin parchment, and papyrus were all used to store information with far less efficiency. Paper itself was once so rare and valuable that the Emperor of China had guards stationed around his paper posessions.
Before the invention of the printing press, books were written by hand, and few outside of monastaries knew how to read. There were only a few thousand books in all of Europe in the 14th century. Charlemagne himself took great effort to learn how to read, but never managed to learn how to write, which still put him ahead of most kings of the time, who were generally illiterate.
But with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century, it became possible to make multiple copies of the same book, and before long, the number of books in Europe increased from thousands to millions.
Fast forward to the early 21st century, and books are still printed by the millions. Longtime readers of The Futurist know that I initially had written a book (2001-02), and sought to have it published the old-fashioned way. However, the publishing industry, and literary agents, were astonishingly low-tech. They did not use email, and required queries to be submitted via regular mail, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope included. So I had to pay postage in both directions, and wait several days for a round trip to hear their response. And this was just the literary agents. The actual publishing house, if they decide to accept your book, would still take 12 months to produce and distribute the book even after the manuscript was complete. Even then, royalties would be 10-15% of the retail price. This prospect did not seem compelling to me, and I chose to parse my book into this blog you see before you.
The refusal by the publishing industry to use email and other productivity-enhancing technologies as recently as 2003 kept their wages low. Editors always moaned that they worked 60 hours a week just to make $50,000 a year, the same as they made in 1970. My answer to them is that they have no basis to expect wage increases without increasing their productivity through technology.
In the meantime, self-publishing technologies emerged to bypass the traditional publishers' role as arbitrers of what can become a book and what cannot. From Lulu to iUniverse to BookSmart, any individual can produce a book, with copies that can be printed on demand. Instances where an individual is seeking to go it alone without being saddled with a huge upfront inventory production and storage burden, or is otherwise marketing to only a tiny audience, have flourished. But print-on-demand is not the true disruption - that was yet to come.
The Amazon Kindle launched in late 2007 at the high price of $400. Within 2 years, a substantially more advanced Kindle 2 was available for a much lower price of $260, alongside competing readers from several other companies. Many people feel that the appeal of holding a physical book in our hands cannot be replaced by a display screen, and take a cavalier attitude towards dismissing e-readers. The tune changes upon learning that the price of a book on an e-reader is just a third of what the paper form at a brick-and-mortar bookstore, with sales tax, would cost. Market research firm iSuppli estimates that 5 million readers have been sold in 2009, and another 12 million will sell in 2010. Amazon estimates that over one-third of its book sales are now through the kindle, greatly displacing sales of paper books.
Imagine what happens when the Kindle and other e-readers cost only $100. Brick and mortar bookstores will consolidate to fewer premises, extract profits mainly from picture-heavy books and magazines, and step up their positioning as literary coffeehouses. Many employees and affiliates of the publishing industry will see their functions eliminated as part of the productivity gains. College students forced to pay $100 for a textbook produced in small quantities will now pay only $20 for an e-reader version. But even this is not the ultimate endgame of disruption.
Intel now has a reader for the visually impaired that scans text from paper books, and reads them in an acceptable audio voice. It is reported that with practice, an audio rate of 250 words per minute can be coherent. While the reader costs $1500, and requires a user to turn pages manually, it is a matter of time before not only the reader's price drops, and more and more books are available as text files similar to those contained in e-readers like the Kindle. There are already books available as free downloads of text files under the ironically named Project Gutenberg.
Therein lies the crescendo of disruption. The Intel Reader is a $1500 device for the visually impaired, but will soon evolve into a technology that interfaces with Kindle-type e-readers and chatters off e-books at 250 words/minute, from the full e-book library that is vastly larger than any traditional collection of audiobooks. A 90,000-word novel could be recited in just 6 hours, enabling a user to imbibe the whole book during a single coast-to-coast flight, even if the lights are dimmed. People could further choose to preserve their vision at home, devouring book after book with the lights out. As the technology advances further, the speech technology will allow the user to select a voice of his choosing to be read to in, perhaps even his own voice.
Thus, without many people even noticing the murmurs, we can predict that the next 3 years will see the biggest transformation in book production and consumption since the days of Johannes Gutenberg. That is a true demonstration of both the Accelerating Rate of Change and The Impact of Computing.