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The end of paper changes everything

February 13, 2012
by seth godin

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Not just a few things, but everything about the book and the book business is transformed by the end of paper. Those that would prefer to deny this obvious truth are going to find the business they love disappear over the next five years.

The book itself is changed. I’m putting the finishing touches on a manifesto I hope to share soon, and I found myself writing differently because I understood that the medium that was going to be used to acquire, consume and share the book was different.

The first change in the creation of the ebook is that there is no appropriate length. Print books are bounded on two sides–they can’t be too short, because there’s a minimum price that a bookseller needs to charge to make it worth stocking. At the same time, a book can’t be too long or ornate, because there’s also a maximum price that readers are willing to pay (and a maximum weight we’re willing to haul around).

None of these boundaries exist in ebooks. As a result, we get blog posts, (which are a form of writing that was virtually unknown ten years ago–personal, short, helpful non-fiction that’s serialized over time), 1000 page zombie novels, beautifully illustrated and interactive apps and everything in between.

[Aside: how come we don't call blog posts, "really short, free, ebooks"? I'm not being facetious--what makes something a book? The length? The paper? The money? I don't think we know yet.]

We’ve gone from a very simple taxonomy of classifying (and thus creating) the thing we call a book to one that’s wide open and undetermined. This is unsettling to anyone in the media business–we know how long a movie is supposed to be, how much music goes on a record, etc. And now, because the wrapper is changed, so is the product.

The second change is that ebooks connect. Not so much on the Kindle platform (yet) but certainly in PDF and HTML, we see that it’s almost an insult to the reader to create a non-fiction ebook that fails to include links to other voices and useful sources. Not only are the links there, but the writer needs to expect that the reader will actually click on them. A little like being a playwright while knowing that in the middle of the performance, the audience may very well pick up the phone and chat or tweet or surf based on what’s going on onstage.

Beyond these two elements of what makes a book a book, there’s a fundamental change in the way ebooks are being consumed. Paper meant that a book was very much a considered purchase–more expensive, more time consuming, involving shipping or shlepping, together with long-term storage. With a ninety-nine cent ebook (or, as is the majority–if we count the web, with a free one), not only is the ‘purchase’ an impulse act, but the number of titles consumed is going to skyrocket.

The consumption of free (or nearly free) ebooks is more like browsing through a bookstore or library and less like purchasing and owning a book. As a result, there will be significantly more unread titles, abandoned in mid-sentence. Think blogs, not Harry Potter.

As soon as paper goes away, so do the chokepoints that created scarcity. Certainly we’re already seeing this with the infinite shelf space offered by the digital bookstore. Hard for the layperson to understand, but for decades, the single biggest benefit a publisher offered the independent writer was the ability to get the book onto the shelves of the local store.

The entire sales organization at the publisher (amplified by the publicity department and the folks who do cover design and acquisition) is first and foremost organized around getting more than its fair share of shelf space. When my mom ran the bookstore at the museum in Buffalo, there were sales reps in her store every single day. And of course, for every book that came in, one had to go out, so it wasn’t an easy sale.

Publishers cared so much about shelf space that they made bookstores a remarkable offer: don’t pay for the books. We’ll bill you and if you haven’t sold the book in two months, don’t pay the bill, just send the book back. In other words, books were (and still largely are) a guaranteed sale for bookstores. That’s how Barnes and Noble got to build such big stores–they were financed by publishers who took all the risk.

Of course, if there’s infinite shelf space (as there is for ebooks), ALL of this is worthless. <gasp>

Previously, I’ve written about the economics of substitution and the inevitable drop in the price of backlist non-fiction and fiction and just about anything for which there is an acceptable substitute. Since bits aren’t scarce (remember, this is a post about the death of paper), it’s extremely difficult to charge a premium for an ebook that has a substitute. The vast majority of books published do have substitutes, of course, so the price is going to fall.

Summary: flip scarcity with abundance and everything changes.

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