17 October 2006

Booksellers and Baristas

From the London Times, via POD-dy Mouth through Bookseller Chick through Fuse #8, comes Brian Appleyard's essay on how print-on-demand technology will affect bookstores. Appleyard, a journalist, critic, occasional novelist, and all-around opinionator, offers this vision of future bookselling:

You will go into Starbucks, slip your credit card into a machine, order a book and grab a latte, which you will finish just as your book completes its printing and binding process.
That particular convergence of paper and coffee has been happening for years now. No respectable large bookstore can open in North America without a coffee bar. Even new public libraries, like those in Princeton, New Jersey, and Watertown, Massachusetts, have small bakeshops built into their architecture. On the other side of the equation, Starbucks has its own publishing program.

Just today, Publishers Weekly reported that Lightning Source, the almost monopolistically dominant print-on-demand manufacturer, is adding capacity. Once books were digitized, they started to fall under Moore's Law, meaning the price of storing and transfering their content gets cheaper and cheaper.

The only thing holding back the total book-coffee convergence Appleyard describes is, I suspect, the smell of the book-production process. And maybe the coffee will cancel that out. (I'm a tea drinker myself.) Back in July I wrote that "within our lifetimes I predict that most novels will be printed" with POD technology.

Studying the eighteenth century helps remind me that the bookselling environment we're used to is a recent invention. Back when Thomas Hancock (shown above) and Henry Knox were selling books in Boston, they:
  • carried many other goods in their stores, and
  • bound books as customers requested them instead of filling their shelves with finished inventory.
Nostalgia for our current system of pre-printed books arrayed en masse might turn out to be like nostalgia for the Linotype machine, or hand-set type. Will the changes Appleyard describes really matter to the reader?

A store built around the print-on-demand model can offer advantages for readers, in fact. For instance, stores (and libraries) usually shelve all their inventory of one title in one place, unless they create a special display (charging the publisher for the privilege). But what about books that appeal to both adults and kids? Or touch on both business and spirituality? Or have large portions of both history and biography? Online listings don't have to be as limited as shelf space: one title can pop up in many searches.

The main problem I see in the POD model is how we readers would find the wonderful book that we don't yet know to look for: the new title by a familiar author, the additional book on a subject that turns out to be better than the one you came in for, the impulse buy, the gift for someone else that you'll know once you see it. But you could probably work around that problem once you have a cup of coffee.

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